LONDON (Reuters) - While it doesn't have the diplomatic clout of the city's favorite son Barack Obama, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has scored a huge success in Europe, getting audiences and critics on their feet in five countries.
"Dazzling and moving" a Zurich newspaper said of the CSO's performances of Haydn and Beethoven symphonies under the baton of 80-year-old Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink. A critic for a Luxembourg press group said the orchestra's concerts, which wound up in London last week, were "simply great art."
The reason critics and audiences were falling over themselves with praise and applause is it's rare in these straitened times for an American orchestra to venture to Europe, not to mention one as good as the CSO, consistently rated among the world's top 10, and with a conductor of the stature of Haitink, who's been conducting for well over half a century.
But Chicago, "the city of the broad shoulders" from the famous Carl Sandburg poem, has plenty of reasons to be proud.
Although born in Hawaii, Obama is a Chicagoan, rising from community organiser to Illinois senator to president, and he's given the so-called "Second City" and its cultural world a huge boost along the way.
On Sept 11, 2006, the CSO marked the fifth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with a performance of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," a moving tribute to the nation's 16th president, with the text read by the man who would become the nation's 44th.
"I think he thinks of it (Chicago) as his hometown, I don't think he thinks of Hawaii that way," said Deborah Rutter, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association -- which comes up with the money to have the orchestra play on.
"We do have a very close relationship with many people who are close to him and a lot of the people in the White House are from Chicago," she told Reuters in an interview, adding that the day after the November election which took Obama to the White House, his daughters Malia and Sasha attended a youth concert.
Those concerts are just one of the many ways the CSO, which was founded in 1891 but rose to world prominence in the 1950s -- when the fiery Hungarian Fritz Reiner was music director -- keeps in touch with the community and especially young people.
For several years the orchestra, with the help of British musicologist and composer Gerard McBurney, has brought an added dimension to concertgoing with a programme called "Beyond the Score" -- a multimedia way to help listeners understand and better appreciate what they are hearing.
"This is definitely a signature programme that we have," Rutter said.
"It's so successful we've added a repeat of it so we're now doing two performances of each of these programmes because you couldn't get a ticket and what good is it to do audience development if you can't buy a ticket?"
Not only that, but the CSO lets students into its concerts for $11 -- about the same as it costs to go to the cinema. This boosted attendance by students from 1,700 a season to 11,000.
"What we wanted to do is build a habit really early on, when it's only $11, it's a good habit," Rutter said, adding that if the programme becomes much more popular "we'd need more seats."
The tour with Haitink, who along with French conductor Pierre Boulez helped the orchestra through an interregnum between music directors, was designed as a grand European farewell from the orchestra to the Dutchman.
With costs underwritten by Illinois-based drugs firm Baxter International Inc, insurance group AON and financial group Northern Trust, plus European sponsors like Royal Dutch Shell in London, it gave the CSO a chance to show off its stupendous brass, woodwind and string sections.
It also let everyone know that from the 2010/2011 season, the orchestra's 10th music director will be the longtime music director of Milan's La Scala opera, Riccardo Muti.
Landing the sometimes temperamental Italian was considered a coup in music circles, but Rutter played down the personality side of things.
"This is a very proud orchestra but not proud like having a big head," she said. "It's about the collective music making, not the individual."
Editing by Paul Casciato