Orchestra keeps its rhythm

West Suburban Symphony Orchestra turns 75, bounces back after COVID

In the aftermath of World War II, Chicago's suburbs boomed as families sought more spacious environs. But the desire for an urban-like fine arts scene gave rise to groups to meet that demand, groups like the West Suburban Symphony Orchestra.

Next month marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of WSSO. Originally established in 1947 through the former West Suburban YMCA in LaGrange Park at the request local residents, the Hinsdale-based organization now boasts a chorus, a chamber ensemble and an orchestra for summer performances.

"It was started by the YMCA as a community group and just grew," said Rich Lukes, WSSO president since 2000.

Lukes, a cellist, joined the symphony in 1989 at the suggestion of a friend during a period of rebuilding.

"(The orchestra) had a very low string count. It was small at the time, maybe closer to a full-size chamber orchestra," he said. "We were called one of the best kept secrets in La Grange and Hinsdale."

Membership gradually increased and numbers between 60 and 70 today. Shortly after Lukes became president, Peter Lipari was hired in 2001 as the music director and conductor, the sixth in WSSO's history. Lipari recounted living in England at the time with his family when the position opened, although he had been wielding the baton for several Chicago-area troupes on a regular basis.

"I had kept my fingers in the pots over here when I came to audition for West Suburban," said Lipari, relating the series of fortuitous circumstances that enabled him to win the audition. "The stars lined up for that to happen."

Two years later the West Suburban Symphony Singers chorus was established, followed by the founding of the West Suburban Symphony Chamber Orchestra in 2004 and the West Suburban Symphony Festival Orchestra in 2008. Principal trombonist Corey Kirkpatrick, WSSO member since 1988, said he's proud to play with such a well-regarded company that takes on formidable works by composers like Gustav Mahler and works like Mozart's "Requiem."

"We've always had great conductors and the reputation of the orchestra is really good," Kirkpatrick said. "The bar is set pretty high for us as musicians to play challenging works."

Fitzpatrick, Lipari and Lukes all have fond memories of the symphony's trip to England in the summer of 2003 for several performances, including a stop in Lipari's previous town of residence, where they were treated to a sustained standing ovation.

Lukes recalled a funny moment when the group played in central London on the Fourth of the July.

"The man who was introducing us said, 'We're here today to mourn the loss of the Colonies,' " he related with a laugh.

Hinsdale Central High School's auditorium has been the symphony's longstanding home base, but performances are also held at local churches and more recently at North Central College's Wentz Hall in Naperville. It's a fitting venue as Clarence Dissinger, a North Central graduate and former Lyons Township High School music director, was a founding father of the WSSO.

"I think it's one of the best venues in Chicago," Lukes said of Wentz Hall.

Lipari said having to shut down for 15 months due to the pandemic was difficult and the symphony is regaining its footing.

"We're taking baby steps. We're doing it in a responsible way that keeps our audiences safe and our players safe," he said, suggesting the circumstances impart more meaning to the 75th anniversary. "We're celebrating because we're marking the fact that we're back."

People can be part of the celebration this Saturday, July 30, when the festival orchestra performs "Cinema Classics" from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Cantigny Park, 1S151 Winfield Road in Wheaton. The program will feature film score favorites, including a medley of John Williams' greatest melodies and music by Danny Elfman, Jerry Goldsmith, Stephen Sondheim, Hans Zimmer and more.

Lipari said he hopes to engage audiences after having to shut down performances during the pandemic.

"We're hitting back with something we know will be an audience pleaser," Lipari said. "We're even playing something from 'Gremlins.' "

The group will also play "Svengoolie Variations," a piece written for the WSSO by Downers Grove composer Thomas Maslan that many Chicagoans

will recognize.

Lipari said he tries to offer a diverse mix of music, both in terms of content and composer.

"In every concert but one (this coming season), we are performing either a piece by a woman or a person or color," he said. "The public is changing, and we know that young people have a lot of options, so were trying to draw them in.

"Traditions are important, but we can't survive if we can't change with changes," Lipari added.

Lukes enjoys hearing positive reviews from audience members and is hopeful the symphony can thrive another 75 years,

"They tell us that they really like what they heard," he said. "I hope (the WSSO) stays as long as possible. I think there's enough people who are involved that will keep it going."

Admission to the concert at Cantigny Park is free with $10 parking. Seating is on the lawn, and picnics are welcome. For more information on the WSSO, visit https://www.westsubsymphony.org.

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean