After more than three years of planning, building, testing, and fine-tuning, Symphony Center — a $120 million project that included a facility expansion and extensive renovation of Orchestra Hall — opened its doors on October 4, 1997, with an opening night gala concert.
Led by acousticians Kirkegaard Associates and architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the project encompassed additions and improvements to Orchestra Hall, including raising the roof line for increased sound reverberation, replacing plaster walls, decreasing the width and increasing the depth of the stage, adding an extensive riser system, replacing all seats and adding terrace seating behind the stage, installing an acoustic canopy (to improve onstage ensemble conditions and sound reflection to the audience), and increasing patron amenity spaces. In addition, the project included new administrative offices in the former Chapin & Gore building; Buntrock Hall, a multipurpose rehearsal and performance space; renovation of a private club (formerly the home of the Cliff Dwellers); and a multistory arcade and rotunda. The following year brought the opening of a new restaurant (originally Rhapsody and now Forte) and an education center.
Launching a three-week inaugural festival, the October 4 gala concert was conducted by Daniel Barenboim and included excerpts from Verdi’s Otello with Soile Isokoski and Plácido Domingo, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27 (with Barenboim conducting from the keyboard), Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with William Warfield, and Bruckner’s Te Deum with the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Midnight marked the beginning of the first Day of Music: twenty-four hours of free, live performances of music across all genres in multiple Symphony Center venues, attended by more than 20,000 people.
Sadly, the many celebrations were bittersweet. Music director laureate Sir Georg Solti — who, during the festival would have celebrated not only his eighty-fifth birthday but also his 1,000th concert with the Orchestra — had unexpectedly died on September 5, 1997. A special, free memorial concert was added on October 22 that included Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, followed by Mozart’s Requiem with Emily Magee, Anna Larsson, John Aler, René Pape, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. A celebration concert was given on October 25, with Daniel Barenboim conducting Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (from the keyboard) and the Seventh Symphony.