Ravinia: “The only railway station with a resident orchestra” | Beyond Chicago from the air
Ravinia: “The only station with a resident orchestra”
Nineteenth-century American cities, including the rapidly growing and industrializing Chicago, were overcrowded and dirty places with little green space. So why wouldn’t you want to hop on a train to get away from it all for a day and enjoy some entertainment in a beautiful setting surrounded by nature?
“If you care about great music and enjoy being in the middle of a beautiful, outdoor setting, take a trip to Ravinia Park,” said one enthusiast. Chicago Tribune critical. “The evening or afternoon spent in the calm of the pretty park will do some good to the weary minds of your city.”
A railway company is behind the creation of a place of entertainment and popular music on the North Shore. Discover the beginnings of the park’s history.
He wrote in 1905 for the first orchestral performance in Ravinia; the New York Symphony Orchestra performed under the direction of Walter Damrosch. But the park in the northern suburbs had not opened its doors like the concert halls it is today, but as “the most upscale amusement park in the west”, according to the advertisements. The park included a casino and dance hall, baseball stadiums, a theater, a music pavilion, and an electric swing.
The AC Frost Company had established the North Shore Park in 1904 to promote their Chicago and Milwaukee Electric Railroad: if you wanted to enjoy the attractions of Ravinia, you had to take the Chicago and Milwaukee if you didn’t have a car. At the time, architects and planners such as Daniel Burnham called for the maintenance of parks and forest reserves in all urban areas to provide moral relief and relief from the stress of city life.
To attract middle-class customers who might frequent their trains, the Frost Company made sure to provide a variety of entertainment in Ravinia. “Equipped with all the facilities to attract people of taste and fashion”, trumpeted a 1906 advertisement.
An important aspect of this was the music. Months after the New York Symphony performed in Ravinia, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) – then known as Theodore Thomas Orchestra after its founder – made its debut there under the direction of music director Frederick Stock in November 1905. When the railroad broke several years after the opening of Ravinia, a Chicago businessman named Louis Eckstein organized a group of patrons to buy the park and focus more on music.
Eckstein presented Ravinia with fully staged operas, choreographed by idiosyncratic Ruth Page. He was devoted to his favorite project; when the Great Depression devastated the economy, he personally covered the park’s debt. “Some people have a yacht,” he said. “I have Ravinia.”
But it was not enough. In 1931, the Ravinia company went bankrupt and closed its doors. Eckstein died four years later, less than a year before the park reopened as the Ravinia Festival in 1936. Eckstein’s widow donated the land and the CSO opened the festival on July 3 under the leadership by conductor Ernest Ansermet. Ravinia would become the orchestra’s official summer residence.
It was a boom time for outdoor classical music. The Grant Park Music Festival had started in downtown Chicago the year before and also featured CSO. The Boston Symphony Orchestra had just started performing during the summer in the Berkshires and would move to the legendary Tanglewood the following year. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, meanwhile, had performed at the Hollywood Bowl since 1922.
But the Ravinia festival would face disaster again, when the original music pavilion burned down before the start of the season in 1949. The concerts were held that year in a tent designed for B planes. -29, and a new pavilion was built the following year.
Jazz will soon arrive in Ravinia, among others, the Dave Brubeck quartet will perform in 1955 and Louis Armstrong in 1956 – and popular music will follow. By 1963, the festival had a lineup that included Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Joan Baez and Igor Stravinsky in addition to the New York City Ballet.
It was the last year of the tenure of the first artistic director, CSO associate conductor Walter Hendl. He was attended by a number of distinguished musicians: Seiji Ozawa, Christoph Eschenbach, James Conlon, Marin Alsop. (Eschenbach made his Ravinia debut as a piano soloist in 1973 under the direction of current CSO musical director Riccardo Muti, who was making his own debut with the orchestra.) Disgraced conductor James Levine had a long association with Ravinia. Decades later, he was accused of sexually abusing Ravinia during his tenure as artistic director, and the festival severed all ties.
These days Ravinia presents music of all kinds. In addition to the required CSO and chamber music concerts, the 2021 season featured Ms. Lauryn Hill, Ben Folds, Train, Lady A, Gladys Knight, Willie Nelson and The Beach Boys. The audience was still spread out on the lawn adjoining the concert pavilion to picnic and enjoy the performance via a sound system and a large video screen.
Elsewhere on the grounds, the Bennett Gordon Hall hosts small concerts and Ravinia’s pre-professional conservatory program, the Steans Music Institute, while the Martin Theater is used for larger indoor concerts. The Martin, an Arts and Crafts-meets-Spanish style building with Prairie-style details designed by architect Peter Weber, is the only original building still standing from Ravinia’s time as an amusement park .
Over a century later, you can still get to Ravinia by train, and trains remain an integral part of the experience as they pass during concerts. As Thomas Beecham joked when he conducted the CSO there in 1940, Ravinia is “the only train station with a resident orchestra.”