art Culture

CSO's Once Upon a Symphony at The MAC

Thursday, June 11, 2015 HALFSTACK MAGAZINE

This weekend, Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Once Upon a Symphony program will be making its debut at The Mac - featuring "The Little Red Hen" on Sunday, June 14 at 1:30 p.m. (pre-concert activities begin at 12:45 p.m.) . The production features imaginative sets, costumes and visual projections created by Chicago Children’s Theatre. Chicago-based actor and teaching artist, Lily Emerson, joins CSO string players Susan Synnestvedt (violin), Catherine Brubaker (viola) and Daniel Armstrong (bass) in the new, original production. Music by Beethoven, Dvořák, Haydn and Saint-Saëns is included in the program.

All Images Courtesy of CSO | Todd Rosenberg Photography 

This is a great opportunity for local families to get a taste of the big city programs out in the burbs. Instilling the love and beauty of music in children early on is an incredibly important element to their overall creative development. Yet, the idea of taking a toddler to a performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra sounds a bit daunting, if not at all realistic. The CSO makes this transition easily with this new program. The Once Upon a Symphony performances are specifically targeted towards family with kids ages 3-5 years old and is premiering with "The Little Red Hen". The show takes the classic children’s story about an industrious little red hen and her farmyard friends and brings it to life with small ensemble performances by CSO musicians and vivid storytelling.

The kids have a good time, learn and grow and mom and dad don't feel stressed if little Johnny ends up crying midway through the performance. The environment is inspired by youth, conducive to learning and set up for everyone involved to have a good time.

Halfstack had the opportunity to interview both Jon Weber, The Director of Learning programs at the CSO and Diana Martinez, Director at the MAC to learn more about this partnership, what goes into creating a show like this and what parents can expect when attending this show. 

HSM: How does organizing and producing a kids show differ from the typical symphony production?

Jon Weber (CSO Director of Learning Programs) In our concerts for young children, we have to reflect our understanding of the developmental and educational needs of our audiences while also understanding that they—and their parents or grandparents—simply want to have a good time! This means that we need to choose musical excerpts that aren’t too long for their attention span. We need to keep the programs interactive. We emphasize and explore basic musical concepts that are fundamental to the development of musical skills in young children, especially singing on pitch, keeping a steady beat, playing with fast and slow tempo or high and low pitches.

For our Once Upon a Symphony programs, we do all of this through musical storytelling. We know that stories are an important and effective way for children to learn and, at the same time, classical music has an incredible ability to communicate character, mood, action, and setting. It’s a great pairing. And involving our amazing musicians to help tell the story is a great way to keep everyone engaged.

HSM: Why is it important to you as an industry professional to expose children to this type of performance or to music in general?

JW: Music impacts us in so many ways: aesthetically, emotionally, and interpersonally. There is also a growing body of research that documents the connections between prolonged participation in music and academic and career successes. Through our programs for children, we want to share the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s extraordinary musical resources with young people across our communities and plant seeds that will inspire and nurture their interest in playing an instrument or singing in a chorus. It’s also very important to us that we demonstrate that there can be a life-long pathway of involvement in music, including attending concerts. Once Upon a Symphony is the beginning of that pathway.

Diana Martinez (Director at The MAC): First and foremost, I believe the younger that children are exposed to music, dance and theater the better, it helps to develop their creativity, listening and developmental skills. Experiences like this also bring families together, makes memories and fosters conversation. I believe it's part of our mission to deliver culture to even the youngest members of our community, especially with the cuts in Arts education, so this is a way we can contribute.

HSM: What can families expect to experience at the pre-concert activities?

The pre-concert activities are essentially a 30-minute mini music class, introducing what the audience will hear, see, and do during the concert. Children and adults will learn to sing several songs and explore the musical concepts that are embedded into the program. The activities help audience members feel engaged more quickly in the interactive elements of the performance.

HSM: What goes into selecting the ensembles and performers that work this type of show?

JW: Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra self-identify based on their interest and availability for these programs, including their willingness to play an important non-musical role in the delivery of the story. The actors and storytellers featured alongside our CSO musicians must be very skilled in owning and presenting the script (just as any good actor) but he/she also plays a key role in leading the audience’s musical participation and facilitating the musicians’ non-musical participation. The rehearsal process is, of course, very important to fitting together all of the different program elements.

HSM: Why did the CSO once upon a symphony choose to partner with The MAC for this show in particular?

JW: Over the last several years, the CSO has offered a limited amount of programming in Chicago’s western suburbs, anchored by a residency at The Morton Arboretum in late-June. Within the arc of programming offered each year, it is important that we showcase as much of the organization’s work as possible—including concerts for children and students. The MAC is already a destination for many in the surrounding communities to access high quality concerts and family entertainment, so it is natural that we would think of them as a potential partner. We’ve had a very good experience working with our colleagues at The MAC to plan for the upcoming concert!

DM: We have developed a tradition of presenting exceptional classical music programs through the college programs and New Philharmonic orchestra, so we know this would be well received by our patrons. There is no question that the CSO is one of the most respected classical music organizations in the country and to be able to deliver the best experience to our families is very exciting.

HSM: How will the MAC continue to innovate when it comes to bringing great shows and performances to our local community?

DM:  We continually look for new opportunities to bring great programs, but what I feel should be the next evolution in our growth is unique and unexpected integrated partnerships that inspire conversation and education and collaborations with local and Chicago artists with National Groups. For instance the collaboration we facilitated last year with Anima and Soul Children of Chicago, also provided music workshops throughout the day with these two very diverse approaches to music, but the synergy was overwhelming at the concert performance. This year we are presenting a show with a National Motown group and the New Philharmonic Orchestra which combines two very different styles but is sure to be an exciting and energized production. We are also presenting a commissioned work by our College Choral Department head, Lee Kesselman, “Jolere,” a multi-movement work for contemporary dance choreographed by Joanna Lees, co-founder of the Minneapolis Dance Company Alternative Motion Project (AMP) with original music for strings and voice composed by Kesselman, that was inspired by visual art by Chicago’s own René Romero Schuler that will be on display.

HSM: How can parents continue to keep abreast about these types of programs at the MAC & CSO?
DM/MAC:  Visit You can also learn more about the MAC on Facebook  or on Twitter.

JW/CSO: The CSO and our Negaunee Music Institute offer many family programs each season. Although plans have not yet been announced for activities occurring in the western suburbs during the 2015/16 season, all are welcome at Symphony Center! For more information, please visit the CSO ONLINE HERE

“The Little Red Hen,” a CSO Once Upon a Symphony® program, comes to Glen Ellyn’s McAninch Arts Center, 425 Fawell Blvd., Sunday, June 14 at 1:30 p.m. Preconcert activities, led by collaborating music educators, begin 45 minutes before the performance. Tickets for the performance are $16 adult /$14 youth. For tickets visit or call 630.942.4000.

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