Gala Helps Ravinia Restore Music To Classrooms


By Welz Kauffman

Originally published The Highland Park Landmark magazine.


Both my parents were teachers (high-school English for dad; second grade for mom). Strike that. At the risk of using an unnecessary adjective, both my parents were great teachers. So even as I write these columns for The Landmark, I worry over the words as if I had to get them past my father’s critical eye and his longing for lean language—as if in some scene from an old black-and-white weepie. Despite such exaggerations born of nostalgia, the fact that my parents were passionate, professional educators shaped me in ways I did not fully appreciate until I started my own professional life. So I am always happy to tackle the question posed to me this week at Back Yard Grill: Why does Ravinia even have a gala?

Our annual gala, hosted by our Women’s Board, is the only concert fundraiser that provides much-needed resources for the not-for-profit Ravinia Festival and its REACH*TEACH*PLAY music education programs in Chicago’s neediest schools as well as our new foray into Lake County. Violinist Maxim Vengerov headlines this year’s All-Tchaikovsky gala with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Conlon on Aug. 1.

I long-ago knew I was set for a career in the arts, but because of my parents, education remained high in my mind. I gravitated toward roles that let me share in the wealth of knowledge available at some of the country’s finest cultural institutions, going into communities with André Previn at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Deborah Rutter at the L.A. Chamber Orchestra, Robert Shaw and President Jimmy Carter at the Atlanta Symphony, and Bobby McFerrin at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Luckily, education was not something I had to fight for at Ravinia. Thanks to the foresight of our Women’s Board back in the 1960s, Ravinia started taking steps to meet the needs of schools where music and other arts programs had been felled by the budget ax. Their support, along with that of the Ravinia Associates Board and leading-light artists like Ramsey Lewis and Willie Pickens—who happily and hungrily assumed mentorship roles for these eager kids—have allowed these efforts to grow over the years into what one retired, citywide Chicago Public Schools official, William Johnson, praised as “the most committed, sustained and sincere” relationship between the schools and a cultural institution.

But even when you’re good, you can always be better, right? Encouraged by my longtime colleague and former CSO president Rutter, I commissioned a McKinsey study to determine whether our K–3 classroom focus, plus our applied programs in jazz and classical music for middle- and high-school students were on the right track. Were they effective, were they tied to the festival’s mission, did we have the resources to make them work properly? How could we determine what new programs we should take on and, perhaps most challenging, were there programs that we may have thought were great but simply weren’t?

So what exactly does REACH*TEACH*PLAY do with the money raised by the gala?

In the park itself, you might notice the recent addition of KidsLawn, a family-friendly area anchored by oversized, sculptural musical instruments that kids (and a heck of a lot of dads) can play. They also get to play at our musical “petting zoo,” where they can try out real orchestral instruments. We also present a variety of children’s programming, such as the Golden Dragon Acrobats from China, Ko-Thi Dance Company, Midwest Young Artists (coming Aug. 20), and Opera for the Young’s Beauty and the Beast (Aug. 29). In the next few years, look for more park enhancements for all who wish to experience classical music but were afraid to ask.

In the community, our programs serve 75,000 people each year. In CPS, the Ravinia Jazz Mentors and Scholars, one of our earliest “Play” programs, is going stronger than ever. Professional jazz musicians from throughout Chicago nurture and play with high-school musicians, and the best of these students become an ensemble that performs genuine gigs, including the tribute to Ramsey Lewis and Frank Sinatra, which was part of Ravinia’s $10 BGH Classics series last spring. We’ve commissioned works for the Scholars to ultimately have a book of charts they can play all their lives, including a mash-up of the Tchaikovsky and Bernstein interpretations of Romeo and Juliet, named “West Side Kovsky.” I’ve sat in with these talented teens at the piano several times, including television appearances, and those warm and rewarding opportunities made me feel like a student and teacher simultaneously.

On the classical side, we’ve started Sistema Ravinia to create elementary-school orchestras based on the “El Sistema” immersion methods. Ravinia supplies everything from the instruments to the classroom instructors, and the kids get to play music immediately. In October, we will start a new Sistema orchestra onsite at Ravinia for the first time (in our world-class Harza building). And our North Lawndale Family Music Conservatory is now in its 15th year and going strong.

Other programs include Guest Artists in the Classroom, where professional musicians, from $10 BGH Classics pianists and violinists to Frozen star Jonathan Groff, bring their artistry and life stories to kids in intimate, up-close-and-personal settings. Music Discovery programs get them singing and dancing to learn about rhythm, melody and other aspects of music and are focused on schools without music teachers—music “deserts,” if you will. The best part is they all get to show off what they learned during the school year by performing in our Martin Theatre each spring. To make Music Discovery happen, we intensively train general classroom teachers in our annual August Teacher’s Institute to prepare these professionals to bring music to their kids with the help of our teaching artists.

REACH*TEACH*PLAY is integrally connected to festival programs; it’s not a satellite. For instance, One Score, One Chicago—based on the Chicago Public Library’s One Book, One Chicago—gets the entire community focused on a single piece of music, culminating in a fantastic professional performance at the park. Our music teachers brought this year’s selection, Porgy and Bess, to schools, from Braeside Elementary to Chicago’s south side, before the Gershwin masterpiece was performed by the CSO at Ravinia under the baton of Bobby McFerrin earlier this month. Ravinia joined forces with Chicago Children’s Choir to perform hits from the work for thousands of children at Navy Pier, and this project became the springboard for Josephine Lee to create a new choir, Vocality, which served as the chorus for the Ravinia performance. And now these programs are being exported to the birthplace of Porgy, Charleston, SC. This is the most recent example of the connection between the festival and R*T*P, others being our Lincoln bicentennial celebration, our focuses on the “New World” Symphony and Symphonie fantastique, and our presentations of the American premieres of South African Zulu works Princess Magogo and Ushaka. 

The need is great, and there is more work to do. And like our support of music and social-service organizations, such as Tri-Con and the Highland Park Strings, over the past 15 years, we will continue to strive to do more and do it better.

I think if my parents were here, they’d be proud. And my dad would instruct me to tell the same story in half as many words.