On October 3, 2023, the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra lost a cherished colleague, former Principal Flute, Jean Berkenstock. Jean served as Principal Flute for 43 years, was hired by Maestro Bruno Bartoletti in1968 and retired in 2011 while Sir Andrew Davis served as Music Director.
What follows is the story of her life and career written by her husband, former Principal Bassoon, James Berkenstock.
Jean was born in Chicago on February 6, 1934, and grew up in rural Northbrook, IL. Her childhood was one of music, crafts, and the outdoors. Western Northbrook was largely farmland, and Jean’s family raised animals including horses, one of which Jean rode to school. She attended a private school in Northbrook known as the Farm School, which taught regular subjects in the morning and crafts and animal husbandry in the afternoon. She eventually attended Northbrook High School. Her early training on piano was from her mother, but her real love was the flute, which stemmed from her early study of the recorder under the guidance of David Dushkin, founder of a music school that eventually became the Music Center of the Northshore and then the Music Institute of Chicago. As a teenager, she appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, a weekly TV show from New York City.
After attempting unsuccessfully to win a flute spot in the Chicago Youth Orchestra, she made an end run to get into the orchestra by picking up a double bass at school and teaching herself how to play it. After she gained admittance on the bass, the orchestra director realized that she was not truly a bass player and that he had seen her previously at flute auditions. He was won over by Jean’s determination and admitted her to the flute section.
She attended college at Illinois Wesleyan University, receiving her bachelor’s degree in music. Upon graduation, she won a position with the Atlanta Symphony as second flute. Returning to the Chicago area after several years, she devoted herself to raising her family but kept up her flute playing with the Evanston Symphony. She eventually joined the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and studied flute, first with Ralph Johnson of the Chicago Symphony, and then with the orchestra’s Principal Flute, Donald Peck. During this time, she was a featured soloist with Civic.
In 1967, she became Principal Flute with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, a position she held until 2001. Two years later, she became Principal Flute with Lyric Opera of Chicago, resulting in a career of 43 years in that position. Her beautiful playing in important flute solos in operas like Magic Flute, Carmen, and Lucia di Lammermoor was legendary and led to many favorable reviews and laudatory articles. She was often dubbed “The Magic Flute,” and one close colleague affectionately referred to her as “Songbird.”
In 1991, she joined her husband, Jim, in founding Midsummer’s Music, a chamber music festival in Door County, WI. For 28 years, she performed extensively with this summer series and can be heard on four commercial recordings released by the group including A Bel Canto Summer, which features her and violinist David Perry. She also worked behind the scenes as a board member, coordinator of volunteers, music librarian, and arranger of musician housing. She was a charter member of the Chicago Philharmonic, performing with them as Principal Flute until 2012.
Jean taught extensively, primarily as a Professor of Music at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. Throughout her career, she appeared numerous times as a soloist with the Grant Park Symphony, the Chicago Philharmonic, the Orchestra of Illinois, and the Decatur Symphony. In addition, she also performed frequently as an extra with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and is heard on numerous recordings with them.
Beyond music, Jean’s love extended to her family. On holidays, she was the frequent host of large family gatherings that sometimes included her students from foreign countries. She also relished the time she could devote to sewing. She made most of her clothes frequently using her own design. As a mom, she made many of the clothes her young children wore and taught her daughter to sew as well.
She took an active role as an orchestral musician serving on audition committees, negotiating committees, and as the Grant Park Symphony’s representative to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). She was instrumental in promulgating the building of the Petrillo Music Shell, writing a convincing cover article in Senza Sordino in her role as ICSOM representative. She also attended Chicago Planning Commission meetings as an advocate from the orchestra.
Although Jean was very comfortable on the stage, she relished her quiet time with family, a good book, crosswords, cooking, sewing, and gardening. She especially enjoyed her time in Door County, particularly when her grandchildren came to visit.