Ravinia: outdoor spot for quality music and picnics

Nelson, Jacob

Gilberto Gil, Brazil’s 66-year-old Minister of Culture, didn’t always have such an amicable relationship with his native country. The bossa nova musician who performed with Os Mutantes, Yes and Pink Floyd, spent three months in a Rio de Janeiro prison in 1969 for playing music perceived as a threat to the military dictatorship in power at the time. He was released under the condition he leave his country, and didn’t return for three years.

Of course, I didn’t know any of that when I got on the Metra headed towards Ravinia Park to see Gil perform. In fact, I didn’t even know what bossa nova music was, but had already assumed I probably wouldn’t like it. My interest in seeing Ravinia (in addition to the free ticket someone had given me) warranted the Metra ride (also free, thanks to the inefficiency of the overwhelmed conductor), and before I knew it I was walking through a grassy knoll littered with bottles of wine, containers of cheese and middle-aged Northshore yuppie-types quickly losing their ability to stay upright in their lawnchairs.

For those unaware, Ravinia is an annual summer festival held in Highland Park at a massive complex of theaters, tents, small concession areas, a pavilion, and a huge lawn. It features a mix of mostly classical performances in addition to some jazz and pop. This year, for example, Ravinia’s headliners include An Evening of Beethoven performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Beach Boys, the Temptations and Feist. Performances happen in Ravinia’s pavilion, which seats 3,200, though most concert-goers will forego the pricier pavilion seats in lieu of the considerably cheaper lawn space. The trade-off, however, is that from the lawn you can’t actually see the stage or any of the performers. Lawn squatters are instead encouraged to bring elaborate picnic sets with them so that the surrounding music is more peripheral rather than the focus, which becomes the food and booze.

And these picnic sets often seemed more elaborate than the performance. The bare minimum picnic setup I saw contained a large blanket, a few Whole Foods containers, fold-out chairs and a bottle of wine. More extravagant sets included more sturdy chairs in addition to low-level coffee tables, multiple wine bottles and a pricey collection of the best that Whole Foods’ salad bar has to offer. (Based on the volume of Whole Foods products I saw, I joked that they were catering the concert. When I took a break from Gil to get a burger, I realized Whole Foods actually was catering the concert, as their salads and other pre-made dishes were available from Ravinia’s small grill and grocer next to the festival’s restaurant.) The most elaborate picnic sets included everything from bouquets of flowers mounted on actual tables to a catered meal served buffet-style to a small group who surely enjoyed seeing my dismay when I realized I was not a part of it.

There was a brief moment where I actually watched Gil perform. Lawn-squatters have the option of walking up to the back of the pavilion, something I did on my way back from my meal excursion. Adorned in bright white pants, the swinging singer bopped and hopped happily while thousands of adults in various degrees of inebriation danced along. I took a seat on my blanket a good distance from the stage and thought about the leftover cheese and crackers that I’d love to eat on the surrounding blankets as Gil made his way through his nearly two-hour-long set.

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