Entertainment About Town

Harris Theater of music and dance surprises

By Joseph Cunnif

The Harris Theater surprises in a number of ways:  for one thing, it is built mostly underground!  That’s because it is in Chicago’s Grant Park, which the law states shall remain “forever open, clear and free.”  So, only the lobby is at street level, and the rest of the theater extends underground.

The Harris seats 1,499, and was designed by Thomas Beeby, the architect of the Rice Building of the Art Institute, the home of the museum’s great collection of American art.  Beeby was also the architect of the Harold Washington Library, the downtown branch of the Chicago Public Library and one of the largest circulating libraries in the nation.

The Harris serves as a much-needed home for Chicago’s mid-sized music and dance groups, including Music of the Baroque, Chicago Opera Theater, the Joffrey Ballet and the Hubbard Street Dance Company.  In addition to a fine rental space, the Harris provides technical support and marketing expertise.

The theater is located in Lakefront Millennium Park, one of Chicago’s major tourist attractions, and right behind the Pritzker Pavilion, the home of Chicago’s beloved Grant Park Symphony Concerts.  Because it is considered a work of art, the spectacular Pritzker, by the renowned architect Frank Gehry, is exempted from the height restrictions.

The theater serves as the indoor location for those concerts, in case of bad weather or during other Grant Park events such as the Lollapalooza concerts.  Indeed, for this writer, one of the most memorable Grant Park concerts of recent years took place indoors at the Harris, when Carlos Kalmar conducted the Grant Park Symphony in some irresistible music from Spain:  Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat.

Distinguished visiting attractions to the Harris have included jazz greats, the New York City Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and the great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.  Personally, I well-remember the pure and awesome beauty of the Paris Opera Ballet at the Harris.

Formally known as the Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance, the theater was named for those philanthropists.  Mr. Harris, with his brother, a pioneer of the Toni Home Permanent company, sold that firm to the Gillette Safety Razor Company.  The Harris gift of $15 million ($21.3 in today’s money) was at the time the largest single monetary commitment to a Chicago arts organization.

On Jan. 19, 2021, the Harris will inaugurate HT Virtual Stage, their own streaming site.  This will include archived performances by Chicago companies, premieres, interviews with artists and special content from across the globe.  Audiences can discover content from the comfort of home, free to stream through Spring 2021 and available to anyone by creating or signing into a Harris Theater user account.

The highlights include performances from their resident companies; new Beyond the Aria programs featuring outstanding singers, including rising stars from the Ryan Opera Center; a partnership with the In/Motion Dance Film Festival; and an intimate program with flutist, composer, and vocalist Nathalie Joachim.

There also will be four Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center concerts, including a special program for young audiences; a program curated by clarinetist Anthony McGill; and a program of the always popular composer Antonio Vivaldi.  Vivaldi, who wrote one of the best-loved works of all-time, The Four Seasons, was born in Venice, and was a Catholic priest.  The thought of watching a performance of his music on a cold winter’s night makes me feel warmer already.

The Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater is located at 205 E. Randolph.  There is parking for 2,218 shared with Millennium Park.  Call 312-334-7777.

Visit harristheaterchicago.org.

Joe Cunniff is a
Chicago-based arts writer.

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