For the Gruseckis, supporting the CSO is ‘a matter of heart and head’

Brenda and Jim Grusecki

Courtesy of subjects

Jim and Brenda Grusecki treasure the many Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances they have attended over the years, but one holds a special place in their memories. On Nov. 23, 1988, they went on their first date together — dinner at the Berghoff restaurant and a CSO concert featuring Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie.

Now married for 31 years, they still cherish the CSO and strongly believe in supporting it through their philanthropy. Currently, the Gruseckis direct their charitable giving toward the position of CSO Artist-in-Residence, a newly created role that violinist Hilary Hahn assumed in September 2021.

Before they met, each had grown to love classical music as a young adult. While attending a liberal arts college, Jim became curious about the art form through taking two music appreciation classes. He began to collect records, and during his senior year, he bought season tickets to the Minnesota Orchestra, where he sat “way up in the balcony.”

For Brenda, who spent 34 years teaching high school English and later trained teachers at the university level, her appreciation of language and literature “naturally expanded into all the performing arts.” She explains, “I’m a humanities person… so for me, music is part of that love I have, and how I am inspired and thrilled — whether it’s reading a novel or listening to a concert.”

Having grown up in rural Iowa, Brenda moved to Chicago after college. “One of the first things that one does when one moves to the big city — this big city — is go to the symphony,” she says. “How could you not, when it’s one of the greatest orchestras of the world? I started in the upper balcony as a young high school teacher, and it grew from there.”

Since their memorable first date, the Gruseckis have continued to attend the CSO together. In 1990, a business associate encouraged Jim to join the Governing Members, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s first established philanthropic society. Interested in learning more about the inner workings of the organization, “I was very willing and ready to do it,” he says. Jim has served as a Governing Member ever since.

“In the early days, there were committees that I served on that had to do with the labor negotiations with the musicians,” he recalls. “I found that fascinating because it took me away from my business of commercial real estate development and put me in a new experience, which I enjoyed.”

When the pandemic put a halt to in-person concerts in March 2020, the Gruseckis began to evaluate what was most important in their lives. “Two years of COVID have helped us to further reflect on what we’re doing and where we’re headed philanthropically in the city,” says Brenda. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we read that Yo-Yo Ma said, ‘How do we do everything possible to rebuild toward the world that we really want to live in?’ That has been our guiding philosophy during the last two years.”

This mindset led the Gruseckis to make emergency-relief grants to approximately 40 social-service organizations and theaters early in the pandemic. “Then, late last year, we decided we should add some substantial support to the symphony, from the standpoint that this is a world-class organization, and we want to maintain Chicago’s reputation as a world-class city,” says Jim.

Supporting the CSO is “a matter of heart and head,” adds Brenda. “What we were missing during the pandemic is a reminder that we believe in the power of music to soothe our souls. Classical music, as performed by the CSO, manifests the potential for humankind's greatest creativity and brilliance. An audience listening to a concert creates a feeling that we are and can be a community of shared values.”

The Gruseckis consider it “serendipitous” that their decision to increase their support coincided with the CSO’s creation of the Artist-in-Residence role. During the 2021-22 Season, the first of her two-year appointment, Hilary Hahn has performed Dvořák’s Violin Concerto with the CSO, taught two master classes for young violinists from the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, worked with music students from Chicago Public Schools and performed in a Notes for Peace concert to honor victims of gun violence. Future activities include additional performances with the CSO and on the Symphony Center Presents series, as well as her signature “Bring Your Own Baby” concerts.

“Supporting Hilary Hahn goes beyond supporting a beautiful, accomplished artist and her sound. Her own philanthropic work, delivered from the heart, represents the CSO's best impulses to reach far into the diversity that is Chicago,” says Brenda. “Having met her, we believe she is exactly the kind of super soul that the CSO intended when it created this collaboration. With humility, we are honored to take part.”