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There's No Canceling the ESO!

There's No Canceling the ESO!

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat…” So begins the unofficial motto of the U.S. Postal Service, one that could apply just as well to symphony orchestras: we also strive to provide our patrons with that feeling of steadfastness, of confidence that the orchestra will be there as scheduled, performing great works of music to feed the soul. And that’s just what the ESO has done over its 75-year history—with a few exceptions.

Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, who wrote a 1976 retrospective of the ESO’s first 31 years, describes two concert cancelations, the first in the ESO’s 18th year and for reasons no one could have anticipated.

November 22, 1963: One of the most memorable concerts in ESO history didn’t happen. The ESO was scheduled to perform at ETHS for the first evening of Evanston’s Centennial Music Festival. Frank Miller was to conduct; the soloist was renowned German soprano, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf. The date, however, marks a major American tragedy: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Caroline Harnsberger wrote: ”The night Elisabeth Schwartzkopf was to appear as part of the Evanston Centennial Celebration, police walked through the halls thirty minutes before concert time ordering everyone out of the building… Symphony members, already on stage, debated that this concert could have been a fitting memorial to President Kennedy.” The program included works by Berlioz, Copland, Barber, and Rimsky-Korsakov for the orchestra and works by Handel, Mozart, and Strauss for Schwatzkopf. The concert was not re-scheduled. Elisabeth Schwartzkopf sang only at the dress rehearsal, but never for an Evanston audience.

February 10, 1967: Just a few years later the ESO canceled a second time, but for much more mundane reasons, and immediately rescheduled the performance. In Harnsberger’s account: “Another catastrophe came to the orchestra in 1967 when six inches of swirling snow hit the area and caused the postponement of the February concert. On the new date two weeks later a seven-inch snowstorm struck, leaving an accumulation for the winter of 55 inches. Devoted members of the Orchestra shoveled, plowed, or managed to be towed in order to appear on stage at concert time, at which moment it was discovered there were more people in the Symphony than in the audience. Rather than go through another postponement, the players chose to give the concert, anyway, for their own enjoyment.”

Things went smoothly for the next 48 years. A soloist or two—even a conductor—had to cancel because of illness, but there was always a substitute in the wings. However, the weather gods were bound to again laugh at the “neither snow” assertion sooner or later.

February 1, 2015: According to Wikipedia, “The January 31-February 2, 2015, North American blizzard was a major winter storm dumping 19 inches in the city of Chicago.” Yes, that storm has its own Wikipedia page! The ESO board watched in dismay as the snow kept coming—and coming. A hasty telephone board meeting led to a disheartening decision for the safety of all concerned: We canceled the concert. We notified all the news media, and every board member started calling our subscribers with the bad news; we managed to reach the majority of our patrons, even catching one just as he was leaving his house in Downers Grove. (Now that is a dedicated ESO fan!) Penelope and Toby Sachs joined Board president Vince Flood to brave the sideways ”lake effect” snow at Pick-Staiger and be the voice of the orchestra for anyone who had not gotten the message—and still encountered four or five groups of intrepid souls who were hoping for a concert.

A ray of sunshine emerged, however—although not until May 31, when the stars aligned and Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, the ESO musicians, and our wonderful soloist, Michelle Areyzaga, were all available to present that February program. The concert hall was full on that warm late spring day and we just blew the dust off the original program booklets from February!

Then came circumstances so un-mundane as to be unbelievable. To paraphrase the immortal Monty Python, “Nobody expects the COVID-19 pandemic.” But there it was.

Thursday, March 12, 2020: Irina Muresanu was already in town for the Sunday, March 15, concert and had rehearsed with the ESO on Tuesday. She, Maestro Eckerling, and ESO General Manager David Ellis had prepared a program for the ESO’s pre-concert lecture series “Musical Insights” at The Merion in downtown Evanston for Friday, March 13. But Covid-19 was taking on all the properties of a serious public health crisis, and the board therefore made the difficult decision to cancel the March 15 concert. Later, as the pandemic worsened, we canceled the May 3 concert and finally, our entire 2020-21 season, in which we were to celebrate our 75th Anniversary.

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