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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has performed Aaron Copland‘s Lincoln Portrait on several occasions and with a number of notable narrators. A complete list is below.

Carl Sandburg

Poet, writer, and editor Carl Sandburg was narrator for the Orchestra’s first performances of Lincoln Portrait on March 15 and 16, 1945, in Orchestra Hall; third music director Désiré Defauw conducted. At the time, Sandburg was the country’s leading authority on Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth U.S. president. He had written the two-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years in 1926, and in 1940, he completed the four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize.

Claude Rains

The composer himself conducted the first performance at the Ravinia Festival on July 21, 1956. Popular stage and screen character actor Claude Rains was narrator for the occasion. Winner of a Tony Award and nominated four times for an Academy Award (in the best supporting actor category), he appeared in such classic films as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca, Notorious, and Lawrence of Arabia.

Illinois Governor Otto J. Kerner rubs the nose of Gutzon Borglum‘s Lincoln bust in 1964 (World Telegraph & Sun photo by Roger Higgins)

Copland was again on the podium at the Ravinia Festival on July 6, 1963, when Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. was narrator. Kerner was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and served as a judge in the Illinois Circuit Court of Cook County before his election as the thirty-third governor of Illinois in 1960, winning re-election in 1964. He resigned as governor in 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated him as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Kerner was later convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy, and perjury and sentenced to three years in federal prison; he was released early following his being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The next three performances, all in Orchestra Hall, were narrated by voices quite familiar to Chicagoans. On March 28, 1970, Mel Zellman, an announcer for WFMT for forty years, shared the stage with conductor Irwin HoffmanJim Tilmon, a longtime television reporter for WTTW and NBC, narrated the work on February 25, 1976, with associate conductor Henry Mazer on the podium. On January 29, 1979, Bill Kurtis, then a news anchor with WBBM-TV, was narrator, again under Mazer’s direction.

For a special July 4 celebration in 1982 at the Ravinia Festival, Aaron Copland himself was narrator. Erich Kunzel conducted.

Jane Byrne (Associated Press photo by Fred Jewell)

Jane Byrne was the first woman to serve as Chicago’s mayor—the city’s fortieth—from 1979 until 1983. On October 1, 1982, in Orchestra Hall, she was narrator in Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with Reynald Giovaninetti on the podium. According to her obituary in the Chicago Tribune, “Over her single term in office, Byrne launched Taste of Chicago and crowd-pleasing celebrations like Blues Fest, inspired the redevelopment of Navy Pier and the Museum Campus and encouraged movie making here in a big way by luring production of box office hits like The Blues Brothers.

Aaron Copland and William Warfield in 1963 (Library of Congress photo)

On October 4, 1997, Symphony Center officially opened its doors with a gala concert. The program included a performance of Lincoln Portrait with bass-baritone William Warfield as narrator and ninth music director Daniel Barenboim conducting. Warfield had become well known following a star turn as Joe—singing “Ol Man River“—in MGM‘s 1951 remake of Show Boat. He also recorded a highly acclaimed album of selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with soprano Leontyne Price in 1963. Long associated with Copland, Warfield had sung the premiere performances of the first set of Old American Songs (for soloist and orchestra) as well as the second set (for soloist and piano).

Steppenwolf Theatre Company actors Martha Lavey, Amy Morton, K. Todd Freeman, and Tracy Letts shared narrating duties at the Ravinia Festival on July 4, 2004. David Alan Miller conducted.

Senator Barack Obama narrates Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in Millennium Park on September 11, 2005. William Eddins conducts (Todd Rosenberg photo)

On September 11, 2005, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave a free concert at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Guest conductor William Eddins led the Orchestra in The Star-Spangled Banner, William Schuman’s arrangement of Ives’s Variations on America, Rimsky- Korsakov’s Sheherazade, and Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with freshman U.S. Senator Barack Obama as narrator. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma wrote: “When September 11 comes around each year, the craving for a moment of proverbial silence—a chance to slow down, remember, and mourn—is strong. Sunday’s concert, led by former CSO resident conductor William Eddins and featuring Senator Barack Obama as narrator in Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, provided just that kind of beneficent moment. Despite the steamy weather, a large crowd filled the pavilion’s seats and lawn, giving the CSO in general, and Obama in particular, vociferous applause. . . . Obama brought an orator’s skill without an actor’s slick veneer to Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. The comforting quality of his voice gave added emotional resonance to Lincoln’s words. The CSO was a powerful surging force behind him, alternately sinking into meditation and swelling to majestic heights.”

Most recently, James Earl Jones was narrator at Orchestra Hall on February 21 and 24, 2009, under the baton of James Gaffigan, and on July 18, 2009, soprano Jessye Norman was narrator with James Conlon conducting at the Ravinia Festival.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Copland’s Lincoln Portrait on April 12, 13, 14, and 17, 2018. John Malkovich will be the narrator.

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LincolnNominations for the Grammy Awards were announced a couple of weeks ago, and John Williams received a nomination for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media for Lincoln. The soundtrack was recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Orchestra Hall in May 2012. John Williams conducted, and Steven Spielberg also was on hand to supervise the production.

Williams’s score also was a nominee for an Academy Award earlier this year in the category of Best Original Score from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Mychael Danna‘s score for Life of Pi was the winner.)

The movie’s trailer—which prominently features the Orchestra and Chorus performing selections from Williams’s evocative score—is here:

And a behind-the-scenes video, also included as an extra on the DVD release, is here:

Recordings by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have earned sixty-two Grammy Awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and a complete list is here.

A complete list of this year’s Grammy nominees can be found here. The winners will be announced on Sunday, January 26, 2014.

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On January 29, 30, and 31, 1976, Sir Georg Solti conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’s first performances of Roger Sessions‘s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. The work had been chosen as part of the CSO’s recognition of the U.S. Bicentennial celebrations.

According to Arrand Parsons’s program note, in Walt Whitman‘s poem, three symbols appear: “the ‘great star,’ representing the assassinated Lincoln; the lilac, which usually is interpreted as human love; the thrush, representing the soul which has as its song the carol of death, a carol Whitman accepts as his own when he says ‘the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.’ Sessions has arranged the score into three continuous parts. The first part sets the mournful mood and presents the symbolic elements: the ‘powerful western fallen star,’ the lilacs, and the song of the thrush. In the second part, the poet describes Lincoln’s funeral train slowly moving from Washington to Springfield, and his burial. The poet describes the land and its people, and a central and high point is the alto solo in which the ‘carol of the bird’ reflects on death. At the end, the symbols are united.”

The composer also contributed to the program note: “My cantata When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d was composed principally between 1967 and 1969; the orchestral score was finished in the autumn of 1970. The work was commissioned by the Committee for Arts and lectures of the University of California at Berkeley, in celebration of the University’s centennial in 1968; but it also represents, for me, the fruition of an idea that had been in my mind for very many years. Even during my adolescent years—the period of the First World War—the poem, written under the spell of one of the most tragic moments of our history, with its moving evocation of the rich American landscape in spring, with its lilacs, its forests, and its thrushes, and of the Civil War, had touched me very deeply; and in 1921 I even made a number of musical sketches for a possible musical setting of it. I was not satisfied with these sketches, however, and concluded that I was not ready at that time to undertake such a work. I never forgot it, however, and when the proposal was made that I write a work involving chorus and possible solo voice, it became clear to me that the time had come for me to write this work. I have to confess that only after having made many preliminary sketches and having become thoroughly involved in the music did I fully realize what its dimensions must be.

“The dedication to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King and of Robert Kennedy was, of course, the result of the fact that their political assassinations occurred while I was working on the second part of the cantata.

“I have used as my text Whitman’s poem in its entirety with only occasional brief cuts, which the musical setting as I conceived it seemed to demand. These cuts are mainly in the third section, though to a lesser extent in the second also. They all occur at moments where verbal elaboration or repetition, though very powerful and very characteristic in the text as such, seemed to me redundant in the context of a musical setting.”

For these performances, soprano Sarah Beatty, mezzo-soprano Josephine Veasey, and baritone Dominic Cossa were the soloists; and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Margaret Hillis. The second half of the program included the first CSO and CSC performances of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. Reviews of the performances are here and here.

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Theodore Thomas

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