I had started my freshman year at Roosevelt University two months before in September, 1963. Attending an urban university offered an opportunity to take in all the surrounding cultural activities. I often found it possible to squeeze in a visit to an exhibit at the Art Institute or a concert at Orchestra Hall between my classes and my part-time job. Lately, I began going to Friday matinee concerts at Orchestra Hall on a regular basis to see the Chicago Symphony play.
My last class at Roosevelt on Friday ended at noon. The CSO concert began two hours later at 2:00. I usually had a bite to eat at the restaurant in the Fine Arts Building, and then walked the two blocks to Orchestra Hall. I liked to find a seat in the upper gallery at about 12:45. It was fairly quiet there and it allowed me a chance to catch up on my homework before the concert started.
On November 22, 1963, the program listed Bach’s First Brandenberg Concerto to open the concert, followed by Henze’s Symphony Number Three. After the intermission, the distinguished pianist Byron Janis would perform Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with the orchestra.
I was so absorbed in my homework that I didn’t notice that things appeared different that afternoon. Very few seats around me were occupied, which seemed unusual since this performance with Byron Janis had been receiving much advanced hype in the music community. Also the musicians were coming on stage in a more delayed manner than the norm to begin tuning up their instruments.
Then, at 2:00, the Concertmaster stepped up to the front of the stage and announced that President Kennedy had been assassinated. He said that the concert would proceed, but asked the audience to refrain from applause during the entirety of the performance. These somber words sent my emotions reeling. Presidential assassinations were events that you read about in history books, not something that you personally experienced.
The conductor, Jean Martinon, waved his baton and the concert commenced. In shock, I could not concentrate on the music as I had so many questions about the circumstances of the assassination whirling in my mind. The short Brandenberg piece soon ended, and the Henze symphony began. About five minutes into it, I felt compelled to leave my seat and ran down the stairs to talk to anybody that I could see in the lobby. An usher had been listening on his radio, and he updated me on all that he knew.
A cold breeze hit me immediately upon entering Michigan Avenue. Stunned pedestrians walked by me heads down and weepy-eyed. The afternoon papers already had editions out that the president had been shot, but there was no mention that he had died. I walked over to Goldblatt’s on State Street to join others gathering around the display televisions to get the latest information from Dallas.
As I headed to work on the el, my sadness overcame me. I cried for his beautiful wife and children. I cried for my nation. I cried for the unfinished symphony that was our President’s life.
From Chicago Sketches. Illustration by Leonid Osseny.