strauss-1

When Theodore Thomas was hired to found the Chicago Orchestra, his contract stipulated that he not only attain “the highest standard of artistic excellence in all performances” but also provide his complete library of scores and parts for the ensemble’s use. This collection of over 3,500 titles—including an overwhelming number of first editions and original manuscripts—was then one of the largest private libraries of orchestral music in the world. Upon Thomas’s death in 1905, the collection (with the exception of a small number of scores given to the Newberry Library) was donated to the Orchestral Association, and it became the cornerstone of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s music library.

program courtesy NYPhil

Program page from the December 13, 1884, world premiere (image courtesy of the New York Philharmonic Digital Archives)

One of the most treasured scores in that collection is the manuscript of Richard Strauss’s Symphony no. 2 in F minor, in the composer’s hand. During his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, Thomas conducted the world premiere of the symphony—the first Strauss work heard in the United States—on December 13, 1884, at the Academy of Music in New York City.

Thomas had acquired the score while traveling through Germany. In Memoirs of Theodore Thomas, his widow Rose Fay wrote, “While in Europe the previous summer [1883], Thomas had, as usual, been on the lookout for musical novelties for coming programs. He had met, in Munich, a young and almost unknown composer, one Richard Strauss, who had recently finished writing a symphony. Thomas secured the first movement of the work, and was so much impressed with it that he requested young Strauss to let him have the other movements, promising to bring out the whole work in a concert of the Philharmonic Society [of New York].”

detail of pasted-in correction

Detail of one of the pasted-in corrections in the second movement

However, in a letter to Thomas from Strauss dated September 20, 1883, it appears that perhaps he only met with Franz Strauss, Richard’s father: “As I was unfortunately unable to welcome you here this summer . . . I must not neglect to express to you in writing my heartiest and warmest thanks for your kind intention to give my second symphony the great honor of a New York performance. . . . According to your request, I have had the score of the three movements not already known to you written out . . . I must ask you to kindly paste the two enclosed changes in the Scherzo into your score.”

Even though the New York premiere received mixed reviews, Thomas reassured the young composer of the work’s success. Strauss replied to Thomas on April 12, 1885: “Your own extremely flattering opinion of it increased my pleasure, if that were possible. The criticisms . . . were all so ordinary and superficial that they pointed to failure rather than success. That the latter was the case, rejoices my heart, especially on your account, as it was a dreadful thought to me that my work might have brought discredit on you.”

detail of Thomas's markings

Thomas, a violinist before he became a conductor, frequently indicated string bowings in his scores, shown here in blue pencil

Thomas continued to reinforce his confidence in Strauss by later leading the U.S. premiere of his Aus Italien in Philadelphia on March 8, 1888 (with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra), a year after the composer conducted the world premiere in Munich. After founding the Chicago Orchestra in 1891, Thomas introduced several of Strauss’s tone poems to Chicago audiences, including the U.S. premieres of Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks on November 15, 1895; Also sprach Zarathustra on February 5, 1897; Don Quixote on January 6, 1899; and Ein Heldenleben on March 9, 1900. At Thomas’s invitation, Strauss guest conducted the Orchestra in April 1904—with his wife Pauline as soprano soloist—in several of his compositions.

So, why are we talking about this now? Well, the Strauss manuscript score is about to take a little trip. Stay tuned . . .

leontyne-price

Today we send all best wishes for a very happy ninetieth birthday to the legendary soprano, Leontyne Price! Several excellent tributes have been written (here, here, and here, among many others) to recognize her extraordinary and groundbreaking career as an artist—in opera, concert, and on recording.

Price has appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on numerous occasions, at Orchestra Hall, the Ravinia Festival, Carnegie Hall, and the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, as follows:

February 28 and March 1, 1963 (Orchestra Hall)
BERLIOZ Les nuits d’été, Op. 7
FALLA El amor brujo
Fritz Reiner, conductor

March 13, 1971 (Orchestra Hall)
March 15, 1971 (Pabst Theater)
BARBER “Give me my robe” from Antony and Cleopatra
MOZART “Dove sono” from Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492
STRAUSS Four Last Songs
Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor

April 24 and 26, 1975 (Orchestra Hall)
April 30, 1975 (Carnegie Hall)
VERDI Requiem
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Leontyne Price, soprano
Yvonne Minton, mezzo-soprano
Luciano Pavarotti, tenor
Gwynne Howell, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

July 11, 1975 (Ravinia Festival)
PUCCINI “Un bel di vedremo” from Madama Butterfly
VERDI “Ernani! Ernani, involami” from Ernani
MOZART “D’Oreste, d’Ajace” from Idomeneo, K. 366
STRAUSS “Zweite Brautnacht” from Die ägyptische Helena
James Levine, conductor

Proof sheet detail from recording sessions for Verdi's Requeim at Medinah Temple in June 1977

Proof sheet detail from recording sessions for Verdi’s Requiem at Medinah Temple in June 1977 (Robert M. Lightfoot III photo)

July 2, 1976 (Ravinia Festival)
PUCCINI “Senza mamma” from Suor Angelica
PUCCINI “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca
VERDI “Pace, pace, mio Dio” from La forza del destino
MOZART “Come scoglio” from Così fan tutte, K. 588
WAGNER “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser
James Levine, conductor

May 31, 1977 (Orchestra Hall)
VERDI Requiem
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Leontyne Price, soprano
Dame Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano
Veriano Luchetti, tenor
José van Dam, bass-baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

June 22, 1979 (Ravinia Festival)
VERDI La forza del destino
James Levine, conductor
Leontyne Price, soprano
Isola Jones, mezzo-soprano
Sharon Graham, mezzo-soprano
Giuseppe Giacomini, tenor
Andrea Velis, tenor
Cornell MacNeil, baritone
Renato Capecchi, baritone
Carl Glaum, baritone
Bonaldo Giaiotti, bass
Julien Robbins, bass
Daniel McConnell, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

Price onstage with Solti and the Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on April 29, 1980 (Robert M. Lightfoot III photo)

Price onstage with Solti and the Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on April 29, 1980 (Robert M. Lightfoot III photo)

April 29, 1980 (Carnegie Hall)
WAGNER “Dich, teure Halle” from Tannhäuser
WAGNER Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

July 13, 1985 (Ravinia Festival)
PUCCINI “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca
PUCCINI “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from La rondine
VERDI “Ernani! Ernani, involami” from Ernani
VERDI “D’amor sull’ali rosee” from Il trovatore
WAGNER Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
STRAUSS Final Scene from Salome
James Levine, conductor

Advance notice for Price's 1963 debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Advance notice for Price’s 1963 debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Price also recorded with the Orchestra—including two Grammy Award winners—as follows:

BERLIOZ Les nuits d’été, Op. 7
FALLA El amor brujo
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Recorded on March 2 and 3, 1963 in Orchestra Hall by RCA
Richard Mohr produced the recording, and Lewis Layton was the engineer. The recording won the 1964 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance–Vocal Soloist (with or without orchestra) from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

VERDI Requiem
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Leontyne Price, soprano
Dame Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano
Veriano Luchetti, tenor
José van Dam, bass-baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Recorded on June 1 and 2, 1977, in Medinah Temple by RCA
Thomas Z. Shepard produced the recording, and Paul Goodman was the engineer. The recording won the 1977 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance (other than opera).

WAGNER “Dich teure Halle” from Tannhäuser
Recorded by WFMT on April 29, 1980, in Carnegie Hall
Released on Chicago Symphony Orchestra: The First 100 Years during the Orchestra’s centennial season in April 1991

Under the auspices of Allied Arts and CSO Presents, Price also gave numerous recitals in Orchestra Hall on the following dates:

  • May 6, 1956
  • April 7, 1957
  • December 6, 1958
  • May 30, 1962
  • February 3, 1963
  • February 1, 1970
  • February 27, 1972
  • April 4, 1976
  • January 29, 1984
  • November 11, 1990
  • April 24, 1994
  • February 16, 1997

Happy, happy birthday!

Portions of this article previously appeared here.

john-williams

Wishing a very happy eighty-fifth birthday to the incomparable John Williams! Composer, conductor, winner of five Academy Awards (and fifty nominations) and twenty-two Grammy awards, he has given us several of the most popular movie soundtracks in the history of cinema.

When Williams became the first composer to be awarded the American Film Institute‘s lifetime achievement award in 2016, his longtime collaborator Steven Spielberg said, “Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly, nor do brooms in Quidditch matches, nor do men in red capes. There is no Force, dinosaurs do not walk the Earth, we do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe.”

Erich Kunzel first led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Williams’s music—selections from Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope—at the Ravinia Festival on August 13, 1978. Williams himself first guest conducted the Orchestra at Ravinia on July 31, 1994, and at Orchestra Hall on November 28, 29, and December 2, 2003. During that first downtown residency on November 29, he led the Orchestra in the world premiere of his Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, dedicated to then–Principal Horn Dale Clevenger. The work was commissioned by the Edward F. Schmidt Family Commissioning Fund for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Under the baton of the composer, the Orchestra recorded a suite from Memoirs of a Geisha in August 2008, with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist. In May 2012, Williams led the Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Chorus in sessions for the soundtrack for Lincoln, later nominated for both Grammy and Academy awards.

John Williams will return again to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in April 2018 (details will soon be available here, here, and here).

Happy, happy birthday!

roberta-peters

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family remembers the extraordinary soprano Roberta Peters, who died yesterday at her home in Rye, New York. She was 86.

Barely nineteen years old in 1949, Peters was introduced to impresario Sol Hurok, who arranged for her to audition for Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolf Bing. At the audition, she sang “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”—the Queen of the Night’s second aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Bing apparently asked her to perform the aria (with four Fs above high C) seven times, as he listened from different areas of the opera house. Satisfied, he booked Peters to debut in the role in February 1951.

However, on November 17, 1950, Bing called Peters to see if she would be able to step in that evening for an ailing Nadine Conner as Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Peters had learned the role and accepted, even though she had not yet performed onstage, let alone with a full orchestra. She made her debut under the guidance of the evening’s conductor—Fritz Reiner—and her career was launched.

November 1953

November 5 and 6, 1953

During Reiner’s first season as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sixth music director, he wasted no time in engaging Peters. She made her debut with the Orchestra during the fourth subscription week on November 5 and 6, 1953, singing Mozart’s concert aria Ma che vi fece, O stelle (K. 368); “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos; and “No word from Tom” from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

Peters later appeared again with Reiner and the Orchestra, on February 27 and 28, 1958, in Mozart’s concert aria Mia speranza adorata (K. 416) and four songs—Wiegenlied; Säusle, liebe Myrte; Ständchen, and Amor!—by Richard Strauss.

Peters's November 1953 program biography

Peters’s November 1953 program biography

At the Ravinia Festival, Peters appeared numerous times with the Orchestra between 1966 and 1984, performing songs and arias under conductors Josef Krips, Franz Allers, Erich Kunzel, and James Levine. Also under Levine, she appeared as Despina in concert performances of Mozart’s Così fan tutte on July 16 and 18, 1975.

Numerous tributes have been posted online, in The New York Times and Opera News, among others.

thomas-at-desk

Theodore Thomas, the Chicago Orchestra‘s first music director, died on January 4, 1905. For many years after, the Orchestra would dedicate the first concerts of the new year to his memory, frequently performing works closely associated with their founder. We continue that tradition on this week’s radio broadcast, as Frank Villella, director of the CSO’s Rosenthal Archives, co-hosts a retrospective of works that Thomas introduced to audiences in the United States, both with the Chicago Orchestra and other ensembles.

barenboim-brahms-5-erato

BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80
Daniel Barenboim, conductor
Recorded by Erato in Orchestra Hall, September 1993

In 1879, the University of Breslau in Poland bestowed upon Johannes Brahms an honorary doctorate, and to show his appreciation, he composed the Academic Festival Overture the following summer. The composer himself led the first public performance at the university in January 1881, and later that year on November 29, Thomas led the U.S. premiere in New York.

Daniel Barenboim, early in his tenure as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director, recorded Brahms’s complete symphonies, along with the Tragic Overture, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and the Academic Festival Overture, all for Erato Records.

wagner-prelude-and-liebestod

WAGNER Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde
Artur Rodzinski, conductor
Recorded by RCA in Orchestra Hall, December 1947

In the nineteenth century, Thomas was Richard Wagner’s greatest advocate in the United States, both before and after he founded the Chicago Orchestra. During his fourteen seasons as music director, he programmed Wagner’s music on nearly half of his concerts, both in Chicago and with the Orchestra on tour. Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of the Prelude from Tristan and Isolde in New York on February 10, 1866, less than a year after the opera’s first complete performances in Munich; and he also gave the first U.S. performance of the Prelude paired with the Liebestod in Boston on December 6, 1871. Thomas programmed these two works together fifteen times on subscription concerts during his tenure as music director.

Artur Rodzinski was the Orchestra’s fourth music director for only one season (1947–48). One of his great successes was a concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in November 1947, featuring soprano Kirsten Flagstad in her first operatic appearance in the United States since the end of World War II. The legendary Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy called the performance “the dawn of a new operatic day in Chicago.” A month later, Rodzinski and the Orchestra recorded the Prelude and Liebestod for RCA.

elgar-enigma

ELGAR Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 36 (Enigma)
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Recorded by London in Medinah Temple, May 1974

Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the Chicago Orchestra on January 3, 1902, and it was such a crowd-pleaser that he programmed it a second time later that season. A few years later in April 1907, second music director Frederick Stock invited the composer himself to lead several of his works, including In the South, the first Pomp and Circumstance March, and the Enigma Variations. The Chicago Tribune reported that, “The men of the Orchestra gave him their closest attention and heartiest sympathy yesterday, and the result was a performance of the three compositions which was technically and tonally of highest worth. Sir Edward himself seemed genuinely pleased and his assertion after the concert that the ‘work of the Orchestra surpassed all his fondest expectations’ evidently was the expression of his true feeling.”

Sir Georg Solti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s eighth music director, recorded the Enigma Variations on May 15, 1974, at Medinah Temple for London Records.

reiner-heldenleben
STRAUSS Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Recorded by RCA in Orchestra Hall, March 1954

During the summer of 1883, Thomas visited Europe and according to his Memoirs—edited by his widow, Rose Fay Thomas—the conductor, “had met, in Munich, a young and almost unknown composer, one Richard Strauss, who has recently finished writing a symphony. Thomas secured the first movement of the work, and was so much impressed with it that he requested young Strauss to let him have the other movements, promising to bring out the whole work in a concert of the Philharmonic Society.” Thomas kept that promise and in New York in December 1884, he led the world premiere of the Second Symphony in F minor—the first music of Richard Strauss to be performed in the United States. Strauss would later send new scores, and Thomas introduced several works to the United States with the Orchestra, including Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, along with Ein Heldenleben, first performed in Chicago on March 9, 1900.

Near the end of his first season as sixth music director, Fritz Reiner made his first recordings with the Orchestra for RCA. In Orchestra Hall on March 6, 1954, they recorded Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome and Ein Heldenleben, with violin solos performed by then-concertmaster John Weicher. Reiner’s CSO recordings of music by Strauss have never been out of print, and in 2013, Sony re-issued Reiner’s complete CSO catalog on RCA, a boxed set of sixty-three CDs.

gould-tchaikovsky-waltzes-rca

TCHAIKOVSKY Final Waltz and Apotheosis from The Nutcracker, Op. 71
Morton Gould, conductor
Recorded by RCA in Orchestra Hall, January 1966

Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of a suite from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker on October 22, 1892, on the first concert of the Orchestra’s second season. The program note described Tchaikovsky as the “composer, who, in his fifth symphony, has led us into the highest realms of art and stirred our very soul,” and the note described the selections from the ballet as “miniature pictures painted with infinite grace and care,” showing the composer, “in one of his playful and trifling moods.”

Morton Gould, a frequent guest conductor on Popular concerts in the 1960s, recorded selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker at Orchestra Hall on January 31, 1966, for RCA. A six-disc set of Gould’s complete recordings with the Orchestra was released by Sony in February 2016.

In May 2016, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra celebrated 100 years of recording.

horowitz-cover

All of a sudden, Vladimir Horowitz is everywhere. Especially in Chicago.

In addition to Deutsche Grammophon releasing Horowitz: Return to Chicago, Sony Classical has issued a set of the pianist’s unreleased live recital recordings, covering thirteen programs recorded at twenty-five concerts in fourteen different venues between 1966 and 1983. And four of those concerts were recorded in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, on May 12, 1968; November 2, 1975; and April 8 and 15, 1979.

Program book cover for November 2, 1975

November 2, 1975, program book cover

These live recordings were made by Columbia Masterworks (1966–1968) and RCA Red Seal (1975–1983), and—with the exception of a few tracks released on compilation albums—the vast majority of the material has never been previously available. The fifty-disc set recently was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.

“Vladimir Horowitz’s piano technique is so comprehensive that it diminishes everyone else,” wrote Thomas Willis in the Chicago Tribune, following the November 1975 performance, presented under the auspices of Allied Arts. “When he summons the power and clangor for bravura passages, the other powerhouses by comparison sound like lightweights. But when he relaxes into pellucid cascades of an impressionist Liszt tone poem, other light-fingered specialists seem to have developed fingers of lead. . . . Horowitz is not only in a class by himself, he is apparently indestructible. Ten years after his return to the concert stage, the seventy-one-year-old virtuoso has the endurance, the control, and the coiled-spring presence to make each appearance an unforgettable event. . . . Horowitz today is as much a giant as ever.”

November 2, 1975

November 2, 1975

In addition to the works on the program, the audience—including an extra 150 on the stage—demanded no less than six encores: Schumann’s Träumerei from Kinderszenen; Scarlatti’s Sonata in A major, K. 322; Moszkowski’s Étincelles; Chopin’s Black Key Etude in G-flat major, op. 10, no. 5 and Mazurka in A minor, op. 17, no. 4; and finally Rachmaninov’s Étude-Tableaux in D major, op. 39, no. 9. All are included on the release.

Original dust jacket for the first edition of Talks About Beethoven's Symphonies

Original dust jacket for the first edition

Happy 246th birthday, Ludwig van Beethoven!

Theodore Thomas, our founder and first music director, favored the music of Beethoven above all others. Of the five composers’ names inscribed on the façade of Orchestra Hall, Beethoven’s is the one featured prominently in the center.

Shortly after the turn of the last century, Thomas began writing a series of essays—complete with accompanying diagrams—analyzing Beethoven’s symphonies. These were intended “simply to serve as an aid to students and concertgoers in understanding and listening intelligently to these masterworks,” according to his wife, Rose Fay Thomas. Thomas only was able to complete articles on the first five symphonies before his unexpected death in January 1905, and Rose later invited his successor, Frederick Stock, to complete the series. Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies was published in Chicago by Oliver Ditson Company in 1930.

Cloth cover for the first edition

Cloth cover for the first edition

Theodore Thomas and Frederick Stock

Theodore Thomas and Frederick Stock

Rose edited the volume, and in the preface she wrote that, “these little essays, simple and unpretentious though they seem, will be at once recognized as the product of a musician who combined profound learning with wide practical experience, and in no other work of similar character which has come to my notice can there be found such clear and authoritative analyses of the themes and structure of these symphonies, so lucid an exposition of their relation to each other, or so logical an account of Beethoven’s own artistic development as revealed in them.”

Fifth Symphony, first movement diagram

Fifth Symphony, first movement

Thomas’s favorite work was the Fifth Symphony, and he programmed it for the Chicago Orchestra‘s first concert as well as the dedication of Orchestra Hall. Composed in the “zenith of his career,” according to Thomas in the book’s fifth chapter, during this time Beethoven “produces works which are as nearly perfect as anything human can be, breathing the spirit of the nineteenth century, and endowing music with a meaning deeper and more fruitful than it ever had before. . . . Beethoven was able, through his art, to represent the psychological side of human nature in a manner so strong and full of meaning that he has only been equaled in this respect by one other creative mind—Shakespeare.”

Ninth Symphony, fourth movement diagram

Ninth Symphony, fourth movement

The final chapter, penned by Stock, describes the Ninth Symphony as, “dedicated to all Mankind. . . . Embracing all phases of human emotion, monumental in scope and outline, colossal in its intellectual grasp and emotional eloquence, the Ninth stands today as the greatest of all symphonies.” Stock continued, “Beethoven must have felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of instrumental expression and that nothing save the human voice could convey with sufficient eloquence the great thoughts he desired to set forth. . . . The Ninth is unquestionably the greatest of all symphonies not only because it is the final résumé of all of Beethoven’s achievements, colossal as they are even without the Ninth, but also because it voices the message of one who had risen beyond himself, beyond the world and the time in which he lived. The Ninth is Beethoven, the psychic and spiritual significance of his life.”

dedication

A postscript. The dedication is to the “patrons of the old Theodore Thomas Orchestra.” Before he founded the Chicago Orchestra in 1891, Thomas established his own eponymous ensemble in 1864 and led them on tour across the United States until the orchestra disbanded in 1889.

Portions of this article previously appeared here.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins the music world in mourning the death of Karel Husa, the eminent Czech-born composer and conductor. He was 95.

Composer, soloist, and conductor backstage, following the premiere.

Husa, Herseth, and Solti backstage following the world premiere of the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra on February 11, 1988 (Jim Steere photo)

Husa was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1969 for his String Quartet no. 3, and he was awarded the Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 1993 for his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra.

The Orchestra first performed Husa’s Music for Prague 1968 under Sergiu Comissiona in April 1973 and again in December 1986 under Erich Leinsdorf.

To celebrate Adolph Herseth‘s fortieth season as principal trumpet, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra commissioned Husa to write the Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra. Under the baton of eighth music director Sir Georg Solti, Herseth was soloist in the world premiere at Orchestra Hall on February 11, 1988. The Orchestra also performed the work multiple times during the first tour to Australia later that same year (details of the tour are here and here).

Adolph "Bud" Herseth and Sir Georg rehearse Husa's Trumpet Concerto in Perth

Herseth and Solti rehearsing Husa’s concerto in Perth in March 1988 (Jim Steere photo)

In the spring of 1976, the major American political parties had not yet hosted their conventions to nominate candidates for president. But on May 11—the day after the first of three concerts at Carnegie Hall by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Sir Georg SoltiDonal Henahan of The New York Times had a suggestion:

img_9497

“Solti’s Chicagoans Stimulate a Yen to Yell”

It is pretty well agreed now, among decibel collectors, that the audiences at Chicago Symphony concerts make more noise than anybody. If you happen to pass Carnegie Hall tomorrow or Friday night and notice that sturdy old monument rocking slightly on its foundations, do not worry: It is only the Chicago orchestra’s fans going happily mad over a performance conducted by Sir Georg Solti. (Don’t run out to buy tickets, by the way; Chicago Symphony concerts are invariably sold out as soon as they are announced.)

The sheer fervor, somewhat resembling religious fanaticism, that characterizes the New York ovations for Chicago/Solti, is a phenomenon worth some sociologist’s study. Of course, the Chicago Symphony is one of the world’s great orchestras, and Sir Georg is undeniably one of the world’s most exciting conductors. The cheering is, therefore, aimed at real quality.

But the Dionysian frenzy that many observers have commented upon goes beyond ordinary enthusiasm into the category of the demonstration. Chicago players and Sir Georg himself have confessed that the intensity of these ovations in New York takes them aback. Thoughtful musicians cross their fingers, in fact. They have seen reputations rise and fall, for what seems too little reason either way, and know how capricious and irrational audiences can be.

The Chicago/Solti phenomenon has been compared to the cult that grew up around Toscanini and his NBC Symphony a generation ago, to the Stokowski fan clubs of his Philadelphia Orchestra years and to the von Karajan mystique in some sectors of the musical world today. Unsophisticated music listeners, with the help of judicious publicity agents, love to fasten upon an idol, to proclaim this or that artist “the greatest” and fall prostrate at mention of the holy name. Other and wiser folk simply like to cheer what they regard as the best. Cheering is an emotional purgative, a primal scream that often seems to do the screamer more good than the

The New York Times, May 11, 1976

The New York Times, May 11, 1976

Beyond the obvious fact of its lofty quality, there are several arguable rationalizations for the kind of hysteria regularly generated by the Chicago under Sir Georg. When the orchestra made its first Carnegie Hall appearances under him six years ago, many knowledgeable New Yorkers were simply flattened by what they heard. The Chicago Symphony—unlike the Cleveland under Szell, the Boston under Leinsdorf, the Philadelphia under Ormandy—had not been a regular visitor.

Fritz Reiner, who built the orchestra to its current level in the late 1950s, hated touring. He refused to do the kind of barnstorming to high prestige places that would have made the Chicago Symphony’s greatness apparent to more than the blessed few who heard it regularly in its own Orchestra Hall during Dr. Reiner’s ten‐year regime.

The fact, which Sir Georg readily admits, is that the Chicago Symphony as it stands (or sits) is largely the product of the Reiner years. The Solti genius has consisted in making splendid use of a ready‐made instrument. Not the least amazing thing about the Chicago’s current status as a symbol of excellence is that of all major American orchestras it is the oldest: Most of the players date back to the Reiner years before.

Another possible factor in the Chicago’s popularity is the high percentage of opera fans who frequent these concerts. One of Sir Georg’s first smash successes at Carnegie came in 1971 with a concert performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and he subsequently offered four other operatic attractions. His sixth, on Friday night, will be The Flying Dutchman.

Sir Georg, you remember, had been artistic director of London’s Covent Garden opera house, and his renown as an opera conductor fattened considerably when he completed the first Ring cycle ever produced on commercially available recordings, for London Records. And, since opera enthusiasts on the whole are famous—or notorious, as you wish—for treating their heroes and heroines to hysterical ovations, Chicago/Solti has not suffered from being attractive to the opera set.

prez

Another and probably more disputable conjecture: there existed in New York at the time of the Chicago/Solti arrival on the scene, a considerable number of people who yearned to hear concerts led by an unashamedly passionate “maestro,” preferably someone cast in the Toscanini mold. To some extent, Leonard Bernstein in his early years with the Philharmonic fulfilled the needs of this sizable and vocal constituency.

But when Pierre Boulez took charge of the Philharmonic these New Yorkers missed their former feeling of audience participation. They came to regard themselves as disenfranchised musical citizens. Mr. Boulez seemed to them more acoustical scientist than performer, and his analytical talents and objective approach to music were largely unappreciated. For this emotional breed of listener, the coming of Chicago/Solti offered a chance not merely to applaud but also—almost in the political sense of the word—to demonstrate. It was as if they were sending a message.

The yen to yell can come to be as important to certain audiences as the music itself. Opera fans, in particular, seem to regard their demonstrations of affection and approbation as part of the performance, and that can be obnoxious when carried too far. But any continuing audience, such as the one attracted by the Chicago/Solti concerts, is also acting out a communal claim to eliteness. It is proclaiming its own superior taste and knowledge, as well as showing the performers how much they are appreciated: We happy few who know what’s what, we proud melomaniacs, we who make (and can easily break) heroes, salute.

In any event, the Chicago Solti ovations are likely to go down among the legends of New York’s cultural life. And perhaps the explanation is simpler than suggested here. When the inevitable ranting and raving is heard at Carnegie Hall, it may merely be one sector of the musical electorate voting for its concept of what orchestral concerts should be. The Chicago Symphony for President, as it were. Well, we could do worse.

The 1976 U.S. presidential election was held on November 2, 1976. Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, the Democratic party candidate, ran against and defeated incumbent president Gerald Ford, the Republican candidate.

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Theodore Thomas

Theodore Thomas

In early 1889, Chicago businessman Charles Norman Fay encountered Theodore Thomas—then one of the most famous conductors in the United States—in New York. Thomas had fallen on hard times, his orchestra recently disbanded. According to Fay in the February 1910 Outlook, “My thoughts went back to those ten years of Summer Garden Concerts [in Chicago], and to some powerful and devoted friends of Mr. Thomas and his music at home, and I asked, ‘Would you come to Chicago if we could give you a permanent orchestra?’ The answer, grim and sincere, and entirely destitute of intentional humor, came back like a flash: ‘I would go to hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra.’ ”

October 16 and 17, 1891

October 16 and 17, 1891

Fay returned to Chicago and quickly found support for a new orchestra. The Orchestral Association first met on December 17, 1890, and less than a year later, on October 16 and 17, 1891, the Chicago Orchestra gave its first concerts at the Auditorium Theatre, with Thomas conducting Wagner’s A Faust Overture, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Rafael Joseffy, and Dvořák’s Husitská Overture.

“It has been stated that the Orchestral Association’s contract with Mr. Thomas stipulated that he should in the Chicago Orchestra give to the city an organization the peer of the finest in the United States. Yesterday’s public rehearsal at the Auditorium by that orchestra showed that Mr. Thomas has filled his contract,” reported the Chicago Tribune on October 17. “Thomas has long been known for his ability to quickly bring newly formed orchestras into condition for satisfactory work, but in this instance he has fairly surpassed himself, the results being simply astonishing. . . . The body of the tone produced is superb, possessing a vitality, a fullness, and volume such as has been heard from no orchestra ever before in Chicago.”

This article also appears here.

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Pianist and conductor Bramwell Tovey shares why he's looking forward to playing George Gershwin's iconic Rhapsody in Blue with the CSO. He believes "there's something in this piece for everybody."

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