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In Chicago, ‘Rush Hour’ Is Time for Music

Classical music audiences around the country are declining in size and growing older, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. The report on attendance and participation in the arts showed large drops in attendance from 1982 to 2008. Jazz and classical music are seeing the worst of it, with the steepest declines coming from folks aged 55 to 64, historically the strongest demographic.

For the last 10 years the Rush Hour Concert Series in Chicago has been trying to buck that trend. From its humble beginnings with an audience of only 39 people, these Tuesday night gatherings at historic St. James Cathedral (where Abraham Lincoln celebrated mass the day after winning the presidency) now draw more than 400 people of all ages.

Founder, artistic director and classical musician Deborah Sobol said the series’ goal was to provide great music that could accommodate the often hectic nature of daily life. Rush Hour is quick and free. Complementary wine and snacks are served at 5:15 pm, giving the audience a chance to unwind, meet and greet one another and the musicians. The performance starts at 5:45 pm and runs just 30 minutes.

Rush Hour often pairs up-and-coming musicians with more seasoned veterans. That was the case at this year’s season opener, where newer musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera of Chicago played Mozart’s “Gran Partita” with the renowned former principal clarinetist of the CSO, Larry Combs.

Listen to that concert:

[More music after the jump.]

“It was designed by people who wanted to enhance concentration. It is not a space to sleep in,” said Rush Hour patron Robert Rotenberg, a professor at DePaul University. “Last week, two Swiss guys, an organist and a saxophonist came in and did a couple of post-World War II duets they basically wrote. The combination of the organ and saxophone is not something you hear every day. But the organ at St. James is a unique instrument. The pipes are divided into three different sections: bass on the right, treble behind and a set of high pipes behind the organist on the left. When this guy got cranking, the entire building was vibrating.”

Listen to that concert:

That mix helps draw a younger crowd who may be more open to classical music than most people might think, said managing director Julie Hutchinson. “What young people are interested in is much more than what older people think they are interested in. Rush Hour also works with their lifestyle. A lot of young people do not have the time to go to a concert after work. They are not the partners in an office or always get to make the decision as to when they get to leave. With this format they can drop in and it’s free.”

It’s been successful so far. Twenty percent of Rush Hour’s audience is under 40, which also makes up 20 percent of its donor pool. Kristin Lunardini, 29, used to work for Rush Hour back in 2001, but she still goes to the shows nearly every Tuesday and meets with other 20-something friends. “I grew up listening to the stuff my parents listened to, which was classic rock. The series is a great gateway into classical music,” Lunardini said. “I have found myself on my own looking into other series or opportunities to experiment with classical music and expand my knowledge.”

On one recent evening, Rush Hour showcased local poet Kevin Coval reading to the music of George Gershwin and Charles Ives. (That event was co-sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, which also helps fund Art Beat).

Listen to that concert:

Rush Hour is also using technology to cater to a younger audience. Digital copies of performances are offered immediately after shows, and Sobol also holds a weekly podcast with the musicians.

“The whole series is designed with the listener in mind. Before I created Rush Hour I talked to a lot of people and confirmed my intuition as to what they needed,” said Sobol. “People want to be able to listen to great music if it does not take a whole evening. It’s very gratifying to see people of all generations. It’s very inspiring and exciting.”

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