Ravinia Festival

Photo courtesy of Ravinia Festival.

This summer, Ravinia welcomes not only its usual star-studded lineup but also the 50th year of their annual charity gala. Hosted by the Ravinia Women’s Board, the gala will benefit Reach*Teach*Play, a nonprofit dedicated to engaging underserved communities in music education.

For this very special year, Maestro James Levine will also be returning to Ravinia nearly two decades after his last performance. Levine, who was the music director from 1973 to 1993, was initially the third-string replacement for a maestro in 1971. He gave such an impassioned performance that Ravinia offered him a full-time position only a few years later when he was just 30 years old. This will be a homecoming of sorts for Levine and will also mark the 45th anniversary of his first performance at Ravinia.

The Women’s Board has sponsored the gala since it began in 1967. According to co-chairs Karen Ettelson and Evey Schweig, the gala was first designed as a thank-you for patrons. In the early 70s, it was redesigned as a fundraiser.

“In the 50 years [the gala] has been held, it has raised over $15 million towards the educational program Reach*Teach*Play, which is a pretty remarkable track record,” Ettelson says.

This year, there will be a commemorative display with memories of the past 50 galas and the guests will have an opportunity to mingle after the concert and dinner at a new event called the Encore. Rumor has it Maestro Levine will join the guests so they can welcome him home.

“This was a way we felt we could end this evening on a highlight with it being the first time in 20 years for him to come home,” Ettelson says.

The gala, which does not feature any on-site fundraising, is already unique in that it offers attendees a live concert and dinner, instead of a silent auction or another fundraising technique.

“Our goal this year is to raise as much money as we possibly can for the Reach*Teach*Play program,” Schewig says. “In this day and age when public school programs are cutting back on everything, especially with respect to arts, kids don’t really have an opportunity to have a music education.”

Ravinia is doing everything it can to fill that music education void. Schewig and Ettelson say they were able to hear one of the young orchestras Reach*Teach*Play is supporting and called it “remarkable.”

“They get after-school training, the kids we heard had just received their instruments last November and they were already performing on stage,” Schweig says. “It provides not just music education but it gives them a destination after school, it pulls their families in, it provides a camaraderie.”

Schweig says her favorite thing about supporting Reach*Teach*Play is seeing how much the program becomes a daily part of kids’ lives.

“It’s teamwork, it’s discipline, it’s giving them the opportunity to belong to a group that keeps them focused,” Schweig says. “We get letters from parents all the time that tell us how much [the program] means to them, because if their children weren’t involved in the program they’d have nothing to do, which leads to problems.”

The Women’s Board is lucky to have Boots Nathan, one of the co-chairs for the very first gala and one of the founders of the Board itself, in attendance for the gala. Another founding member, Jan Weil, was on the dinner committee for the first gala as well and will be at the 50th gala. Both women are coming up on nearly 55 years of Women’s Board service.

“I think it’s very special and unusual that we have both of these women that have been around and younger members as well,” Schweig says. “It’s the combination of this incredible group of women that makes the event work.”

When it comes to reflecting on memorable galas over the past 50 years, the Women’s Board particularly recalls — and hopes to avoid the weather from — the 1993 gala, fondly referred to as “the Tornado Gala.” That year, the event sponsor was United Airlines and, thanks to weather updates from the tower at O’Hare, the concert was delayed in order to allow the weather to pass.

Though the tent held, many of the guests (dressed in black-tie attire) donned garbage bags to move from the pavilion to dinner. Ettelson says the organizers have since learned to have umbrellas available. Despite the horrible weather, the night went off remarkably well.

Aside from the gala, Ravinia has a number of events to be excited about this season, including programming around a new aquatic sculpture called “Chorus,” unveiled on June 4. A special water-themed program, which includes selections from the Titanic and piano work by Debussey and Chopin, will feature throughout the summer in order to highlight this special new addition.

This season also features powerhouses like Paul Simon, who performed June 18 (the concert Schweig was most excited about), Diana Ross (Ettelson is looking forward to “reliving [her] youth”), Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, The Fray and Andy Grammar, Don Henley, Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” and Seal.

“Every season is a pleasure and challenge to put together, but this season there’s so many debuts and divas,” CEO Welz Kauffman says. “I’d like to tell you it was my dream and goal to have Diana Ross and Emmylou Harris and Patti LaBelle and Bonnie Raitt and all of these women in the same season but it just sort of came together that way.”

The diversity of performers proves the power of the Ravinia experience — the more-than-100-year-old festival has a reputation for quality but also for its ability to create out-of-the-box programs every summer.

Though Kauffman says he is already deep into planning the 2017 and even the 2018 seasons, he says that this year is incredibly special in its variety — though each season is always like that in his mind.

“For me, Haydn and Beethoven are totally different,” Kauffman says. “But this season, you see Tan Dun and The Fray. You see our tribute to David Bowie. You see Dolly Parton and you see James Levine who have never been seen in the same venue, think about that.”

Kauffman loves being able to attend Ravinia almost every night to experience the different crowds that see each performance.

“The audiences change so massively from show to show,” Kauffman says. “It is the most varied audience. They are very unique, very celebratory of the place itself and all it has to offer and they’re not shy about telling me what they like and what they don’t like. It’s really a very exceptional place.”

Ravinia 2016 Cheat Sheet: Can’t-Miss Performances

Women Rule

Girl Power abounds at Ravinia this summer with some of the most important female artists of all time appearing throughout the season, including the sold-out Ravinia debut of Diva Supreme Diana Ross. Also violinist Midori on July 6; Emmylou Harris with Lyle Lovett on July 18; soprano Danielle de Niese on Aug. 4; the legendary Dolly Parton on Aug. 7; folk sweetheart Judy Collins in a “Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim” on Aug. 18; Ms. Lauryn Hill in her festival debut on Sept. 1; and Bonnie Raitt on Sept. 3.

Marsalis Premiere

World-renowned violinist Nicola Benedetti joins the CSO for the American premiere of the first violin concerto composed by legendary jazzman Wynton Marsalis on July 12. The piece, co-commissioned by Ravinia, was written expressly for Nicola. Most pavilion seats for all CSO concerts are only $25 and most lawn tickets are only $10 with children and students through college admitted free to the lawn for all classical concerts.

Picture-Perfect Planets

Jaw-dropping footage of our heavenly neighbors captured by NASA’s most recent voyages accompanies the CSO’s performance of Holst’s evergreen masterwork “The Planets” as part of a space-themed evening on July 13. The giant lawn screen will be up for this and four other movie nights with orchestra: “Titanic” on July 29 and 30; “The Wizard of Oz” on Sept. 10; and “Bugs Bunny Goes to the Symphony II,” featuring the shorts that introduced many of us to classical music through “Kill Da Rabbit” and other punny funnies on Sept. 11.

“The Firebird”

Stravinsky’s iconic ballet is reborn in the Ravinia-commissioned dramatic re-staging of the work by Handspring Puppet Company, the geniuses behind “Warhorse” on Broadway. Rumor is a fire-breathing dragon will share the stage with the CSO on July 26. Stravinsky’s score is the 2016 One Score, One Chicago selection, meaning that Ravinia’s Reach*Teach*Play education programs will be taking this music into the schools in a variety of ways to share music in underserved communities.

Fiesta Ravinia

A daylong celebration of Mexican Independence Day featuring Mexican-style food and entertainment, along with free samplings of the best from Highland Park’s restaurants and a Mexican Art Fair from Amdur Productions, culminates in a main-stage performance by the world’s premiere Norteno group Los Tigres del Norte with the all-female mariachi band Mariachi Flor de Toloache on Sept. 17.

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