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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.’ ”
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.
To celebrate Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birthday on October 10, 2013, Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (prepared by Duain Wolfe)—along with soloists Tatiana Serjan, Daniela Barcellona, Mario Zeffiri, and Ildar Abdrazakov—in Verdi’s Requiem at Orchestra Hall. The concert capped off a celebration that was comprised of several performances of Verdi’s music, including concert performances of his opera Macbeth.
The video of the Requiem was projected into Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion and Benito Juarez Community Academy in Chicago, as well as streamed live across the Internet via numerous collaborating websites and the Orchestra’s Facebook page.
“All great performances of the Verdi Requiem carry a sense of occasion, and Thursday’s carried a sense of truly momentous occasion,” praised John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “Muti understands the importance of respecting Verdi’s markings in regard to tempo, dynamics, and expression, and he also knows the importance of breathing with the singers and instrumentalists. His wholehearted dedication carried over to every musician under his command.” In The New York Times, Vivien Schweitzer added, “Alluring dynamic contrasts and shadings rendered the performance exciting and moving by turns, with impeccable playing from the Orchestra and exemplary singing by the Chicago Symphony Chorus.”
More than 3,000 people viewed the concert in Millennium Park, reported Mark Caro in the Chicago Tribune. According to one patron, “You get to see the city in the evening, you’re near the lake, the music is beautiful, and we love Muti and think he’s done a beautiful job with the CSO.”
The following year, to open the 124th season on September 18, 2014, Riccardo Muti led the Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists Camilla Nylund, Ekaterina Gubanova, Matthew Polenzani, and Eric Owens in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Orchestra Hall. Also video recorded, the performance was made available for free streaming on the Orchestra’s website.
In January 1970, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its new music director traveled to New York for their first concerts together in Carnegie Hall. The concert on January 8 included Georg Solti leading Haydn’s Symphony no. 102, Bartók’s Dance Suite, and Brahms’s First Symphony; and the following evening, the program was Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder with contralto Helen Watts and the Fifth Symphony.
Solti and the Orchestra were hardly prepared for the reception following the January 9 concert. Multiple accounts reported the thunderous cheers and applause—calling Solti to the stage for twelve curtain calls—that continued even after the performers had left the stage.
“Is the Chicago Symphony the greatest orchestra in America? Stravinsky has said so, and it was impossible not to agree with him when this orchestra appeared in Carnegie Hall last Friday night in an all-Mahler program under the baton of Georg Solti,” wrote Winthrop Sargeant in The New Yorker. “Its brass section is unique in its power and beauty of tone, and its first horn player [Dale Clevenger] is a virtuoso who has a huge tone or a delicate tone—whichever you prefer—and who can hit his upper notes with exemplary accuracy. The woodwinds and strings are not far behind. There is a solid craftsmanship about the whole ensemble, which leaves the conductor nothing to do except exert his leadership and artistic ideas. The Orchestra itself is already trained in everything that pertains to technique, intonation, beauty of tone, and accuracy of attack. Add to all this a conductor of Mr. Solti’s stature (there is none greater at this moment in history), and you have an unusual treat. . . .
“Mahler’s Fifth Symphony was something of a sensation,” Sargeant continued. “There is a special brilliance and drive about Mr. Solti’s conducting that illuminate and emphasize not only large lines but details that escape one in most performances of this symphony. . . . The conclusion of the final Allegro was the occasion for the largest ovation I have seen any conductor receive since the time of Toscanini.”
In March and April 1970 at Medinah Temple for London Records, Solti and the Orchestra—collaborating in recording sessions for the first time—recorded Mahler’s Fifth and Sixth symphonies along with the Songs of a Wayfarer and selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn with mezzo-soprano Yvonne Minton.
During Daniel Barenboim’s first season as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director, several concerts included music by Mozart to commemorate the bicentennial of the composer’s death. The commemoration culminated in February 1992, with the transformation of Orchestra Hall into an opera house as Barenboim conducted (from memory) performances of the three operas by Mozart with librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte—The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, and Don Giovanni. Presented semistaged in rotating repertory, the productions featured such leading singers as Lella Cuberli, Joan Rodgers, Cecilia Bartoli, Waltraud Meier, Ferruccio Furlanetto, and Michele Pertusi, with costumes by Oscar de la Renta.
Following The Marriage of Figaro, Wynne Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times called the performance “luxurious in the broadest and best sense. There was the CSO’s sumptuous sound, a fine roster of singers and inventive staging . . . [with] a rich elegance that fit beautifully in the affluent, contemporary stage universe created by directors Christopher and David Alden.” And in the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein added, “Indeed, hearing Mozart’s scoring as played by the CSO was without question the chief justification for Barenboim’s presenting the Da Ponte works on the subscription series. Seldom in any theater does one hear orchestral sonorities so warmly blended or impeccably balanced, yet with every detail in clear relief.”
This article also appears here.
Arnold Schoenberg composed his Five Pieces for Orchestra in 1909, and they were first performed at a Proms concert in London on September 3, 1912, with Sir Henry Wood conducting. Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra introduced the work to the U.S. on October 31, 1913.
Schoenberg, in a letter to Richard Strauss in July 1909, admitted that the Five Pieces are “absolutely not symphonic, completely the opposite, no architecture, no structure. Only a kaleidoscopic, uninterrupted changing of colors, rhythms, and moods.”
On February 8 and 9, 1934, a few months after moving to the United States, Arnold Schoenberg appeared as guest conductor, leading the Orchestra in his Transfigured Night, Five Pieces for Orchestra, and his orchestration of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major (Saint Anne). In the Chicago Daily News, Eugene Stinson described the composer as “the most eminent, the most obscure, the most debated, and the most explained of any figure in twentieth-century art” and the Five Pieces as an “extraordinarily intellectual [yet] essentially subjective and emotional expression of himself in music.”
Needless to say, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces were difficult for Chicago audiences not only at the U.S. premiere but also under the composer’s baton. In the Chicago American, Herman Devries described them as “grim and repellent studies in dissonance, which, despite their amazing orchestration, do not invite repeated hearing.” Edward Moore in the Chicago Tribune admitted that “they did not always make sense to me. There was no particular logic about their beginning or ending. They just ran along for a time and then stopped. But almost continuously they were saying something pleasant. And there is no question but that Mr. Schoenberg has an unfailing sense of what makes attractive orchestral color. It may be winsome, it may be grotesque, but he never misses his effect.”
This article also appears here.
The original Lyon & Healy pipe organ (the largest instrument the Chicago-based company ever built) was dedicated on April 27 and 28, 1905, by organist Wilhelm Middelschulte shortly after Orchestra Hall’s December 14, 1904, dedicatory concert.
The first significant renovation of Orchestra Hall was guided by Harry Weese and Associates and began in 1966. The project included the installation of new heating, air conditioning, and modern elevators; an increase in lobby space on three floors; expansion of musicians’ lounges and dressing rooms; and replacement of plaster ceiling with acoustically designed aluminum panels. The auditorium and lobby décor were brightened with a new color scheme of gray walls with ivory trim, and the seats were reupholstered with deep red mohair. During the summer of 1967, plans to restore the original organ were dismissed when it was discovered that damage had occurred during the previous years’ renovation, and an Allen electronic organ was pressed into service as a temporary solution.
During the summer of 1981, M.P. Möller installed a new organ in Orchestra Hall, which contained more than 3,000 pipes (forty-five independent stops and seventy-four ranks, controlled through seventy-one registers and twenty-five couplers). The organ installation was the catalyst for an extensive renovation and remodeling of the auditorium by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which included enlarging the stage and rearranging main floor seating, new lighting set into the stage shell, remodeling the Orchestra members’ lounge facilities, repainting the interior (following the original design concepts of architect Daniel Burnham), and other electrical and mechanical adjustments.
On December 7, 1981, the Orchestra presented a special concert dedicating the newly installed pipe organ. Leonard Slatkin led selections from Bach’s Cantata no. 35 (Geist und Seele wird verwirret), Handel’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, Haydn’s Little Organ Mass, Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in G minor, and Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. Soprano Lucia Popp was featured in the works by Handel and Haydn, and Frederick Swann was organ soloist in all selections.
Nearly fifteen years later, at the beginning of the Symphony Center project, the Möller organ was removed and delivered to the workshops of Casavant Frères in Quebec, where it was overhauled and expanded. The new instrument (with forty-four stops, fifty-nine ranks, fourteen couplers, and 3,414 pipes) was installed during the summer of 1998 and inaugurated by David Schrader on February 18, 1999.
This article also appears here.
Virtually every Chicago Symphony Orchestra musician studied with a great teacher, who studied with great teachers before that—a process that traces back to Bernstein, Brahms, and Bach. Along with our beloved Italian maestro, Riccardo Muti, the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Alumni Association are a living link to past generations of legendary performers, conductors, and composers, and our artist musicians hail from many different countries who share a common musical heritage.
As we conclude the celebrations surrounding the Orchestra’s festive 125th season, the CSOAA also celebrates an anniversary this year—its twenty-fifth. The CSOAA consists of nearly 130 members—including retired and former musicians, spouses, and children—an astonishing aggregate total of well over a thousand years of service to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra! In 1991, Isadore Zverow (viola, 1945–1988) fostered the idea of the CSOAA, and subsequent presidents have included Sam Denov (percussion, 1954–1985), Phillip Kauffman (violin and viola, 1927–1930 and 1964–1984), Jerry Sabransky (violin, 1949–1997), and currently Tom Hall (violin, 1970–2006).
Having performed for many years together on stages all over the world, alumni continue to interact with each other through the CSOAA; and each season, members receive discounts to concerts and the Symphony Store. The organization enjoys the warm embrace of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, which holds its former musicians close as senior members of the Orchestra’s family. Current CSOA President Jeff Alexander has been most gracious in supporting the retirees, some of whom are well into their nineties. The CSOAA board of directors meets several times a year to plan annual reunion dinners, which are usually held at the historic Cliff Dwellers club. Members also have contributed to the CSOA’s Rosenthal Archives—a treasure trove of history, recordings, music scores, artifacts, and databases of former orchestra members—lovingly curated and managed by our liaison, director Frank Villella.
So the next time you stroll through Symphony Center’s first-floor arcade, try to imagine the many great musicians of earlier generations behind each portrait—beautifully taken by photographer Todd Rosenberg—of the superb musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
This article also appears in the September/October CSO program book.
Donald Moline was a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra cello section from 1967 until 2006, and he currently serves as secretary of the CSOAA.
The Art Institute of Chicago opened its new building—completed in time for the second year of the World’s Columbian Exposition—on December 8, 1893, at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street. For the opening reception, Theodore Thomas and the Orchestra performed Schubert’s Three Marches (from the Six Grand Marches, D. 819, orchestrated by Thomas), the second movement of Beethoven’s Second Symphony, Dvořák’s Second Slavonic Rhapsody, Goldmark’s Serenade from The Rustic Wedding, the Elegy and Waltz from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra, and Wagner’s Forest Murmurs from Siegfried.
The Art Institute’s south garden was the first site of The Spirit of Music, a memorial to Thomas, originally dedicated on April 24, 1924. It was designed by architect Howard Van Doren Shaw and sculpted by Albin Polasek. Subsequently moved on multiple occasions and even temporarily presumed to be lost, the memorial ultimately was moved to Grant Park at the intersection of Michigan and Balbo avenues and rededicated on October 18, 1991, at the conclusion of the Orchestra’s centennial celebration.
Directly behind the statue is a carved frieze including images of musicians. In its center is an inscription with text culled from a telegram sent from Ignace Paderewski to Rose Fay Thomas on January 5, 1905, the day following her husband’s death. Upon hearing the news, Paderewski had written: “Scarcely any man in any land has done so much for the musical education of the people as did Theodore Thomas in this country. The nobility of his ideals with the magnitude of his achievement will assure him everlasting glory.”
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s commercial recording legacy began under Frederick Stock on May 1, 1916. At that first session for the Columbia Graphophone Company (at an undocumented location in Chicago), they recorded Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre; and Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies, Heart Wounds and The Last Spring.
The next day, Stock and the Orchestra recorded Mendelssohn’s Nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Saint-Saëns’s Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah, Tchaikovsky’s Waltz from The Sleeping Beauty, Järnefelt’s Praeludium, and Stock’s arrangement of Dresden composer and violinist François Schubert’s The Bee. They returned to the studio the following week on Monday, May 8, for one more day of recording in 1916: Dvořák’s Largo from the New World Symphony, Bizet’s Entr’acte to act 4 of Carmen and the Farandole from L’arlésienne, and Wagner’s Procession of the Knights of the Holy Grail from act 1 of Parsifal and the Prelude to act 1 of Lohengrin.
Mendelssohn’s Wedding March and Grieg’s The Last Spring were on the first disc issued in October 1916, and a Columbia Records sales brochure raved, “The first offerings are two masterfully played compositions. The deepest glories vibrant in such a familiar composition as Mendelssohn’s Wedding March are unguessed until interpreted by such an orchestra as this. From the first trumpet fanfare to the great central crescendo is very joy and glory articulate! The resistless rhythm is filled with pulsing emotion and each instrument of the mighty orchestra throbs with life. . . . There can be no pleasure beyond enjoying such music as the Chicago Symphony here brings to every music-loving home.”
Mendelssohn’s Wedding March was subsequently rereleased on From Stock to Solti in 1976 and again on Chicago Symphony Orchestra: The First 100 Years, issued during the centennial season in 1991.
During the Chicago Orchestra’s thirteenth season, Theodore Thomas programmed Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony for its first performances in the United States. This was the fourth of Bruckner’s symphonies to be performed by the Orchestra in Chicago, as Thomas had already led the Fourth in January 1897, the Third in March 1901, and the Second in February 1903.
On February 19, 1904, the capacity crowd at the Auditorium Theatre had gathered mainly to hear contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink, one of the most famous singers of the day. Thomas had strategically programmed the Bruckner on the first half of the concert between Schumann-Heink’s two selections—“Non più di fiori” from Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and an orchestration of Schubert’s song “Die Allmacht”—to obviously assure that the premiere would be heard by all in attendance.
“The name of Bruckner caused these 3,700 persons [over 700 had been turned away] to listen in patient, long suffering to a piece of tedious music which endured for fifty-five wearisome minutes, and to applaud when the trial was at an end,” wrote William Lines Hubbard in the Chicago Tribune. “There may have been those in the audience yesterday who did not find the three movements of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony tedious almost beyond endurance, but certainly their number was small. . . . We have endured four of his symphonies in the last six years—please, Mr. Thomas, is there not somebody else it would be ‘good for us’ to hear? Anybody will be preferable to more Bruckner!”
This article also appears here.