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 Solti—Donal Henahan of The New York Times had a suggestion:
“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
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.
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.