The Chicago Symphony Orchestra first performed Mozart’s Requiem on subscription concerts at Orchestra Hall on March 29 and 30, 1951. Bruno Walter conducted and the soloists were Nancy Carr, Nan Merriman, Eugene Conley, and Cesare Siepi, along with the combined choral organizations of Northwestern University, prepared by George Howerton. And in 1957 when Walter—a frequent and beloved guest conductor as well as a highly regarded Mozart specialist—informed CSO management that his March 1958 appearances would be his last in Chicago, Eric Oldberg, president of The Orchestral Association, insisted that he should conduct the Requiem again with the newly formed Chicago Symphony Chorus.

The Chicago Symphony Chorus's formal debut on March 13 and 14, 1958

March 13 and 14, 1958

On March 13 and 14, 1958, the Chorus made its official debut in Mozart’s Requiem. Walter, in his final appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted, and the soloists were Maria Stader, Maureen Forrester, David Lloyd, and Otto Edelmann. (According to Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky‘s excellent biography of Bruno Walter, “the two female soloists [made] an amusing picture onstage: the diminutive Maria Stader stood beside the towering Maureen Forrester, then in an ‘advanced’ stage of pregnancy. To make the discrepancy in their appearance less striking, Walter placed Stader on a platform.”)

In the Chicago Tribune, Claudia Cassidy was critical of the work itself. She wrote that Mozart’s Requiem “is not a fully satisfying work—like all things finished by another’s hand it leaves the tantalizing question of what it might have been had Mozart’s haunted, tormented spirit found whatever haven it sought of peace, whether of joy or of oblivion. When [Franz] Suessmayer takes over much beauty remains, but the aura of this special Mozart, which is unlike any other, has vanished. The Requiem ends, but the toll of the bell has lost its terror.”

Walter Mozart Requiem

But of the concert, she continued: “It was a wonderfully strong performance Mr. Walter gave us, deploying his forces with a direct, powerful simplicity of style. In the Mozart Requiem, the chorus is the focal point, the orchestra and soloists of the highest quality are taken for granted. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is in high estate, with the kind of clairvoyance that gives a conductor what he wants in sound. The four soloists, three of them new to the orchestra, were tiny Maria Stader of the soprano that sounds like an angelic flute, stately Maureen Forrester of the contralto so big, warm and gentle it makes you feel rested just to listen, David Lloyd of the musicianly tenor, and Otto Edelmann, who could give no more than a tempting sample of the big bass-baritone so renowned in the opera realms of Hans Sachs and Baron Ochs. They made a wonderful Mozart quartet.

Margaret Hillis

Margaret Hillis

“None of this was surprising. The evening’s card up the Mozartean sleeve was the new Chicago Symphony Orchestra chorus of about 100 voices, expertly chosen and admirably trained by Margaret Hillis. It had balance and hints of brilliance, it was adroit in attack and it had moments of reassuringly imaginative song. The Confutatis in particular caught the haunted terror that was Mozart’s when the mysterious commission for the Requiem convinced him that the death knell he wrote was his own.” The complete review is here.

A recording of the Lacrimosa from those performances was released on Chicago Symphony Chorus: A Fortieth Anniversary Celebration (volume 13 from the CSO’s From the Archives series) in 1998. The complete story of the Chorus’s founding was included in a CSO program book feature article in the fall of 1997.

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