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An outdoor overture

By Anna-Lise Santella


On 12 June, summer officially begins in Chicago when the Grant Park Music Festival, “the nation’s only free, outdoor classical music series of its kind,” opens its 79th season at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. I’m a huge fan of summer music festivals in general — what’s not to like about spending a beautiful night in a beautiful place listening to music I love performed by some of the best musicians in the world? — but of Grant Park in particular. Not only did it grant me access to free live music when I was an impoverished graduate student, but it played a key role in American orchestral history, my favorite musicological subject.

The Grant Park Music Festival was the brainchild of James C. Petrillo, the formidable head of the Chicago musician’s union (he would later become head of the nationwide American Federation of Musicians), who wanted to bring free music to the citizens of Depression-era Chicago. The festival was inspired by a series of free brass and wind band concerts Petrillo had organized in the park in 1931 and by a very successful series of performances at the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933-34. But neither of these had the scope and endurance that Petrillo sought.

In 1934, Petrillo was named commissioner of the Chicago Parks District and was finally able to put his full plans into action. In June of 1935, the parks district announced “Free symphony and band concerts every night in Grant park from July 1 through Sept. 2.” The festival was funded by the American Federation of Musicians as a way of giving paychecks to several hundred of their out of work members. Eight Chicago bands and three orchestras — The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Civic Opera Orchestra (a forerunner of today’s Lyric Opera), and the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Chicago — performed regularly throughout the summer.

The Woman’s Symphony Orchestra (WSOC) is the only one of these orchestras not well known today. Founded in 1925 by a group of female students at Chicago’s Bush Conservatory seeking professional performance opportunities that were denied them in established orchestras, the WSOC was the best known of dozens of such orchestras performing in cities across the country between the 1870s and the mid-1940s. The orchestra had made a splash at the Century of Progress where one of their performances attracted 12,000 listeners — a record that one reviewer called “the largest audience ever assembled in the name of symphonic art.” (Glenn Dillard Gunn, “Chicago Woman’s Symphony Delights Hearers in Illinois Day concert at A Century of Progress,” Herald and Examiner (Chicago), August 12, 1933)

The WSOC would set new records in the opening season of the Grant Park concerts. Petrillo wanted to close the season with a bang. On 15 and 18 September 1935, 220 musicians from the Chicago Symphony, Civic Opera, and Woman’s Symphony orchestras amassed on the stage of the outdoor bandshell for two finale performances under the leadership of Chicago Symphony conductor Frederick Stock. These performances were notable for several reasons. First, they shattered all previous audience attendance records: 100,000 people attended the performances. Second, it marked the first time a “Big Five” Orchestra had performed with a pervasively gender-integrated ensemble. Third, it introduced members of the women’s orchestra to Frederick Stock, which would prove fruitful not only for the members of the WSOC, but for female orchestral musicians in general.

Three years later, after several more seasons of joint concerts in Grant Park, Stock hired Helen Kotas, the WSOC’s first-chair French horn player, as a substitute for the Chicago Symphony. In 1940, Kotas made national news when she joined the CSO full time as the principal horn. She was the first female member of the CSO and the first woman to hold a principal position in any major orchestra in the country.

In 1944, the festival’s structure was changed. Instead of using local ensembles, it founded its own orchestra, the Grant Park Symphony, the ensemble that still plays in the park today. This orchestra included women among its membership from the very beginning. Many of them had played first with the WSOC.

So to those lucky enough to be attending this week’s performances in Grant Park, remember that the Grant Park Music Festival is not just a beloved civic institution, nor a lovely place to spend a summer evening, although it is both of those things. It is an innovative institution that brought music and musical opportunities to thousands and paved the way for professional orchestral careers for women.

Anna-Lise Santella is the Editor of Grove Music/Oxford Music Online. Her article, “Modeling Music: Early Organizational Structures of American Women’s Orchestras” was recently published in American Orchestras in the Nineteenth Century, edited by John Spitzer (U. Chicago, 2012) and you can also read her recent article on the American women’s orchestra movement on University Press Scholarship Online. When she’s not reading Grove articles or writing about women’s orchestras, you can find her on twitter as @annalisep.

Oxford Music Online is the gateway offering users the ability to access and cross-search multiple music reference resources in one location. With Grove Music Online as its cornerstone, Oxford Music Online also contains The Oxford Companion to Music, The Oxford Dictionary of Music, and The Encyclopedia of Popular Music.

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Image credit: Chicago Tribune, June 3, 1935, page 15.

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