Chicago's Lakeview Orchestra: Creating excitement with cross-disciplinary collaborations

January 17, 2014
A Lakeview Orchestra rehearsal.
A Lakeview Orchestra rehearsal.
courtesy Lakeview Orchestra

The players never don tuxedos, the program never includes an intermission, and the orchestra never plays alone. The Lakeview Orchestra, a young neighborhood ensemble in Chicago, depart from the traditional orchestral model while still presenting serious, high-quality classical music.

I play principal horn in the Lakeview Orchestra. For each concert, we partner with another artist or organization to produce a show that features classical music alongside another art form. Like most music groups, we presented a holiday concert that featured traditional tunes of the season. But unlike any other local orchestra, my colleagues designed an original production that weaved in professionally-told stories throughout the program.

2nd Story, Chicago's storytelling collective, brings funny and dramatic stories to venues throughout Chicago. The Board of Lakeview Orchestra invited the organization to share a concert during the holiday season. The orchestra played familiar holiday tunes (like "Silent Night" and "Sleigh Ride") and staples of the classical repertoire (like Humperdinck's Hansel & Gretel). Between each piece, members of Second Story recited moving stories recalling holidays from their childhood.

The stories were as diverse as the audience members. One story focused on two very different brothers experiencing Christmas together. The older brother developed a special bond with his younger brother, who has special needs. Another actor told the story of spending a Christmas insufferably poor but immeasurably loved. The final presentation told a moving story of hope and redemption. Orchestral music dovetailed with the end of each story. You could feel the emotion in the stories. You could also feel the emotion through the music.

I have had the privilege of playing with many great ensembles, such as the New World Symphony, the Tanglewood Festival Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony. Even though I have played hundreds and hundreds of concerts, there are few times I remember being overcome with emotion — but the night Lakeview Orchestra collaborated with 2nd Story and I heard a story about triumph over adversity, the rush of excitement made it challenging to play "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Changes in culture and financial priorities have left the classical music world unsteady. Although many wealthy orchestras continue to thrive, many have suffered. One must ask whether audiences want to cling to the traditional model or experience classical music differently. San Francisco and Chicago already boast Classical Revolution, an organization that brings chamber music to uncommon venues like bars, art galleries, and cafes. The organization has realized that young people enjoy Bach performed live; they also happen to enjoy Bach while drinking beer, wearing a hoodie, and quietly gossiping with their friends.

At Lakeview Orchestra, we embrace cultural change. The players wear all black, the concert never exceeds 90 minutes, and the orchestra always includes another artistic dimension. In addition to the orchestra's collaboration with storytellers, the ensemble has also included visual artists and dancers. The orchestra members have taken the bold step of crafting programs aimed at engaging new audiences in different ways while still presenting serious art. Each concert attracts more people eager to experience classical music in exciting ways. Perhaps this is the orchestral model of the future.

Lindsay Brown is a musician who also studies law at Northwestern University School of Law.

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