Richard Oldberg in the early 1960s

We have just learned of the passing of Richard Oldberg, a longtime member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s horn section, who died in Estes Park, Colorado on December 27, 2021. He was eighty-three.

Born on June 21, 1938, in Evanston, Illinois, Oldberg began his horn studies in the public school system and received instruction from Charles Zweigler and later Max Pottag (CSO horn, 1907–1946). He attended the summer music programs at Interlochen Arts Camp, and he later attended Harvard and Northwestern universities, where he studied with two CSO principal horns, Philip Farkas and Christopher Leuba. A lip injury temporarily forced him to give up the horn, and he briefly turned to premedical studies. However, in January 1962, with encouragement from Leuba, Oldberg was invited to perform as an extra horn with the CSO. He continued to work as a regular substitute and was invited by new music director Jean Martinon to join the Orchestra as assistant principal horn beginning with the 1963–64 season. Following the departure of Wayne Barrington the following season, Oldberg moved to third horn, remaining in that position for the next twenty-nine years.

Oldberg was a frequent soloist with the Orchestra and appeared in Strauss’s Second Horn Concerto with Irwin Hoffman conducting, as well as Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns on numerous occasions under Daniel Barenboim, James Levine, Michael Morgan, and Sir Georg Solti. In March 1977, Oldberg—along with his colleagues Dale Clevenger, Norman Schweikert, and Thomas Howell—was soloist in a recording of Schumann’s Konzertstück under Barenboim’s baton for Deutsche Grammophon.

His grandfather, Arne Oldberg, was a prominent composer, pianist, and educator, serving on the faculty at Northwestern University from 1897 until 1941. Between 1909 and 1954, the CSO gave the world premieres of sixteen of his works, including his Third, Fourth, and Fifth symphonies and a violin concerto. One of Arne’s sons (and Richard’s uncle), Eric Oldberg, was a prominent neurosurgeon in Chicago, and he served as president of the Orchestral Association from 1952 until 1963 and later as a life trustee. Eric presided over the appointment of both Fritz Reiner as sixth music director in 1953 and Margaret Hillis as founder and first director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1957.

A dedicated educator, Richard Oldberg served on the faculty at Northwestern University for many years. After leaving Chicago, he was principal horn and guest conductor with the Boulder Philharmonic in Colorado, regularly leading their annual performances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker with the Boulder Ballet. In his retirement, he enjoyed his longtime hobbies of book collecting (mostly Sherlock Holmes and mountaineering), model railroads, and hand-copying the scores of Richard Wagner’s operas. He and his wife Mary were longtime members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Alumni Association.

In a July 1989 interview for the CSO’s Oral History Project, Oldberg reflected on his time in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “I’ve had a grand time. I’m the luckiest person on the face of the earth. Like Lou Gehrig said, I’m doing what I want to do. This isn’t work, this is fun, and I’m having a wonderful time doing it, playing the music that we play, and so, I’m a very happy fellow as a result.”

Richard Oldberg’s wife Mary preceded him in death in 2019. He is survived by his son David from a previous marriage.

This article also appears here.

Principal Horn Dale Clevenger in 2010 (© Todd Rosenberg Photography)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family mourns the loss of Dale Clevenger, who served as principal horn from 1966 until 2013. He died yesterday, January 5, 2022, in Italy, at the age of eighty-one.

Dale Clevenger was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on July 2, 1940. A legend in the world of french horn for his sound, technique, finesse, and fearless music making, he joined the CSO at the invitation of seventh music director Jean Martinon. Throughout his forty-seven-year tenure, he performed under subsequent music directors Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, and Riccardo Muti, along with titled conductors Pierre Boulez, Bernard Haitink, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Claudio Abbado, among countless guest conductors.

“The loss of Dale Clevenger, one of the best and most famous horn players of our time and one of the glories of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, leaves a very deep void in the music world,” Maestro Muti said in a statement. “Fortunately, we have many audiovisual recordings of him with the Chicago Symphony to show his extraordinary technique and nobility of musical phrasing. I am certain that all his colleagues, former and current, all horn students, and myself, as we were personal friends, will mourn this huge loss.”

A versatile musician in many areas, including chamber music, jazz, commercial recordings, and as soloist, Clevenger frequently credited his mentors Arnold Jacobs (CSO principal tuba, 1944–88) and Adolph “Bud” Herseth (CSO principal trumpet, 1948–2001 and principal trumpet emeritus, 2001–04).

Clevenger was a featured soloist on several CSO recordings, including works by Martin, Schumann, Britten, and Mozart. He also played on the Grammy Award–winning recording The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli with the brass ensembles of the Chicago, Philadelphia, and Cleveland orchestras. He recorded horn concertos by Joseph and Michael Haydn with the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra of Budapest, as well as Mozart’s horn concertos on two separate releases, each of which was nominated for Grammy awards. Clevenger also performed with Barenboim and colleagues from the CSO and the Berlin Philharmonic on the Grammy-winning CD of quintets for piano and winds by Mozart and Beethoven. With Barenboim and Itzhak Perlman, he recorded Brahms’s Horn Trio for Sony Classical. He performed on the Tribute to Ellington release with Barenboim and other members of the Orchestra, and his recording of Strauss’s First Horn Concerto with Barenboim and the CSO also won a Grammy Award. John Williams wrote a horn concerto for him, which he premiered with the CSO under the baton of the composer, in 2003.

The recording of Richard Strauss’s Wind Concertos—featuring CSO principals Clevenger, clarinet Larry Combs, oboe Alex Klein, and bassoon David McGill—won the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist(s) Performance (with Orchestra).

Also a conductor, Clevenger served as music director of the Elmhurst Symphony Orchestra for fourteen years. His conducting career included guest appearances with the New Japan Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Roosevelt University Symphony Orchestra, Toronto Conservatory Orchestra, Northwestern University Summer Symphony, Western Australia Symphony Orchestra, Osaka Philharmonic, National Philharmonic of Slovakia in Bratislava, Sinfonia Crakovia and the Opole Philharmonic in Poland, and the Bartlesville (Oklahoma) Symphony Orchestra. In 2011, he conducted the Valladolid (Spain) Symphony Orchestra with Daniel Barenboim as soloist.

Teaching was an integral part of Clevenger’s life, and horn players who studied and coached with him won positions in some of the world’s most prestigious ensembles. Over the years, he taught at Northwestern University, Roosevelt University, and the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. Clevenger also gave recitals and master classes throughout the world: in Italy, Spain, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Japan, China, Australia, Mexico, Canada, and Israel. In 1985, he received an honorary doctorate from Elmhurst College.

Dale Clevenger (Terry’s Photography)

Before joining the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Clevenger was a member of Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra and the Symphony of the Air directed by Alfred Wallenstein; he also was principal horn of the Kansas City Philharmonic. He appeared as soloist with orchestras worldwide, including the Berlin Philharmonic. Clevenger participated in numerous music festivals, including the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival; Florida Music Festival in Sarasota; Marrowstone Music Festival in Bellingham, Washington; Affinis Music Festival in Japan; and the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival. Additionally, he worked with the European Community Youth Orchestra under Claudio Abbado and participated in countless International Horn Society workshops.

In February 2013, when he announced plans to retire, Clevenger wrote to his colleagues in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: “You are truly some of the finest musicians on the planet. To have had the pleasure and privilege of making music and sharing the stage with you in thousands of concerts is a sweet memory I shall cherish. . . . I encourage you to do everything possible in your power to keep my Chicago Symphony Orchestra ‘the best of the best!’”

In Orchestra Hall on June 10, 2013, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — under the batons of Clevenger and Riccardo Muti — performed an appreciation concert for their longtime colleague. As part of the program, several musicians put together a tribute, and that video is below.

Clevenger married Nancy Sutherland in 1966; they divorced in 1987. Alice Render, also a horn player, became his wife later that year; she died in 2011. He married Giovanna Grassi in 2012, and she survives him, along with a son and a daughter, Michael and Ami, from his first marriage; two sons Mac and Jesse, from his second marriage; a sister, Alice Clevenger Cooper; and two granddaughters, Cameron and Leia. Details for services—to be held at Christ Church in Winnetka, Illinois in the late spring—are pending.

Numerous tributes have been posted online, including the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago on the Aisle, Chicago Classical Review, New York Times, and Gramophone, among others.

This article also appears here.

“We know with certainty that seldom was a work of this kind brought to completion under more adverse conditions than the Eighth Symphony,” wrote Frederick Stock, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra‘s second music director, in Talks About Beethoven’s SymphoniesThe year 1812 was challenging for Beethoven, as he endured “domestic difficulties of the most embarrassing and annoying kind . . . added to this the agony of his ever-increasing deafness, and life’s burden must have been unbearable. And yet the general character of the F major symphony is added proof that adversities, no matter how severe, could not overwhelm him or daunt his spirt, since the temper and color of this work show no trace of suffering. . . . the Eighth Symphony [is] the work of a genius rising above his world, reaching beyond his own time, and that this work was only a stepping-stone for much greater things to come.”

The Eighth Symphony “was misunderstood from the start,” writes CSOA scholar-in-residence and program annotator Phillip Huscher. “The Eighth is a throwback to an easier time. The novelty of this symphony, however, is that it manages to do new and unusual things without ever waving the flag of controversy.”

Founder and first music director Theodore Thomas first led the Chicago Orchestra in Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony on March 25 and 26, 1892, at the Auditorium Theatre.

1973 recording (London)

Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus first recorded Beethoven’s nine symphonies between May 1972 and September 1974 for London Records. The recordings were ultimately released as a set (along with three overtures: Egmont, Coriolan, and Leonore no. 3); that set won the 1975 Grammy Award for Classical Album of the Year from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. The Eighth Symphony was recorded at Medinah Temple on November 6 and 9, 1973. Ray Minshull was the recording producer, and Kenneth Wilkinson and James Lock were the balance engineers.

1988 recording (London)

Between September 1986 and January 1990, Solti and the Orchestra and Chorus recorded the complete Beethoven symphonies a second time, again for London Records; and again, the recordings were ultimately released as a set (along with two overtures: Egmont and Leonore no. 3). The Eighth Symphony was recorded in Orchestra Hall on October 17 and 18, 1988. Michael Haas was the recording producer and Stanley Goodall was the balance engineer.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture along with Symphonies nos. 5 and 8 on January 13 and 15, 2021.

Wishing a very happy eightieth birthday to the remarkable Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini!

Maurizio Pollini (© Mathias Bothor for Deutsche Grammophon)

A frequent and favorite guest artist in Chicago for more than fifty years, Pollini has appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and in recital on numerous occasions, in Orchestra Hall, at the Ravinia Festival, and in Milwaukee.

Following Pollini’s debut in Orchestra Hall in January 1971, Thomas Willis commented in the Chicago Tribune that he had “been literally pulled forward in my seat by [the] pianist’s bravura . . . last night when Maurizio Pollini charged the climactic repeated octaves in Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto. The speed and power of that single passage—no more than, say, fifteen seconds long—broke the piano’s sound barrier for me. Until I heard this virtuoso do it, I would never have believed that alternating octaves could be played so fast and so loud on any concert piano. . . . This one could be the star shaker.”

A complete list of Pollini’s appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to date is below.

July 5, 1969, Ravinia Festival
CHOPIN Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21
Seiji Ozawa, conductor

June 27, 1970, Ravinia Festival
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26
Seiji Ozawa, conductor

January 21, 22, and 23, 1971, Orchestra Hall
BARTÓK Piano Concerto No. 2
Claudio Abbado, conductor

February 21, 22, and 23, 1974, Orchestra Hall
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
Claudio Abbado, conductor

February 10 and 11, 1977, Orchestra Hall
BARTÓK Piano Concerto No. 1
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in February 1977 for Deutsche Grammophon
1979 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance–Instrumental Soloist
1979
Gramophone Award for Concerto

February 17, 18, and 20, 1977, Orchestra Hall
February 21, 1977, Uihlein Hall, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
BARTÓK Piano Concerto No. 2
Claudio Abbado, conductor
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in February 1977 for Deutsche Grammophon
1979 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance–Instrumental Soloist
1979
Gramophone Award for Concerto

April 5, 6, and 7, 1979, Orchestra Hall
April 9, 1979, Uihlein Hall, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
SCHUMANN Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54
Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor

March 19, 20, and 21, 1981, Orchestra Hall
CHOPIN Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor, Op. 21
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

March 3, 4, and 5, 1983, Orchestra Hall
SCHOENBERG Piano Concerto, Op. 42
Claudio Abbado, conductor

March 31, April 1, 2, and 5, 1988, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Claudio Abbado, conductor

October 23 and 24, 1997, Orchestra Hall
SCHUMANN Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

April 21, 2000, Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

April 25, 26, and 27, 2013, Orchestra Hall
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467
Riccardo Muti, conductor

For his February 1982 recital debut in Orchestra Hall, Pollini gave a program of works by Schubert and Chopin. “Nor could you hope to hear every note, every chord, every structural detail of [Chopin’s] B minor sonata rendered with more breathtaking accuracy or digital strength,” commented John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was “a meeting of mind and music that illuminated the inner workings [and placed] everything in his technical and musical arsenal at the music’s disposal. . . . His view understood, as Schubert did, the eloquence that can reside in lyrical simplicity.”

Dates for Pollini’s numerous recitals in Orchestra Hall—given under the auspices of Allied Arts and Symphony Center Presents—are below.

Maurizio Pollini (Erich Auerbach)

February 28, 1982
March 11, 1984
April 1, 1987
March 27, 1988
March 18, 1990
March 15, 1992
March 21, 1993
October 12, 1997
October 25, 1998
October 7, 2000
May 5, 2002
October 31, 2004
May 14, 2006
May 6, 2007
October 12, 2008
April 11, 2010
October 26, 2014
October 4, 2015
May 28, 2017
April 22, 2018

Happy, happy birthday!

Chicago Tribune, December 21, 1891

To close its seventh season on June 5, 1879, the Apollo Musical Club began its annual tradition of presenting Handel’s Messiah, under the baton of the ensemble’s second director, William L. Tomlins, in McCormick Hall. To celebrate the opening of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan‘s Auditorium Theatre on December 9, 1889, Tomlins led the Club in the “Hallellujah” chorus, and, later that month, presented the complete oratorio in the new hall. And two years later, the Chicago Orchestra spent its first Christmas holiday sharing the stage with the Apollo, collaborating in Messiah at the Auditorium.

December 25 and 26, 1891

“Every seat in the Auditorium was taken” for that first performance—opening the Apollo Musical Club’s twentieth season—given on Christmas Day 1891, according to the Chicago Tribune. “Every part of the choral singing last evening merited highest praise for the excellence of the body of tone, the fine balance of the different parts, the firmness, unity, and confidence in attack, and the spirit and artistic intelligence shown in the rendition of the various choruses.” The reviewer also praised the “capable orchestra. Some fifty-four members of the Chicago Orchestra played the accompaniments last evening, and delightfully indeed [and] one member of the orchestra merits special mention. Mr. [Christian] Rodenkirchen [the Orchestra’s first principal trumpet] played the music for the solo trumpet in the air ‘The trumpet shall sound,’ and played it faultlessly, a performance not experienced in this city in years.”

William L. Tomlins in 1900

The reviewer also noted the “marvelous” podium leadership of William L. Tomlins (1844–1930), who had led the Apollo Musical Club since its third season beginning in 1875. “His conception of the masterpiece is an inspiration, and his success in impressing his conceptions upon the chorus is only equaled by the latter’s ability to express them to the audiences. I do not believe it possible for any body of singers to first catch and then convey the full significance of every word . . . better than the Apollo chorus.”

Emil Fischer

The program was repeated the following evening for “wage workers . . . young men who measure out goods behind dry goods counters and daintily gloved fingers that daily touch the keys of the typewriters.” Again, the Apollo, “acquitted itself with even more credit [with] smoothness of tone and firmness in the rendition of parts.”

Jennie Patrick Walker in 1904

German bass Emil Fischer (1838–1914) was in town to perform with the Chicago Orchestra during the fourth week of subscription concerts on December 18 and 19. Under founder and first music director Theodore Thomas‘s baton, Fischer sang Schubert’s Der Wanderer and Ständchen (both orchestrated by Thomas, the latter performed as an encore) along with Hans Sachs’s monologue from the third act of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. A regular at the Metropolitan Opera from 1885 until 1891, Fischer appeared with the company in New York in the U.S. premieres of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Das Rheingold, Rienzi, Siegfried, Tannhäuser (Paris version), and Tristan and Isolde, along with Weber’s Euryanthe. Fischer also would later perform with the Orchestra, under both Thomas and Tomlins, in several concerts during the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Genevra Johnstone Bishop in 1907 (Bessie Bartlett Frankel Collection of Travel and Early Los Angeles Music, Scripps College)

American singers rounded out the rest of the cast of soloists. Soprano Jennie Patrick Walker (1856–1930) performed on December 25 but canceled due to illness for the second performance. She was replaced by soprano Genevra Johnstone Bishop (ca. 1860–1924), who later performed with the Chicago Orchestra on a number of occasions on tour, subscription concerts, and at the World’s Columbian Exposition. She also served as musical adviser at the White House during President Warren G. Harding‘s term.

Contralto Pauline Rommeiss Bremner (1859–1936) and tenor William J. Lavin (1856–1900, the first husband of soprano Mary Howe-Lavin) completed the cast.

For more than seventy years, the Orchestra continued to regularly collaborate with the Apollo in Handel’s Messiah, with performances at the Auditorium, at the World’s Columbian Exposition, and in Orchestra Hall, most recently on December 15, 1964.

This article also appears here.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will present Handel’s Messiah on December 16, 17, 18, and 19, 2021, in Orchestra Hall with soloists Yulia Van Doren, Reginald Mobley, Ben Bliss, and Dashon Burton. Nicholas McGegan conducts.

Theodore Thomas in 1880

Wishing a very happy birthday to our founder and first music director, Theodore Thomas, on the occasion of his 186th birthday!

“The first of the great conductors active in America was the German-born Theodore Thomas, whose family came to New York from Hannover when he was ten years old. Thomas can thus legitimately be called an American product. . . . From the beginning, Thomas dedicated himself to the idea that good music was a necessity for the people, not a luxury. He also made up his mind that he was going to be the man to bring music to them.”

“[Thomas] had a genuine nobility and a musical adventurousness far beyond that of any conductor active in America at the time. Nobody could swerve him from his mission. . . . When [Adelina] Patti sang under his baton, she wanted things her way; she was the prima donna, she said. Thomas corrected her. ‘Excuse me, madam. Here I am the prima donna.'”

“The importance of Theodore Thomas in the American scheme of things cannot be overestimated. More than any single person he raised the standards of orchestral playing and repertoire. . . . The man was protean and possessed of a high order of discrimination. He had daring, imagination, and, above all, determination; a will that could not be bent, much less broken. It was he who, through his tours with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, brought the sound of symphonic music for the first time to a large part of the United States. Pioneer, educator, organizer, scrapper, Theodore Thomas was in addition a brilliant and far-seeing conductor . . . and once he started, he never let down. . . . Thomas did keep on, and lived to see the emergence of a great musical culture in his country. A substantial part of it was all his work.”

—excerpts from The Great Conductors by Harold C. Schonberg, 1967.

Theodore Thomas in the early 1870s (J. Gurney & Son photo)

More than twenty years before founding the Chicago Orchestra in 1891, Theodore Thomas and his eponymous ensemble—the Theodore Thomas Orchestra—were enjoying a wave of success. Thomas founded the orchestra in 1864 and after performing to great acclaim primarily in New York, he soon decided that traveling the country was next step in their continued success. The first tour began in the fall of 1869 and included a November residency in Chicago for three concerts in Farwell Hall.

“The first concert by Theodore Thomas’s unrivalled orchestra on Saturday evening was, without exception, the finest musical event Chicago has ever known,” reported the Chicago Tribune on November 29. “The light and shade of this orchestra are something marvelous [and] it plays with delicious expression . . . magical.”

Thomas and his orchestra returned to Chicago twice over the next year and a half, in November 1870 and April 1871. The anticipation for their returns grew and reception continued to be enthusiastic. “I think we cannot, any of us, be too grateful for such music as this,” wrote Peregrine Pickle (perhaps a nom de plume) in a letter to the editor of the Tribune on April 22, 1871. “It makes better men and women of us all [and] lifts us to a higher plane of enjoyment.”

Chicago Tribune, October 1, 1871

The Theodore Thomas Orchestra’s fantastic receptions during those first three residencies encouraged Uranus H. Crosby to invite Thomas to be the centerpiece for the grand re-opening of his opera house in October 1871.

Originally inaugurated on April 20, 1865 (delayed by three days due to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln), Crosby’s Opera House was located on the north side of Washington Street between State and Dearborn. The Italianate five-story palace featured allegorical statues overlooking patrons as they passed through a grand entry arch, and residents included music publishers, William Wallace Kimball‘s piano store, business offices, and art studios and galleries. The 3,000-seat auditorium featured a dome encircled by likenesses of composers surrounded by frescoes painted by the firm of Jevne & Almini, and above the orchestra was a forty-foot painting based on Guido Reni’s Aurora. The reported cost to build was well over $600,000.

Soon after the house’s initial success, Crosby ran into severe financial difficulties, and the theater sat mostly dark until undergoing a major renovation during the summer of 1871. On September 14, the Chicago Tribune announced: “The opening of Crosby’s Opera House, after the splendid refitment which it has been undergoing for several weeks, will be fitly celebrated by a season of Theodore Thomas’s symphony and popular concerts, ten of which will be given, beginning Monday evening, October 9, and ending on Wednesday evening, the 18th.”

On October 8, the “brilliantly decorated and renovated” theater was “lit up for the first time . . . for the pleasure of friends of the managers,” according to George P. Upton. A few short hours later, tragedy struck and the city was in flames, as the Great Chicago Fire rapidly spread from the southwest side to the center of downtown. Early in the morning on October 9, Thomas and the members of his orchestra “reached the Twenty-second Street station of the Lake Shore Railroad while the fire was at its height and left the burning city at once . . .”

According to Memoirs of Theodore Thomas, completed in 1911 by his widow Rose Fay: “Thomas was paralyzed by the announcement that Chicago was burning, and [Crosby’s] Opera House already in ashes! In short, they had arrived just in time to witness the terrible conflagration which so nearly wiped Chicago off the map altogether, and, of course, the concerts which Thomas had expected to give there for two years to come, were canceled. . . . he and the orchestra stayed [in Joliet] until it was time for the next engagement in Saint Louis.”

Advertisement in the October 1871 program book for concerts in Saint Louis

Over 2,000 acres of land were destroyed, including nearly 18,000 buildings and well over $200 million in property. More than 100,000 Chicagoans—roughly one-third of the city’s population—were rendered homeless, and it is estimated that more than 300 lost their lives.

“We got away from the burning city as best we could, and spent the time intervening before our next engagement . . . in rehearsals,” wrote Thomas in his autobiography. “We began by studying the finale of [Wagner’s] Tristan and Isolde, and I played it in connection with the Vorspiel (which I had brought out in 1865), for the first time in America [in] Boston, the following December.”

In Saint Louis, Thomas was invited to add concerts at Benedict DeBar’s Opera House, including a “grand extra concert” on Monday, October 23, “for the benefit of the Chicago sufferers, for which occasion all the members of Mr. Thomas’ troupe have volunteered their services.”

Despite initial financial setbacks due to the lost concerts in Chicago, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra would continue to mostly thrive until it was disbanded in 1888. Of course, this led the way for Thomas to establish the Chicago Orchestra in 1891 and serve as music director for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, proving to the world that Chicago had indeed risen from the ashes.

This article also appears here and portions previously appeared here.

Margaret Hillis, ca. 1950 (James Abresch)

“You sing first with your ears, then your heart, mind, and voice.”

“Enjoy the phrase. Don’t just be obedient.”

“The bar line is like children. It should be seen and not heard.”

“Voices are not made for music. Music is made for voices. Serve the music!”

“If you want to give the baby a name, it’s called a fugue.” (Regarding the Sanctus in Verdi’s Requiem)

On February 2, 1979, Margaret Hillis was interviewed for the John Callaway Interviews program on WTTW:

“Tenors, you wander around in the wilderness, and we don’t have 40 days.”

“Don’t sing in chest voice. Angels don’t have chests.” (Addressing the alto section during a rehearsal for Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust)

“Sopranos, you sound like you’re wearing neckties and they’re too tight.”

“Basses, don’t swim. This is not a pool.”

“Tenors, you’re lying very close to the ladies’ parts, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

Following Hillis’s death in February 1998, WTTW’s Artbeat Chicago dedicated an entire episode to her memory:

“Don’t just sing notes. Notes are not music.”

“‘Piano’ doesn’t mean passive.”

“You’ll see eighth notes in that measure. When you have a chance, look up.”

“Sorry to say, but, sopranos, those triplets are really constipated.”

“The music is not on the page. Only the notes.”

Recorded in December 1978 for WTTW, The Do-It-Yourself Messiah program was first telecast in March 1979:

A very special thanks to our friends at WTTW Chicago—Allison Schein Holmes, director of media archives and Michael McKee, media archives librarian—for the use of these videos from their collections.

This article also appears here.

Sir Georg Solti and Margaret Hillis show off their 1986 Grammy Awards for Liszt’s A Faust Symphony and Orff’s Carmina burana. (Jim Steere)

During her 37 years as director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Margaret Hillis prepared her ensemble for many recordings—including nine Grammy Award winners—with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the Erato, Deutsche Grammophon, London, and RCA labels. A sample of some of those iconic records is below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 
BACH Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Felicity Lott soprano
Anne Sofie von Otter mezzo-soprano
Hans Peter Blochwitz tenor
William Shimell baritone
Gwynne Howell bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1990
 
BACH Saint Matthew Passion, BWV 244
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Kiri Te Kanawa soprano
Anne Sofie von Otter mezzo-soprano
Anthony Rolfe Johnson tenor
Tom Krause bass
Hans Peter Blochwitz tenor
Olaf Bär baritone
Richard Cohn baritone
Patrice Michaels soprano
Debra Austin mezzo-soprano
William Watson tenor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus
Doreen Rao director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1987
London

BARBER 
The Lovers
Dale Duesing baritone
BARBER Prayers of Kierkegaard
Sarah Reese soprano
Andrew Schenk conductor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director

BEETHOVEN Missa solemnis in D Major, Op. 123
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Lucia Popp soprano
Yvonne Minton mezzo-soprano
Mallory Walker tenor
Gwynne Howell bass
Victor Aitay violin
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1977
London

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Fritz Reiner conductor
Phyllis Curtin soprano
Florence Kopleff contralto
John McCollum tenor
Donald Gramm bass-baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1961
RCA

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Jessye Norman soprano
Reinhild Runkel mezzo-soprano
Robert Schunk tenor
Hans Sotin bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1986
London

BERLIOZ The Damnation of Faust, Op. 24
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Frederica von Stade mezzo-soprano
Kenneth Riegel tenor
José van Dam baritone
Malcolm King bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus
Doreen Rao director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1981
London

BRAHMS 
A German Requiem, Op. 45
Daniel Barenboim conductor
Janet Williams soprano
Thomas Hampson baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1992
Erato

BRUCKNER Helgoland
Daniel Barenboim conductor
Men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1979
Deutsche Grammophon

BRUCKNER Psalm 150

Daniel Barenboim conductor
Ruth Welting soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1979
Deutsche Grammophon

BRUCKNER Te Deum
Daniel Barenboim conductor
Jessye Norman soprano
Yvonne Minton mezzo-soprano
David Rendall tenor
Samuel Ramey bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1981
Deutsche Grammophon

DOWNS Bear Down, Chicago Bears
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1986
London

HANDEL 
Messiah
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Elizabeth Hynes soprano
Anne Gjevang contralto
Keith Lewis tenor
Gwynne Howell bass
David Schrader harpsichord
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1984
London

HAYDN The Seasons
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Ruth Ziesak soprano
Uwe Heilmann tenor
René Pape bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1992
London

HAYDN The Creation
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Norma Burrowes soprano
Sylvia Greenberg soprano
Rüdiger Wohlers tenor
Siegmund Nimsgern bass-baritone
James Morris bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1984
London

IVES Orchestral Set No. 2
Morton Gould conductor
Members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Robert Schweitzer assistant director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1967
RCA

MAHLER Symphony No. 2 in C Minor 
(Resurrection)
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Isobel Buchanan soprano
Mira Zakai mezzo-soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1980
London

MAHLER Symphony No. 2 in C Minor
 (Resurrection)
Claudio Abbado conductor
Carol Neblett soprano
Marilyn Horne mezzo-soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1976
Deutsche Grammophon

PROKOFIEV Alexander Nevsky

Fritz Reiner conductor
Rosalind Elias mezzo-soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1959
RCA

SMITH/Stock The Star-Spangled Banner

Sir Georg Solti conductor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1986
London

VERDI Opera Choruses
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Terry Edwards guest chorus director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall in 1989
London

VERDI 
Four Sacred Pieces
Sir Georg Solti conductor
Jo Ann Pickens soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis director
Recorded in Medinah Temple in 1977-78
London

This article also appears here.

On August 26, 2021, Frank Villella, director of the Rosenthal Archives of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, sat down with Cheryl Frazes Hill and Don Horisberger — both longtime members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, both as singers and members of the conducting staff — to talk about their colleague and mentor Margaret Hillis

The recording of the conversation is here:

A few edited highlights from the conversation are below.

Villella: could you describe the first time you heard the Chicago Symphony Chorus?

Frazes Hill: As a young child, I heard the Chorus at the Ravinia Festival, and I was always fascinated. But the first up-close-and-personal experience was when my high school English teacher, Richard Livingston, a longtime member of the Chorus, invited me to a rehearsal. I remember Hillis walking in, precisely on time. After the warmup, she gave the downbeat, and this incredible sound enveloped me. I was just in awe. It was a sound like no other, and it was a great thrill.

Margaret Hillis onstage in Orchestra Hall in 1978 (Terry’s Photography)

Horisberger: I first heard the Chorus when I was singing in it. I got to know Miss Hillis as a student at Northwestern, and she encouraged me to audition. So, my first experience was sitting in the midst of the Chorus with all of those voices around me but not hearing it as a whole somehow. The thing that I most remember is not being particularly overwhelmed until I got out on stage for the first orchestra rehearsal and thought, “that is Georg Solti, this is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.” He gave a downbeat, I breathed, and nothing happened for at least ten seconds. And I thought, “this is an illustrious start to my career.”

Villella: Let’s talk a little more about your interactions with Miss Hillis: her preparation process and how you would be involved, and how you assisted in rehearsals.

Horisberger: As most people came to experience, she was extremely organized. She knew from the very beginning what we were going to cover in each rehearsal. One of the things that I came to admire is that she really trusted her assistants, and she was incredibly supportive. 

Frazes Hill: There were exceptional times that she would meet with us, and I remember Stravinsky’s Les noces. She gave us not only marked scores but she also gave us her beat patterns, because there are various ways in which that piece can be conducted. She had worked that piece with Igor Stravinsky, so it was completely embedded in her arm a certain way.

Margaret Hillis and Doreen Rao (director of the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus) receive applause following the October 31, 1977, performance of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in Carnegie Hall (Robert M. Lightfoot III)

Villella: The Orchestra and Chorus performed Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in Carnegie Hall on October 31, 1977, when Margaret Hillis replaced an injured Sir Georg Solti on the podium. You were both there.

Frazes Hill: After the third performance in Chicago was canceled, Miss Hillis told management, “If I was needed, I will be ready.” At the dress rehearsal in New York, none of us knew who would be conducting that evening. And when she walked out onto the stage, it was pretty clear to all of us that this was going to be on her shoulders. She said, “Please don’t try to help me. Just do your job, and I’ll do mine, and we’ll keep the whole shooting match together.” Later, we were onstage for the performance and the gentleman from Carnegie Hall came out and made the announcement that Sir Georg Solti was injured, and the sold-out audience let out a corporate groan. When he announced that in his place would be the conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, he couldn’t even finish her name before the place erupted. We were all so proud, so nervous, there were so many emotions, and we had to come out with a big “Veni!”

The New York Times, page 1; November 1, 1977

Horisberger: We were all on pins and needles, wondering what was going to happen in New York. I remember thinking, “I wonder what she’s going to do in this section,” because her approach was different than Solti’s, and I was impressed that she was being very careful. This was my first time with the Orchestra and Chorus in Carnegie, I was overwhelmed by the response, and the applause went on and on and on.

Frazes Hill: When the final moments were over, there was such a collective sigh of relief and joy. Carnegie Hall audiences are always so incredibly enthusiastic when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus perform, and there’s always enormous applause. But this was something different and we knew it was all for her. And that made it even greater.

The New York Times, page 46; November 1, 1977

This article also appears here.

the vault

Theodore Thomas

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The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

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