Ravinia: A Little Slice of Heaven (unless you're a teen)

My parents love Ravinia. Especially my father. A few years ago my mom thought she was being transferred to San Antonio and my father’s biggest lament was that he’d miss Ravinia. It wasn’t that he’d be across the country from his children and grandchild. Nope. He’d be across the country from Ravinia.

This outdoor concert venue on the north side of Chicago is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It’s peaceful, serene. I sigh with contentment just thinking of it.

Twice in the last month I’ve been to this little slice of heaven: once with my parents and brother for my mom’s birthday, and once last Saturday with my parents and son. Yes, I took my 13-year-old football-baseball-basketball-playing sports-statistics-quoting hip-hop-rap-gangsta-wanna-be son to listen to the symphony on a Saturday night. I’m sure in some circles that might be considered cruel and unusual punishment, but gosh darnit my boy’s gonna get some culture!

He’s been to Ravinia every year since he was six, so this is nothing new to him. And lest you think I’d quickly lose any mother of the year contest, he does enjoy it. Just not so much for the music. Typical boy – he goes for the food.

A night at Ravinia is an all-day affair for many people. First they have to plan what to eat and drink, then they have to go to the store, prepare the food, make sure the picnic basket is stocked with plates, knife, cutting board, silverware, napkins, and the all-important wine key. Stocking the cooler is an exercise in space planning. It’s very important to know which items are waterproof and which are not so you know what to place on the bottom.

Our menu last Saturday was pretty typical of the kind of spread my parents, and many other Ravinia-goers, prepare: several varieties of cheese served with salami, crackers, and apple; shrimp cocktail; mixed green salad; caprese salad; several pasta salads; and a ham steak. The ham steak sounds odd, but it was wrapped in cellophane so it was waterproof and it’s good cold. And most importantly, my son loves ham. If we’re going to make him listen to Rachmaninoff we’re going to make sure he’s got a happy stomach.


We arrived right when the gates open, at 5pm. This is important. Once they start letting people in it’s reminiscent of the Oklahoma land rush. Oh, everyone’s cordial enough as they wait in line, but once past those gates it’s a race for that one perfect spot. (I haven’t actually seen people use lawn chairs as weapons, but it wouldn’t surprise me.) For mom & dad it’s directly in front of the pavilion, in the center of a grouping of three trees, just beside a sewer grate. (The sewer grate allows for easy dumping of ice.)


The first order of business was to set up the table and chairs. Then we each enjoyed a Sapphire & Tonic (soda for the teen) and strolled the grounds. We checked out the various corporate and private parties, the statues, and other picnic set-ups. My poor son was aching from football practice, so we headed back to our site and began to eat. After opening a bottle of chardonnay, of course. You simply can’t have goat cheese and water crackers without a decent bottle of wine. It wouldn’t be right. (Unless you’re a teen. Then it’s more soda.)

By the time the concert began at 7:30 we’d polished off most of the food and that bottle of wine and opened a bottle of cabernet. Because you simply must have a good bottle of red while listening to the CSO. Once the music started, the convivial atmosphere hushed. Ravinia-goers know that you whisper only if necessary, your cell phones are on vibrate, and if you have to cough you do it discretely in that muffled way you hear in old live recordings. If you forget, they have people who walk around carrying signs to remind you. Even the sidewalks are made out of noise-deafening material so there’s no click-click of heels.

This is when my son gets bored. The food’s put away, and now he’s just waiting for intermission so he can get his giant brownie sunday. That’s a $6 plateful of sugar, and it’s a kid’s dream. Brownie, ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, cherry, served in a bowl as big as my face. This is why my son tolerates the old folks and their taste in music. After intermission I snuck my MP3 player to the poor kid so he could listen to something he liked while still enjoying the atmosphere. There’s just nothing like listening to music you enjoy out in the open with branches swaying overhead and a star filled night sky. In years past he would fall asleep after the intermission. Two years ago he was quite proud of himself that he stayed up for the whole time. I commented that he must be starting to like the music.

He put his hand on his hip and said quite huffily “I always liked the music. I was just young.”

This year, however…

As we were cleaning up after the concert his grandfather, who was beaming from ear to ear after his fix, asked him how he liked the concert.

His response?

“I’m 13.”

Oh, I love that kid.






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