The recent release of the HBO film Behind the Candelabra (details available here and here) reminded us that Liberace once performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Walter Liberace in 1943

Walter Liberace in 1943

There are conflicting accounts regarding the details of Liberace’s initial contact with Frederick Stock and the CSO (some of them conflicted by Liberace himself), but the most detailed account for which we have documentation appeared in a December 1977 interview in Jackson, Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger:

“[Liberace] talked about the huge boost his career got when he performed with the late Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. ‘He was a great man and very kind to me. I literally walked off the street into his orchestra. It was 1939 [he would have turned twenty on May 16 of that year], and I was passing by Orchestra Hall, the home of the Chicago Symphony. Out front was a sign that said, “Orchestra in rehearsal—auditions.” I thought that meant they were giving auditions, so I walked in.

“‘Stock was in the middle of a rehearsal. I was discovered by the manager of the orchestra [perhaps Henry E. Voegeli] and immediately invited to leave. A commotion started when I tried to explain why I was there. Dr. Stock turned around and asked the manager what was going on. The manager said, “It’s just some kid who plays the piano and thought you were holding auditions. He only wants to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.”

“‘Dr. Stock was amused and asked me what I could play. I told him I could play Liszt’s Piano Concerto in A major, and he said, “Let’s hear it.” Pretty soon, he started singing the orchestra parts, and then, halfway through the concerto, he stopped me. He asked the librarian for the score for the entire orchestra, and while it was being passed out, he asked me about my teacher, my family, and my interest in music. Then I sat down and played the concerto with the whole orchestra. I couldn’t believe it was happening! Later, Dr. Stock booked me to perform in Rochester, Milwaukee, and Chicago.'”

Walter Liberace's only performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Walter Liberace’s only performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Twenty-year-old Walter Liberace was soloist with the Orchestra in Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto on January 15, 1940, under the baton of CSO associate conductor Hans Lange. The concert was given at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, in Liberace’s native Wisconsin. (There is no evidence that Liberace performed with the CSO in Rochester or Chicago.)

Several years ago, the Liberace Museum contacted us to confirm the details of his appearance with the CSO. Unfortunately due to the declining attendance and a poor economy, in October 2010 the museum closed. However, the board of directors for the Liberace Foundation—whose mission is to “help talented students in Southern Nevada pursue careers in the performing and creative arts through scholarship assistance and artistic exposure”—announced in January 2013 that the extensive collection of costumes, cars, jewelry, pianos, and citations for philanthropic acts may once again soon be on public display.

A portion of the Liszt concerto—as performed by Liberace on his television show in 1969—is available here: