Throughout its history, Chicago has had ambitions to be a great city, and nowhere is this more evident than in its world-beating classical music scene.

On a tour down the Chicago River, our guide told us that the city’s architectural heritage was ‘on a par with Rome and Ancient Greece.’ Which rather took me aback. But the more I got to know Chicago, the more I realised that it summed up the city’s hunger to play on the world stage – despite being built far from the madding crowds of the east and west coasts, Chicago was, and is, determined to be taken very seriously indeed.

Ever since it was all but razed to the ground by fire in 1871, Chicago has made every effort to use the opportunity to improve itself: one of the first buildings to be reconstructed was its public library. From the world’s first skyscraper, built in 1884 (it’s no longer standing, alas) to Charles Ferris’s new wheel, built for the World Fair in 1893, Chicago sees itself as a pioneer too. And, returning to that cruise, the city lined its river banks – and most of its streets, to be honest – during the whole of the 20th century and beyond with architectural gems of mind-boggling variety: contextualist, neoclassical, beaux-arts, modernist…

Chicago has always understood the power of the arts, too, in helping it to carve out a strong identity (its art museum is staggering), and sitting among those iconic riverside buildings is the Lyric Opera of Chicago, a tempting mix of neo-classical exterior and golden art nouveau and art deco interior. It’s one of the brightest jewels in the American opera crown, and played host to Maria Callas’s only staged appearance in Puccini’s Madam Butterfly in 1955. In 2000, it had the audacity to steal conductor Sir Andrew Davis from under British noses as their music director. A fine decision, it turns out, as the Lyric Opera is flourishing as never before. And as if a sign of the times, soprano Renée Fleming, no less, was lured there as creative consultant last December.

Away from the water on the other side of town, sits the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), arguably America’s finest, housed since 1904 in the magnificent Orchestra Hall, a fine French-influenced space that also houses the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, a training orchestra affiliated to the CSO. And it was always intended to be America’s finest, from the day it was founded in 1891 by a leading city businessman, determined as he was to put his beloved Chicago on a sound musical footing. CSO music directors throughout history have demonstrated Chicago’s refusal to settle for anything but the best: Rafael Kubelík, Fritz Reiner, Daniel Barenboim and Sir Georg Solti who conducted the CSO from 1969 until 1991, and who remains Chicago’s most famous musical son, even if he wasn’t remotely American.

So following Barenboim’s departure in 2006, the CSO fancied hanging on for their next big thing. Rather than appoint someone immediately, the orchestra waited… and waited… Even interim conductors Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink were starting to feel part of the furniture. But it was Riccardo Muti who eventually tied the knot last year after not a little persuasion. On 19 September the ‘Muti era’ began, launched in great style at the eye-opening Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion that sits within Chicago’s Millennium Park, a stone’s throw away from the city’s iconic sculpture, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, since fondly nicknamed ‘The Bean’.

The ‘Muti era’, however, hadn’t been going long when the maestro was struck down by illness and was ordered to take a few months’ break back. On returning, his luck didn’t last – in February, Muti was admitted to hospital after he fell, fracturing his jaw during a rehearsal. We wish him a speedy recovery.

Five musical highlights
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Muti should be back with the CSO by May – highlights at Orchestra Hall include a programme of Richard Strauss and Prokofiev and a concert of Schumann’s Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO’s new creative consultant. www.cso.org
Eighth Blackbird This exciting contemporary sextet is resident at the University of Chicago. They’re nothing you’ve quite heard before, combining virtuosity with a playful sense of irreverence. Hear them at the University of Chicago, 18 May, and Roosevelt University, 22 May. www.eighthblackbird.org
Music of the Baroque Conducted by our very own Jane Glover, this period ensemble and chorus is made up of 60 of Chicago’s finest professional musicians. Catch the last concert of the season in Harris Theater when Glover will conduct Mozart’s final three symphonies. www.baroque.org
Lyric Opera of Chicago Chicago’s artdeco temple to opera doesn’t reconvene until October, but come the autumn, you’ll be able to enjoy a varied diet of Offenbach, Donizetti, Musorgsky and Richard Strauss www.lyricopera.org
Civic Orchestra To hear Chicago’s most promising young musicians, head to the Civic Orchestra’s free concerts held at various parks across the city. The concerts themselves, though, are mostly indoors… cso.org/Institute/CivicOrchestra

The article 'The Midwest’s musical capital Chicago: USA' was published in partnership with BBC Music magazine.