Near Chicago, the Sounds of Summer
At the Ravinia Festival, the Music Never Dies

By Dave Wielenga
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 2, 2006

The WindySecondCityofBigShoulders knows how to kick back, too, and visitors who've had just about enough of Chicago's renowned vigor and pluck can find respite the same way locals do -- with a short railway ride to the Ravinia Festival.

Turns out that languid summer evenings of music and picnicking in the bucolic gardens of Ravinia are as much a part of Chicago tradition as tours of Grant Park, Navy Pier and the downtown riverfront. For more than a century, people have been packing a basket, grabbing a blanket or maybe folding chairs and a table, and catching the commuter train from the city's energetic urban core to the woodsy suburb of Highland Park.

Citified anxieties are somehow anesthetized during the 26-mile trip. The same people competitively jostling for prime space on the train at Northwestern Station are offering amenable "after-you's" when the cars unload onto the platform in front of Ravinia's festive front gate.

From there, things get borderline utopian. As many as 18,000 people a night stake out and set up camp on 36 acres of rolling, shady lawn with a decorum that contradicts everything you've learned to fear about the disintegration of social order. This summer's playbill -- the season runs from June through Sept. 16 and includes symphonies and jazz, opera and blues, the occasional ballet, modern dance and drama, as well as a smorgasbord of gentrified rock, pop and country -- reads like a flier for the coming of a second Renaissance.

Over the years, Ravinia's audiences have been entertained by stars as diverse as George Gershwin, Janis Joplin, Benny Goodman, Leontyne Price, Louis Armstrong and Elvis Costello. In the 1920s, Ravinia was one of the world's most prominent opera festivals, drawing the likes of Rosa Raisa, Lucrezia Bori, Tito Schipa and Claudio Muzio. Since 1936, it has been the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Who knew? Not me. After a dozen business trips to Chicago, I could rattle off the city's landmark attractions -- Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium, Buckingham Fountain, Chicago Theatre, Sears Tower, Wrigley Field . . . even Millennium Park -- as fast as Vince Vaughn. But until I made friends with people in the city, I'd never even heard of Ravinia. Turns out they'd been going all their lives, several times a summer. What gives?

"It's not as though we try to keep Ravinia a secret," says Nick Pullia of the venue's publicity office, not too defensively. "Our attendance is more than 600,000 a year. But I guess there is a sense of ownership among people who frequent the concerts here. For many of them, this is a multi-generational custom."

That might have been A.C. Frost's dream when he opened Ravinia Park in 1904, but the more pressing reality was that he wanted to make money. As president of the fledgling Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railroad, Frost built Ravinia to tempt people into riding his trains. He billed it as "the superior amusement park," filling the grounds with a theater equipped with a pipe organ, a casino, a dining and dancing pavilion, a multicolored electric fountain and a baseball diamond with a grandstand. But it didn't work. By 1910, Frost's amusement park and his railroad were both bankrupt.

It was the residents of surrounding neighborhoods, fearful of what might become of an abandoned amusement park in their midst, who set Ravinia on course toward what it is today. They formed a corporation, bought the land, brought in some of the world's best musicians and slowly forged a tradition.

Actually, it's two traditions in one, because there are two ticket prices for every show at Ravinia -- one for the 3,200 reserved seats with perfect sightlines under the covered pavilion, and another for first-come, first-served spots on the lawn, where it's often impossible to even see the stage. But picnicking has become such a part of the Ravinia experience that most people with reserved seats still come early and spread out on the grass with the proletariat.

A few weeks ago, my friends and I went to Ravinia for Elvis Costello's show with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. We opted for the lawn tickets, at $15, over the reserved seats at $65 a pop, but I was assured that they knew just the spot where I'd still be able to see the show . . . if I wanted to stand. Sounded good to me.

We filled a pair of small coolers, one with wine and soft drinks, the other with sandwiches and salad. We'd planned to spread out on the grass, but in the face of an unexpected rain and unseasonable chill, we opted for light lawn chairs and warm blankets.

The lawn wasn't as crowded as expected when we arrived, probably owing to the wet and chill. We found a wonderful spot on a little hill to the right of the stage and arranged our chairs around one of our blankets to guard against getting squeezed and to create a place for our buffet. Thank goodness for the food carts, from which we bought delicious gourmet coffee and drank it slowly, both to savor the taste and to warm our hands.

We walked the grounds while waiting for the show, along with a crowd that ranged from romantic couples to something approaching family reunions. The variety of alfresco dining experiences was impressive, too: a guy sitting on a towel with a bag of White Castle burgers, a group enjoying a candlelit banquet of chicken and small red potatoes, complete with tossed salad and chocolaty dessert.

The concert? As warned, we couldn't see the stage from our little hill. But we occasionally walked to a perimeter spot maybe 50 feet away. It was fine.

The sound was good. Anyway, I'd already seen Elvis Costello in concert a half-dozen times. But kicking back with the locals at Ravinia? That was something new.

This summer's lineup at the Ravinia Festival includes the Indigo Girls, B.B. King, the Peking Acrobats and Patti LuPone in "Gypsy." Tickets and scheduling info:

On concert days, special Metra trains leave Chicago's Northwestern Station (recently renamed Ogilvie Transport Center, 500 W. Madison at Canal) at 5:50 p.m. and reach Ravinia at 6:30, an hour before showtime. Trains depart for Chicago 15 minutes after concerts conclude. Round-trip tickets are $5. Regular service leaves downtown at 6 and 6:35 p.m.

Details: The park is accessible by car, too, with lots of parking for $10 per vehicle. Ravinia is served by only two narrow roads through the woods, however, so traffic jams are common.

Dave Wielenga last wrote for Travel about a road trip in Mexico.

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