Francesca Huemer Kelly

Box Seats
Alumna thought she was sitting pretty at the Chicago Symphony's Orchestra Hall.

by Francesca Huemer Kelly

I arrived on the shores of Lake Michigan in September 1975, a School of Music freshman, ready and willing to be educated. One of the first things I learned was that many of the daytime music faculty would head downtown in the evening for their better-known night job: performing with the illustrious Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And their students, like rock band groupies, would do anything to be in the audience.

But what if a student's budget didn't allow for a season's worth of CSO concerts? Well, the next thing I learned was that there were ways around that. Not terribly ethical ways, but then, this was the 1970s.

One day early in my freshman year, I sat transfixed in Deering Library, listening to recordings or scribbling furiously about Schoenberg's Style and Idea. Clunky earphones clamped on my head, I stared down on an orchestral score while I listened to the CSO play.

"I've got to save some money for a real live CSO performance," I said with a sigh. The older students there glanced wryly at each other, and within a week I was initiated into a tried-and-true method of sneaking into Orchestra Hall and attending a concert free of charge. Here's what you had to do --

1) Lose student garb of army fatigues and hiking boots, and, if female, put on dress -- and bra;

2) Confidently enter Orchestra Hall lobby;

3) Take obscure staff elevator to top floor;

4) Snake up little-used stairway to nosebleed section;

5) Quietly slide into unused seats when the house lights dimmed;

6) Enjoy free concert and triumph over system.

I eased my conscience by telling myself that this was just part of my musical education. Besides, I was poor. Well, OK, relatively poor.

Everything changed, though, the day I went downtown with a trumpet student who had boasted about an even better method. We took the back elevator as usual, but this time we proceeded to the mezzanine level, where the wealthiest patrons had their private boxes.

"Box seats? Are you kidding?" I gasped.

He smiled at my anxiety. "Don't worry; I've done this lots of times. You just hang around looking as if you're the bored relative of some rich old thing and then go into an empty box when the concert starts."

When I looked dubious, he said, "It's the truth. There is always at least one empty box. What a tragedy." He gave me a wink.

Sure enough, many of the boxes weren't filled when the final gong sounded. My friend chose the best box in the house, and it suddenly seemed wrong not to sit down in the front row. Coupled with the fear of discovery was something else: a pulsing adrenaline rush and the thrill that we might actually get away with this.

The house lights dimmed. Maestro Georg Solti raised his baton and the orchestra launched into the first bars of the Rob Roy Overture by Hector Berlioz. This was better than any drug, more exciting than any frat party. I looked at my new friend gratefully. He gave me an "I-told-you-so" smile in return.

Halfway through the overture we heard the box door open behind us. My date and I stiffened. The occupants seated themselves in the two chairs directly behind us. Nothing was said; no one tapped us or even whispered. We simply sat there, unable to turn around, while we listened to the longest Rob Roy Overture in the history of Western music.

When the overture was finished, we jumped to our feet, nearly knocking our chairs over and turned to face two elderly women. "Why are you in our box?" one of them icily demanded.

My face flushed. I tried to stutter an apology. But my ever-smooth companion smiled, looked her right in the eye, and answered, "Because the seats are good."

With that, he took my arm and steered me around those ornate chairs and out of Orchestra Hall. We rode the el home in silence.

It's been years now since I happily started paying the legitimate ticket price for a seat to the symphony, and I've sat in concert halls from New York to St. Petersburg. But, strangely enough, my friend turned out to be right: Those were good seats, perhaps the best I've ever had.

Francesca Huemer Kelly (Mu79) lives in Rome, where she works as a freelance writer and editor in chief of the online magazine Tales from a Small Planet (