From Blockbuster Movies to Lollapalooza: How Chicago Philharmonic Is Breaking Genre Barriers and Changing the Game for Orchestras

The Chicago Philharmonic, now celebrating its 35th season, is asking a very important question: How do we make orchestra concerts for everyone? The orchestra, founded in 1989 by principal musicians of the Lyric Opera Orchestra, has long occupied a unique space within the city’s performing arts ecosystem. 

Chicago Philharmonic performance May 29 2022
Chicago Philharmonic: Scott Speck, Conductor, Capathia Jenkins, Ryan Shaw | Todd Rosenberg Photography 2022

The organization eschews the traditional audition/tenure system for musicians, instead drawing from a pool of nearly 200 musician members and placing musicians in key leadership positions on the Board of Directors, committees, and administration. With Executive Director (and 2023 Crain’s Business Chicago 40 Under 40 awardee) Terell Johnson now at the helm, Chicago Philharmonic is quickly becoming one of the country’s most versatile, innovative, and ambitious orchestras. 

So, what does a Chicago Philharmonic concert look like? 

“It’s really a question of giving our audiences what they need in the moment,” said Executive Director Terell Johnson. “Most performing arts ensembles ask audiences to come to them. The onus is on the audience to learn these 100-year-old customs, to pay exorbitant ticket prices, and to dress a certain way. “We want to meet our audience members where they’re at. Right now, that means collaborating with artists in every genre—funk, pop, punk, hip-hop, jazz, classical, world music, film scores, and everything else. Seeing the joy in people’s faces when they hear their favorite artists with Chicago Philharmonic is incredible.”

That could mean anything from an electric collaboration with up-and-coming, Grammy-nominated R&B/soul group Tank and the Bangas, the United States’ premiere of “Blade Runner” Live in Concert, or a heart-pounding “Aria Masterpieces” opera event with three-time Grammy-winning bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green, complete with music by Wagner, Puccini, and Terence Blanchard—and that’s just in the last year! 

Chicago Philharmonic muscian
Photo courtesy of Chicago Philharmonic

For the Chicago Philharmonic’s 35th season, which begins on July 1, 2024, the organization intends to amplify its boundary-breaking approach even further with a series of once-in-a-lifetime concerts. Chicago Philharmonic will debut at Lollapalooza as the first-ever orchestra to play at the legendary festival with Icelandic jazz-pop sensation Laufey (pronounced LAY-vey). The concert day is already sold out, with 115,000+ fans clamoring to hear the orchestra and Laufey live in concert, headlining alongside top Billboard artists SZA, Stray Kids, and Renée Rapp. 

In October, the Chicago Philharmonic presents a world premiere tour of groundbreaking concerts, including An Evening with Sleeping At Last, also known as the Chicago-based singer-songwriter and producer Ryan O’Neal. With more than 2.8 billion streams on Spotify and Apple Music, the artist has been featured in over 100 popular movies, television shows, and performances, including The “Twilight” Saga, “Grey’s Anatomy”, and “American Idol.” 

O’Neal was introduced to the Chicago Philharmonic through artist and mutual friend Kaoru Ishibashi (who goes by the stage name Kishi Bashi), who performed a sold-out concert with the orchestra in April 2023. After attending the concert, O’Neal met with Executive Director Terell Johnson, who was already an avid fan of the artist —Johnson’s first wedding dance was Sleeping At Last’s “Turning Page.”

The two collaborated to create a new program of Sleeping At Last songs, arranged for orchestra and O’Neal. Now, with the support of Artistic Director Scott Speck, An Evening with Sleeping At Last is set for three concerts in October 2024. The tour begins with two concerts at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on October 11-12, each sold out in a few days. Opening each concert is a World Premiere piece by Donna Milanovich Composer in Residence Jonathan Bingham. 

On Oct. 24, the concert heads to Carnegie Hall in New York City for an unforgettable peformance.

An Evening with Sleeping At Last and the Chicago Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Philharmonic

“I am absolutely honored and thrilled beyond words to make my Carnegie Hall debut alongside the incredible musicians of the Chicago Philharmonic, conducted by Scott Speck!” O’Neal shared on his official blog. “This collaboration represents a dream come true, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to share my music on such a prestigious stage!”

On November 9, Chicago Philharmonic continues the inaugural five-concert Auditorium Philms Series with the U.S. premiere of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” in Concert. The 1992 film features music by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar for full orchestra, choir, and vocal soloist. Chicago Philharmonic has a history of performing the music of Kilar — its 2018 music festival for Polish classical music culminated with Kilar’s Missa pro pace (Mass for Peace) at the St. Hyacinth Basilica. “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” in Concert will take place at the historic Auditorium Theatre, which famously hosted Polish composer/pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski for multiple concerts between 1892-1933. 

Then, on December 7, the Auditorium Philms series culminates with “Love Actually” in Concert, featuring Craig Armstrong’s evocative score for orchestra. 

In March 2025, the Chicago Philharmonic returns to its classical roots with the Inaugural Artist in Residence program, featuring violinist Njioma Grevious. With an impressive array of accolades to her name, including winning the 2023 Sphinx Competition and the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2024, Grevious is a rapidly rising star in the classical music world. 

Chicago Philharmonic Inaugural Artist in Residence violinist Njioma Grevious
Chicago Philharmonic Inaugural Artist in Residence violinist Njioma Grevious. Photo courtesy of Chicago Philharmonic

As part of her residency (one week annually for three years starting in 2025), Grevious will engage in community outreach activities with Chicago Philharmonic partner schools. The residency will culminate in a full symphonic concert at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, promising an unforgettable evening of musical excellence.

“We are putting together a season with a little something for everyone,” says Johnson. “It’s our hope that our audiences leave each concert feeling like they had the time of their lives. Orchestra can be a powerful tool for connection, education, and inclusivity. But at the end of the day, it’s about centering our work in joy.” 

How To Help:

Support Chicago Philharmonic by attending an upcoming performance or donating to foster Chicago Philharmonic’s mission. Your donation will help support world-class music, provide accessible free concerts, and create community engagement programs to inspire future musicians and leaders.

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