London in 1939 was a scary place. The Nazis had begun the brutal bombing campaign that would last for years and devastate the city. Nightly blackouts were enforced and theaters, galleries, cinemas and concert halls closed their doors. The National Gallery moved its entire art collection to country houses, universities, tube stations, even a Welsh slate mine—anywhere they thought might be safe from the bombs. The museum was converted into a hub for the war ministry because art is priceless, government administrators not so much.
A few weeks into the siege, the pianist Myra Hess approached Kenneth Clark, the director of the National Gallery, to ask if she could give weekly concerts to lift the spirits of beleaguered Londoners and he enthusiastically agreed.
The director wrote in a letter that “of course I was delighted at the thought of the Gallery being used again for its true purpose, the enjoyment of beauty, rather than for the filling in of forms or the sticking of envelopes.” The concerts would be free and, because of the nightly blackouts and the need to get home in time for tea, they would be held at lunchtime.
The first concert was held on October 10 and people lined up for blocks to get in. Instead of the forty or fifty people Hess hoped would show up, she was greeted by a crowd of more than a thousand. The program that day included music of Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Scarlatti, Chopin and Brahms.
The concerts became part of London’s wartime identity with members of the royal family regularly attending, including the future Queen Elizabeth. Myra Hess became a Dame of the British Empire in 1941 in recognition of her musical prowess and her effort in boosting the nation’s morale. She would give more than 1,700 concerts in all between 1939 and 1946.
Nearly thirty years later, Chicagoan Al Booth traveled to London and learned of her legacy. He decided to bring it to Chicago and the Dame Myra Hess Memorial concert series was born—and continues to this day, after nearly fifty years.
Booth’s inspiration was to make the highest-quality classical music as accessible as possible, and as such he sought to stick with the original idea of them being free and taking place at lunchtime—though he did decide that the bombs were an unnecessary extravagance.
When I moved to Chicago in 1995, the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts were among my first musical experiences in the city. To walk into the Cultural Center every Wednesday afternoon at 12:15 along with hundreds of other people and hear some of the finest talent perform for free—well, it’s a major part of why we call Chicago a world-class city.
Today the Dame Myra Hess concerts are produced at the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist at 55 East Wacker by the ambitious organization Classical Music Chicago, a direct outgrowth of the International Music Foundation that was founded by Al Booth back in 1976.
Director Mark Riggleman is passionate about carrying on this legacy of bringing the absolute best performers to Chicago audiences in a fun, accessible setting that costs nothing. Riggleman’s impressive résumé includes work as director of education at Lyric Opera and as associate director of educational outreach at the Juilliard School. He’s passionate about bringing classical music to a broad audience.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to present concerts each week featuring the best classical musicians from around the world that anyone can experience for free,” says Riggleman. “I know of no other organization that has the same commitment to accessibility as well as presenting the highest world-class artists.”
If the only thing Classical Music Chicago did was produce a Dame Myra Hess concert nearly every Wednesday afternoon, it would already be a hyperactive organization by most standards. But that isn’t the half of it. It’s also taken over production of the Rush Hour Concerts, a series founded by pianist Deborah Sobol, who passed away in 2016.
The Rush Hour Concerts feature accomplished local Chicago artists and take place on Tuesday evenings at the St. James Cathedral. CMC also produces the Do-it-Yourself-Messiah (another Al Booth import from London, in which the audience is invited to sing along to the holiday favorite) and works tirelessly to bring classical music to Chicago Public Schools.
There are too many exciting Rush Hour and Dame Myra Hess concerts in June to list, but here are a couple of favorites.
On June 14, pianist Diego Caetano takes the stage for a fascinating program of music by composers from France, Spain and Brazil. Many performers are scouring the global repertoire to find overlooked composers who deserve to be rediscovered, and Caetano has hit the jackpot with Antón Garcia-Abri, Cécile Chaminade and Camargo Guarnieri. Rounding out the program is a set of variations by Francis Poulenc.
The last Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert of June features clarinetist Zach Good of Eighth Blackbird paired with pianist Daniel Schlosberg. The program consists almost entirely of Baroque and Classical-era French composers, with a rendition of the Billie Holiday standard “God Bless the Child” as recorded by saxophone great Eric Dolphy thrown in for good measure.
Notable Rush Hour concerts include local pianist extraordinaire Marta Aznavoorian with violinist Janet Sung performing repertoire by Debussy, Ravel and Schumann on June 13, and on June 27 the Lynx Project, a program of newly commissioned music in which the composers were asked to set text written by young people with autism.
CMC is also producing Make Music Chicago on June 21, an ambitious, citywide celebration of music-making that happens throughout the day in venues across the city.
No one is doing more than Classical Music Chicago to bring the best classical music performances featuring repertoire from all eras performed in all parts of the city, for free. Dame Myra Hess would be proud to see how her legacy has continued.
Seth Boustead is the founder and Executive Director of Access Contemporary Music, where he has produced more than a hundred live concerts and created the Sound of Silent Film Festival, the ACM School of Music, the Thirsty Ears classical music street festival and many more programs designed to present classical music as, well, fun. Seth is the voice of the New York Philharmonic’s Biennial Minute video series, and he has given a TEDx talk about the future of classical music, which he persists in thinking is not bleak. He is also the creator and host of Relevant Tones, the country’s only weekly syndicated radio program about contemporary composers.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | Website: sethboustead.com