By Rachel Barton Pine

When I was 21, my now-husband took me out on one of our first dates. Knowing that I am a professional musician, he decided to do something special. He arranged for incredible seats at the Lyric Opera and took me to their performance of The Magic Flute. Two days later, I reciprocated—by taking him to see and hang out backstage with one of my favorite thrash metal bands: Pantera. (I think he is still recovering, but he married me anyway.) Though wildly disparate, that first weekend epitomized two of the qualities that I associate with the Chicago music scene: diversity and world-class quality.

Needless to say, the mecca of the classical-music scene is Symphony Center on Michigan Avenue. No superlatives are adequate to describe the mighty Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Under its beloved music director Riccardo Muti, CSO concerts are once-in-a-lifetime experiences. There are always lots of other interesting things going on at Symphony Center, including recitals and performances by touring orchestras. Discovering the CSO’s fantastic family concerts with my daughter has also been a special new experience.

The greater Chicago area has a staggering number of orchestras. Virtually every region boasts its own first-rate professional orchestra (of particular note are the Lake Forest Symphony and Elgin Symphony), excellent volunteer orchestras, and an impressive youth orchestra organization—not to mention chamber-music series and community music schools. Even if you live far from the musical epicenter, the concert offerings in the greater Chicago area are so satisfying that journeying downtown is the icing on the cake rather than a necessity.

Chicago offers an incredible array of high-quality, classical-music concerts that are free to the public. I’m very patriotically proud that my city is home to the nation’s only free, municipally funded, classical-music festival: the Grant Park Music Festival. Seeing the exceptional Grant Park Orchestra play adventurous programs in the acoustically and visually superb Frank Gehry–designed Pritzker Pavilion, with a breeze off Lake Michigan and the skyline behind you—it doesn’t get any more perfect than that.

Rachel Barton Pine credit Lisa-Marie Mazzucco 3960

Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Other opportunities to hear great, professional, classical music for free include concerts by the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and chamber music presented by Rush Hour Concerts at St. James Cathedral. Some of my most memorable recitals have taken place at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall, featuring the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome. I rarely perform for such a diverse group of people, where wealthy arts patrons, working-class neighbors, students, and families of many ethnicities join together in their shared love for classical music.

I have enjoyed attending early-music performances since my student years, and Chicago’s “HIP” (historically informed performance) scene is rich and active. Internationally renowned experts and talented younger players participate in groups such as the Newberry Consort, Callipygian Players, and the Bach and Beethoven Ensemble, while famous period-instrument groups from around the world are brought in by University of Chicago Presents. The Haymarket Opera bears special mention because their staging, dancing, and costumes are also historically informed.

Some of my most memorable recitals have taken place at the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall, featuring the world’s largest Tiffany stained-glass dome.

Speaking of, Chicago certainly has plenty of great opera! Of course, you can hear the world’s biggest stars perform at the Lyric Opera. However, there are plenty of smaller companies that round out the scene with high-quality performances of modern and lesser-known works. Chicago Opera Theater is particularly excellent, and the South Shore Opera Company presents wonderful works by black composers and others.

I’m always inspired by Chicago’s new music scene. Not only are there an amazing number of concerts taking place, there’s also a fantastic spirit of collaboration and mutual support. This is evidenced by the website newmusicchicago.org, in which most of the major ensembles and organizations can conveniently be found all in one place.

You may be surprised by the name of the largest presenter of live classical music in Chicago—it’s our phenomenal radio station WFMT. In addition to adventurous programming around the clock, including crackly historic recordings, contemporary music, full-length operas, and more, WFMT also has an amazing lineup of in-studio performances by the world’s most famous artists, numerous local performers, and lots of talented students. Once you get bitten by the WFMT bug, you’ll want to hear it all day, every day, and luckily you can via wfmt.com.

Chicago’s supportive and collaborative attitude is exemplified in a historic artists’ haven, the Fine Arts Building. Located just two blocks down the street from Symphony Center, you can’t come to the city as a string player and not pay a visit. Home to teachers and practitioners in all arts disciplines, it also houses an impressive group of stringed-instrument makers, restorers, and dealers. On the ninth floor, you can find my favorite shop of any kind, anywhere—Performer’s Music (performersmusicchicago.com), truly the best sheet-music store in America. When you stop by, be sure to tell the owner Lee that I said hi!

The same diversity exhibited in the classical-music scene is present across musical genres. As a violinist, I’m always interested in hearing my instrument played by musicians who specialize in areas besides classical music. Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music presents a dizzying array of performers specializing in all kinds of folk music and traditional-music styles, many of which defy categorization. If there’s a fiddler you love, he or she is bound to be playing at the Old Town School sooner or later. I’ve caught most of my favorites as they’ve passed through, including Darol Anger, Bruce Molsky, Michael Doucet, Carrie Rodriguez, April Verch, Mark O’Connor, Johnny Frigo, and many others.

Chicago is famous for its rock scene, with storied venues like the Metro, Double Door, and Riviera presenting established and cutting-edge groups. The metal scene is particularly passionate. On any given night of the week, you will find dedicated headbangers crowding into multiple venues around town to support their favorite local and touring groups as they tear the roof off. A complete listing of nightly metal shows can be found at thecmf.com.

Whatever else you might have attended that evening, there’s always more music to be had. In my mind, you haven’t truly experienced Chicago until you’ve heard some real Chicago blues! Most of the best places are open until 4am. My personal favorite is Kingston Mines. It has two main stages that alternate, so the music never stops. One of the things I most appreciate about the blues scene is how there are always so many locals mixed in with the tourists, and these locals are young and old, coming from the North Side and the South Side—and everyone is happily dancing and enjoying the incredible music together. It’s a true celebration of the spirit of Chicago music. 

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