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Theodore Thomas, the Chicago Orchestra‘s first music director, died on January 4, 1905. For many years after, the Orchestra would dedicate the first concerts of the new year to his memory, frequently performing works closely associated with their founder. We continue that tradition on this week’s radio broadcast, as Frank Villella, director of the CSO’s Rosenthal Archives, co-hosts a retrospective of works that Thomas introduced to audiences in the United States, both with the Chicago Orchestra and other ensembles.
In 1879, the University of Breslau in Poland bestowed upon Johannes Brahms an honorary doctorate, and to show his appreciation, he composed the Academic Festival Overture the following summer. The composer himself led the first public performance at the university in January 1881, and later that year on November 29, Thomas led the U.S. premiere in New York.
Daniel Barenboim, early in his tenure as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director, recorded Brahms’s complete symphonies, along with the Tragic Overture, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and the Academic Festival Overture, all for Erato Records.
In the nineteenth century, Thomas was Richard Wagner’s greatest advocate in the United States, both before and after he founded the Chicago Orchestra. During his fourteen seasons as music director, he programmed Wagner’s music on nearly half of his concerts, both in Chicago and with the Orchestra on tour. Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of the Prelude from Tristan and Isolde in New York on February 10, 1866, less than a year after the opera’s first complete performances in Munich; and he also gave the first U.S. performance of the Prelude paired with the Liebestod in Boston on December 6, 1871. Thomas programmed these two works together fifteen times on subscription concerts during his tenure as music director.
Artur Rodzinski was the Orchestra’s fourth music director for only one season (1947–48). One of his great successes was a concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in November 1947, featuring soprano Kirsten Flagstad in her first operatic appearance in the United States since the end of World War II. The legendary Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy called the performance “the dawn of a new operatic day in Chicago.” A month later, Rodzinski and the Orchestra recorded the Prelude and Liebestod for RCA.
Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the Chicago Orchestra on January 3, 1902, and it was such a crowd-pleaser that he programmed it a second time later that season. A few years later in April 1907, second music director Frederick Stock invited the composer himself to lead several of his works, including In the South, the first Pomp and Circumstance March, and the Enigma Variations. The Chicago Tribune reported that, “The men of the Orchestra gave him their closest attention and heartiest sympathy yesterday, and the result was a performance of the three compositions which was technically and tonally of highest worth. Sir Edward himself seemed genuinely pleased and his assertion after the concert that the ‘work of the Orchestra surpassed all his fondest expectations’ evidently was the expression of his true feeling.”
Sir Georg Solti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s eighth music director, recorded the Enigma Variations on May 15, 1974, at Medinah Temple for London Records.
During the summer of 1883, Thomas visited Europe and according to his Memoirs—edited by his widow, Rose Fay Thomas—the conductor, “had met, in Munich, a young and almost unknown composer, one Richard Strauss, who has recently finished writing a symphony. Thomas secured the first movement of the work, and was so much impressed with it that he requested young Strauss to let him have the other movements, promising to bring out the whole work in a concert of the Philharmonic Society.” Thomas kept that promise and in New York in December 1884, he led the world premiere of the Second Symphony in F minor—the first music of Richard Strauss to be performed in the United States. Strauss would later send new scores, and Thomas introduced several works to the United States with the Orchestra, including Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, along with Ein Heldenleben, first performed in Chicago on March 9, 1900.
Near the end of his first season as sixth music director, Fritz Reiner made his first recordings with the Orchestra for RCA. In Orchestra Hall on March 6, 1954, they recorded Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome and Ein Heldenleben, with violin solos performed by then-concertmaster John Weicher. Reiner’s CSO recordings of music by Strauss have never been out of print, and in 2013, Sony re-issued Reiner’s complete CSO catalog on RCA, a boxed set of sixty-three CDs.
TCHAIKOVSKY Final Waltz and Apotheosis from The Nutcracker, Op. 71
Morton Gould, conductor
Recorded by RCA in Orchestra Hall, January 1966
Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of a suite from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker on October 22, 1892, on the first concert of the Orchestra’s second season. The program note described Tchaikovsky as the “composer, who, in his fifth symphony, has led us into the highest realms of art and stirred our very soul,” and the note described the selections from the ballet as “miniature pictures painted with infinite grace and care,” showing the composer, “in one of his playful and trifling moods.”
Morton Gould, a frequent guest conductor on Popular concerts in the 1960s, recorded selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker at Orchestra Hall on January 31, 1966, for RCA. A six-disc set of Gould’s complete recordings with the Orchestra was released by Sony in February 2016.
Arturo Toscanini made his only appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on April 24, 1941, at Orchestra Hall. For the occasion, the seventy-four-year-old conductor was invited to lead a special concert to conclude the fiftieth season and to benefit the musicians’ pension fund. Toscanini conducted Gluck’s Overture to Iphigénie en Aulide, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, Berlioz’s orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, and Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Overture to Tannhäuser.
“Toscanini [is] the most celebrated musician of our day,” reported Edward Barry in the Chicago Tribune. “It was as if a big exclamation point had been put at the end of a season which had already had more than its share of pleasurable astonishment. For the great conductor called on every resource of his imagination to make the music vivid and meaningful. And the Orchestra leaped to the execution of his ideas with a passion and a sureness that transcended technical considerations entirely and succeeded in laying the music itself before us in all its purity and beauty.”
“But in many ways Respighi’s Fountains of Rome was the high point of the concert,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Journal of Commerce. “He has for it the full sensitivity, the quality of creative imagery, the almost clairvoyant tenderness that make it deeply communicative. The performance took on a murmurous magic possible only when conductor and orchestra have established full understanding.”
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On October 28 and 29, 1954, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf made her American and Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts in Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs and the closing scene from his final opera, Capriccio. Fritz Reiner conducted.
Schwarzkopf “is both a soprano with a historically beautiful voice of its kind and a musician of transcendent intelligence. She knows most intimately what her texts are about, feels them deeply, and possesses the extraordinary vocal capacity to color with each word, each mood, each musical phrase,” raved Roger Dettmer in the Chicago American. “Here was artistry of the utmost fulfillment of an exquisite and cherished kind heard rarely in a lifetime of listening.”
“It has seemed to me that it took Miss Schwarzkopf a long time to come here,” commented Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “But exactly the right time, too. For it brought her here when Reiner, a kind of Straussian magician, had restored to the Orchestra its old, deep layered glow, and had added an immaculate polish strictly his own. Good things go together, and it is worthwhile to wait.”
The capacity crowd on October 28 included another legendary soprano—Maria Callas—also preparing to make her American debut, in town for the title role in Bellini’s Norma during Lyric Theatre of Chicago’s first season.*
*The company’s name was changed to Lyric Opera of Chicago for the 1955–56 season.
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On March 3 and 4, 1938, Paul Hindemith made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, appearing as composer, conductor, and viola soloist. The concert opened with associate conductor Hans Lange leading Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 followed by Hindemith’s Der Schwanendreher (subtitled Concerto on Old Folk Melodies) with the composer as soloist. After intermission, Lange returned to the podium for Hindemith’s Chamber Music no. 1 followed by the composer leading the U.S. premiere of his Symphonic Dances.
In the Journal of Commerce, Claudia Cassidy described Hindemith’s Chamber Music no. 1 as “brilliant, witty, and spectacularly scored. Mr. Lange conducted and the Orchestra turned in a glittering job, particularly in the introduction to the finale, which has that kinetic energy at a boil.” She described Der Schwanendreher as having “no compassion for the poor viola player, taking for granted that he can handle the instrument as Mr. Hindemith does, which is nothing short of amazing.”
Hindemith had conducted the first performance of the Symphonic Dances only three months earlier, on December 3, 1937, in London. Eugene Stinson in the Chicago Daily News described the work as having “more unity, and it seems to me there is more thoughtfulness, in the Symphonic Dances than in almost all the other music Hindemith’s Chicago knows. At a first hearing it struck me as one of the most impressive and most affecting contemporary scores I can recall.”
Hindemith returned to lead the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival for three concerts in July 1961, and again in March and April 1963, leading two weeks of subscription concerts in Orchestra Hall, a television concert, and a run-out concert to the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. Each of those programs included at least one of his compositions, including the Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Pittsburgh Symphony, Concerto for Orchestra, Sinfonietta in E, and Nobilissima visione.
Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel made his debut with the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall on March 9 and 10, 1923, in Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 1 under Frederick Stock. He first appeared with the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival during the summer of 1942, performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 (July 11) and no. 5 (July 18), Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 24 (July 14), and Brahms’s Piano Concerto no. 2 (July 16), all under the baton of George Szell.
Following Schnabel’s July 11 debut before an audience of more than 6,000 (Ravinia’s largest of the season), Cecil Smith in the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Any description of the tremendousness of Schnabel’s performance can at best only brush the surface. Here was music as it is rarely heard, music completely expressed and coordinated, without taint of sensationalism or superficiality and without a suggestion of inadequacy or smallness. . . . The music was warm with sentiment and charged with drama, as the occasion demanded, and yet these emotional qualities were always controlled by a mind which constantly understood the great design of the work.”
The following week, on July 22 and 24, Schnabel and the Orchestra committed Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth piano concertos to disc with music director Frederick Stock on the podium at Orchestra Hall. To coincide with the release of the recordings, the pianist was to return to Chicago later that fall for performances of both concertos under Stock. Sadly, the Orchestra’s second music director died unexpectedly on October 20, 1942, just after the start of the fifty-second season. As scheduled, Schnabel performed Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto on November 24 and the Fourth on November 26 and 27, but under the baton of associate conductor Hans Lange.
Victor Records released Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto (eight sides on four 78 rpm discs) also in late November. “It would be easy for Chicagoans to turn sentimental about such an album and to gloss over flaws with affection. But it isn’t necessary—in fact, it would be unpardonable condescension. For the performance is magnificent, with the boldness of authoritative style and the clairvoyance of ideal cooperation. It is recorded with superb accuracy, and with intelligent care for spacing, so the ear isn’t left hanging on a phrase while you turn a record,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “I came to the conclusion that the piano never has been more successfully recorded. Schnabel’s tone is there in quality, dimensions, and that brilliance of attack that means absolute security. . . . Mr. Stock’s accompaniment is typical of what Chicago took for granted for many a rich season.”
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Maurice Rosenfeld in the Chicago News commented that Hess performed “in a way that this romantic, tuneful, and particularly pianistic concerto has but rarely been performed in Chicago. Miss Hess has temperament and a musical nature which invests every note that she played with vitality and individuality, and her emotions and feelings as they are affected by the music that she plays are translated into the tones that come forth. . . . She made a distinct success and proved herself one of the finest soloists we have had this season thus far. The Orchestra under Mr. Stock’s sympathetic direction gave her a beautiful accompaniment and it was evident that the members of the band enjoyed the concerto as much, at least, as did the public.”
Hess returned regularly to Chicago until the outbreak of World War II, during which she remained in her native England and inaugurated a series of lunchtime concerts—nearly 1,700 between 1939 and 1946—at the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square. Appearing frequently on the series, she often continued to perform, undaunted, during air raids. King George VI recognized Hess as a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1941.
Following the war, she resumed her tours to the United States, appearing regularly in Chicago. Her last collaboration with the Orchestra was on March 7 and 8, 1957, in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Fritz Reiner conducting.
“It is a curious thing how a great performance can stir great echoes,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “The line of the concerto was constantly reinforced in the mutual serenity of collaboration. Orchestra and soloist spoke the same language. . . . In the finale the gayety was shared, the stature sustained through the fugal flutter to the joyous signing off that set the house roaring its delight.”
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One of Fritz Reiner‘s primary goals early in his tenure as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sixth music director was to schedule and perform major choral works. However, the repertory he wished to perform was, in his opinion, too demanding for the amateur groups usually engaged. Reiner sought out Margaret Hillis—then founder and director of the New York Concert Choir—and convinced her to come to Chicago to start a chorus on a par with the Orchestra.
On March 13 and 14, 1958, the Chicago Symphony Chorus made its official debut in Mozart’s Requiem. Bruno Walter conducted and the soloists were Maria Stader, Maureen Forrester, David Lloyd, and Otto Edelmann. In the Chicago Tribune, Claudia Cassidy wrote: “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 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.”
Less than a month later, on April 3, 4, and 8, 1958, the Chorus appeared in Verdi’s Requiem with Reiner conducting. The soloists included Leonie Rysanek, Regina Resnik, David Lloyd, and Giorgio Tozzi. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Robert C. Marsh wrote that “Miss Hillis’s chorus proved its virtues earlier this season. Again its excellent enunciation, reliable intonation, and intelligent response were praiseworthy.” The following season, Hillis led the Orchestra and Chorus in Honegger’s Christmas Cantata on December 26 and 27, 1958, becoming the first woman to conduct subscription concerts.
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On February 28 and March 1, 1963, soprano Leontyne Price made her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été and Falla’s El amor brujo with Fritz Reiner conducting. On March 4, both works were recorded by RCA and the subsequent release won a Grammy for Best Classical Performance–Vocal Soloist.
“The Reiner sound,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune, “is not whetted merely to cut with a special clarity, but to set off a Berlioz sound somewhere between a shimmer and trill, a sound that can strike you right in the back of the neck and take possession of the spine. When the Orchestra is honed to peak performance, that is what happens in Reiner’s Berlioz. I had not realized in advance that precisely the same thing would happen to Miss Price’s Nuits d’été.”
For more than twenty years, Price returned and performed with the Orchestra on several occasions—at the Ravinia Festival, Carnegie Hall, and Orchestra Hall—with Carlo Maria Giulini, James Levine, and Sir Georg Solti.
On May 31, 1977, Price was soloist with Solti and the Orchestra in Verdi’s Requiem on a special concert benefiting the musicians’ pension fund. The other soloists included Dame Janet Baker, Veriano Luchetti, and José van Dam, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Margaret Hillis. The following week, the work was recorded by RCA in Medinah Temple; the release received a Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance (other than opera), Hillis and the Chorus’s first win in that category.
With the Orchestra, Price also appeared at the Ravinia Festival under Levine in a complete performance of Verdi’s La forza del destino on June 22, 1979, and at Carnegie Hall with Solti in arias from Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Tristan and Isolde on April 29, 1980. She most recently was soloist with the Orchestra and Levine at Ravinia in a concert of opera arias by Puccini, Strauss, Verdi, and Wagner on July 13, 1985.
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Kirsten Flagstad‘s performance as Wagner’s Isolde on November 16, 1947—her first operatic appearance in the United States since the end of World War II—was an extraordinary event, led by Artur Rodzinski in his first season as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s fourth music director. Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune praised all aspects of the production, calling it “the dawn of a new operatic day in Chicago.”
Cassidy continued: “Who says the great days of opera are gone? None who sat transfixed in the Civic Opera house yesterday and hovered between tears and cheers as the just tribute to the blazing incandescence of a magnificent Tristan and Isolde presented by Artur Rodzinski as his first and unforgettable contribution to the pension fund of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, of which he is now the mesmeric leader.” And it was Flagstad whose Liebestod “tore the heart to tatters.” For the soprano’s bow at the end of the performance, she was greeted as “tears and cheers came out together in a half-choked roar that seemed to shake the huge house before it fell at her feet in tribute. . . . Never before in my life had I heard such an Isolde, and I am rich in its memory, should I be so luckless as never to hear it again.”
Despite the success of that performance—in addition to concert performances of Strauss’s Elektra at Orchestra Hall on December 11 and 13, 1947—the cost of producing opera was too much of a sacrifice to the traditional concert schedule. Conflicts between Rodzinski and management quickly developed, and his contract was not renewed for the following season.
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