Symphony Gala Gets New Name, Venue—and Loses Conductor

Photo: Ryan Sjostrom

On Friday night, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's opening night gala offered a few noticeable differences from its previous iterations. The nonprofit's newly created women's board, which formed last July, oversaw planning efforts for the occasion, which took on the name “Symphony Ball” this year. (The evening has previously been referred to as simply the opening night gala.)

After the show, the event continued with cocktails, dinner, and dancing in tents at Millennium Park—last year, the post-performance proceedings took place at the Hilton Chicago. But the headline-grabbing difference between this year's event and its 2009 version: At Saturday's concert, the headlining star was unable to go onstage.

This year's gala heralded the appointment of Italian conductor Riccardo Muti as the symphony's new musical director. Muti was prepared to lead the orchestra through selections from Rossini, Beethoven, and Liszt on Saturday night—then, according to reps for the symphony, he fell gravely ill with gastrointestinal concerns, and had to be rushed back to his doctors in Milan, even as guests sat waiting at Symphony Center for the 7 p.m. show to begin.

After some backstage scrambling that resulted in a revamped show with new musical selections, the orchestra went on—sans conductor—at around 7:40. “We had to go into plan B for some aspects of the event,” said the symphony's senior project manager, Kimberly Duffy, “and we had to remain in constant contact with the caterers, trolley operators, and lighting technicians,” who were on hand to accommodate guests for the after-party at Millennium Park. “And obviously, we had to pull some chairs from [Muti's] table in the dinner tent. But in the end, we were set and ready to go. We have to be prepared for situations like this, and [guests] were very understanding.”

Apart from the unexpected twist, this year's event had a few preplanned elements intended to bring a “different feel to the evening,” Duffy said. The decision to host the dinner in Millennium Park, as opposed to in a hotel ballroom, “was meant to bring a sense of extra glamour, and give the event a sense of being extra-special and unique,” said Duffy. Additional elements included performers from August Jackson, who wore gold masks and backpacks that sprouted illuminated orbs. The performers lined the red carpet at the entrance to the concert hall and later greeted guests at the entrance to the dinner tent. “They gave the sense of 'this is a moment, and this is where you should be,'” said Duffy. Ultimately, the event raised nearly $2 million.

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