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Chicago's Ravinia Festival Embraces Musical Change While Staying True to its Classical Roots

By Louise Burton on Aug 31, 2013 11:03 AM EDT

The times are clearly changing for the Ravinia Festival. Perhaps the greatest indicator is that the once staid and sedate festival is now on Rolling Stone's list of Top 10 outdoor rock venues.

What took them so long? We always knew that the venerable suburb of Highland Park was a hard-rocking kind of place.

Rock, pop and country music acts frequently sell out at Ravinia. This has led to a diverse array of mainstream/Top 40 rock bands playing there--country music, jazz, Broadway, ABBA tribute bands and even aging acts from the early MTV days. While the almost legendary outdoor picnics on the Ravinia lawn, sometimes with white tablecloths and candelabras, still occur for CSO events, the lawn is now more frequently home to large groups of rock and country music fans.

This is in stark contrast to Ravinia's former identity as the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. The festival began hosting the CSO in 1936, and since then, the sounds of Beethoven and Mahler, along with a chorus of cicadas, have been a summer staple in this North Shore suburb. Ravinia has experienced declining ticket sales in recent years for its CSO concerts, once the mainstay of the festival. This year, Ravinia fought back hard with aggressive pricing for their CSO concerts. Their 2500 at 25 promotion was designed to make 2500 pavilion tickets available for each CSO concert at $25 a ticket, a bargain considering the superior sightlines and acoustics of the pavilion.

The festival has also employed creative programming to increase attendance, such as the CSO's recent performance of the soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers while the movie was shown in the pavilion. This concert also presented a pricing anomaly: For the first time ever, tickets to the pavilion and tickets for the lawn were the same price, $25. The pavilion sold out, and a large lawn crowd watched the movie on the outdoor movie screen.

Ravinia recently added side movie screens in the pavilion, which show closeups of many of the musicians in the orchestra during performances. The CSO musicians get their close-ups, and the audience gets to actually see the woodwinds and brass, which are usually hidden from view behind the front rows of string players.

In July, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra agreed to extend its summer residency at the Ravinia Festival through 2018. The new agreement maintains the present six-week format, consisting of roughly 20 concerts from early July through mid-August. Classicalite would like to see Ravinia and the CSO keep coming up with fresh and interesting ideas for programs and for improving the concert experience.

This is the kind of change we would like to see more of at Ravinia.

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TagsRavinia Festival, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Highland Park, Rolling Stone, broadway, ABBA