Ravinia: The Quintessential Chicago Music Festival

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Each summer, when the trees bud their leaves and mosquitos, flies, and centipedes descend upon the city, Chicagoans shift their attention from preferred winter footwear to summer music festivals. And how can you talk about Chicago summer music festivals without mentioning Ravinia? This musical destination is the one fest just right for everyone in the city, whether you’re into country, rock, pop, opera, or classical music.

When I moved to the city two years ago, I hadn’t heard of Ravinia. A professor—shocked and dismayed—immediately bade me go. It was a must-see, he said. And he was right. Not only is it the oldest outdoor music festival in the U.S. but also the number one outdoor music festival featuring classical music acts. Even if classical music isn’t your thing, don’t write off Ravinia—no matter what genre of music you’re into, each year, Ravinia boasts a three-month long lineup with anywhere from 120 to 150 music events featuring well-known groups and musicians from varied genres. Attracting over 600,000 listeners each year, this spot is sure to please any Chicagoan ready for a night of picnicking, sipping wine, and listening to music beneath the night sky.

The 2011 lineup includes: Robert Plant, Maroon 5, Guster, Jennifer Hudson, Lifehouse, Lyle Lovett & His Large Band, Rufus Wainwright, Carrie Underwood, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman.

As a centerpiece to Ravinia, and acting as its in-house symphony, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra puts together an impressive repertoire to perform on several dates each year. This year’s CSO schedule includes a wide variety of selections: Puccini, Beethoven, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring soundtrack, which will be played in its entirety while the movie is projected on a screen. What better way to experience the saga than with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra providing the music.

Ravinia began in 1904 as an amusement park just outside of Chicago, and was intended to bring tourists to the newly built Chicago and Milwaukee railroad. For six years, the park drew tourists to the railroad with attractions and live music, but it wasn’t enough to keep the park in business, and the owners shuttered the operation in 1910. Fortunately for us, a dedicated group of Chicago residents refused to let the music die, and in 1911, they purchased the park and founded The Ravinia Company to restore the attraction to its former glory. Led by philanthropist Louis Eckstein, the Company reopened Ravinia Park in 1911 with a grand gala, and the park became a leader in summer classical music venues. The next year, the Company added opera to the program, and Ravinia became known as America’s summer opera capital, creating a Golden Age of Opera from 1919 to 1931.

Over the years, Ravinia boomed, fell into disrepair and neglect, and boomed again with each new group of philanthropists dedicated to the musical importance of the summer venue. In the 1990s, Ravinia expanded into a full-fledged music festival featuring many different genres, including a Jazz series under the directorship of the President and CEO Welz Kauffman and Music Director James Conlon.

The festival has attracted big acts in jazz, classical music, Broadway, and rock ‘n roll, bringing in big names over the years including the following: Louis Armstrong, Leonard Bernstein, Janis Joplin, and Frank Zappa to name a few.

Remember, this is no Millennium Park music concert, and certainly no Alpine Valley. This is for the serious experience concert go-er. I’ve never seen such serious picnics in my life. Candelabras, sushi, flower bouquets in the center of most tables, this event is not for the unprepared. If you do come unprepared, or underestimate your own hunger or thirst, beer, wine, and food are available for purchase on the grounds. You can choose from several options including packing your own picnic, the Ravinia Market, restaurants, and catering.

Once you arrive, take a stroll around the park to find everything Ravinia has to offer. It’s not just a music venue: it’s a uniquely Chicago experience packed full of history, vendors, food, people, music, and fun. For a peek into Ravinia’s past during your visit, check out the Martin Theatre, the only original building still standing today. Once you’re done exploring, head to your section, settle in beneath the setting sun and watch as the stars peek out in the night sky as the orchestra warms up, finely tuning their instruments.

Check out the schedule of events on Ravinia’s website to discover the musical experiences and seating packages right for you. Ticket prices range from $10 to $50 depending on the experience you prefer. You can choose from a wide range of packages, from simple lawn seats (bring your own blanket or lawn chairs!) to ticket & dining packages.

If you have questions about Ravinia we haven’t answered here, such as accessibility and recycling, be sure to read the Visitor’s page on their website.

What are you waiting for? Find the perfect concert for your budget and musical tastes and head out to Highland Park for the oldest music festival in the Chicago area.

The Essentials

Location: 200 Ravinia Park Rd, Highland Park
Admission: Varies by event. Consult the ticketing options on the website for more information
Phone: (847) 266.5100 (Box Office)

Getting there
Driving: Driving: Take the Kennedy Expressway (I-90/94) west to the Edens Expressway (I-94) and U.S. Route 41. Exit at Lake Cook Road and travel 1 mile east to Green Bay Road. Make a left on Green Bay Road, and a right into the Ravinia parking lot. Parking is $20.
Metra: Union Pacific North Line from Chicago’s Union Station and get off at the Ravinia Park stop right outside the park. Train tickets will run you around $7, but feel free to enjoy a beverage on the train. Alcohol consumption is allowed on Metra trains except during high volume periods (example: during Taste of Chicago).
For more information on travel, visit the Ravinia website.

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About Molly Tranberg

Molly Tranberg loves discovering new things in Chicago–especially all of its wonderful food. She is a freelance writer and editor currently working from her very comfy couch on the Northside of Chicago. Her dream is to one day ride a segway around the city and heli-ski in Alaska.

One Comment

  • Peter Clay
    April 27, 2012 | Permalink | Reply

    As a young man, I heard Louis Armstrong at Ravinia. I graduated from New Trier High School in 1968. Is there any way to guess when I would have had the chance to see/hear Louis at Ravinia? I am thinking it was sometime during the 60’s but don’t know how to research when Louis was there. Thanks for your help!

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