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Vladimir Ashkenazy (Wayne J. Shilkret photo)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family wishes the magnificent pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy a very happy eighty-fifth birthday!

Ashkenazy catapulted onto the world stage in 1955 after winning second prize in the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. He was awarded first prize in both the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1956 and the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962.

“Pound for pound, he may be the most pyrotechnic pianist in the whole world,” wrote Seymour Raven in the Chicago Tribune, following Ashkenazy’s Orchestra Hall recital debut, presented under the auspices of Allied Arts on October 19, 1958. Seven years later, after his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut in Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, Thomas Willis (also in the Tribune) commented, the “volcanic [pianist], whose two previous recitals here marked him as a man to watch, had everything it takes to get the locomotor going full speed and most of the qualities to sustain momentum. The big tone for melodies framed the structure in iron. The bravura technique took in stride the hammering octaves, scales which sweep the keyboard, and arpeggio lightning which galvanizes the Russian bear intermezzo into a furious climax. . . . This combination of work, soloist, and orchestra could lift you right out of your seat more than once.”

During the first tour to Europe in 1971, Ashkenazy joined the Orchestra on the first leg in Edinburgh on September 5, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 under Georg Solti. In May 1971 and 1972, he recorded Beethoven’s five piano concertos with the CSO, again with Solti conducting. Recording sessions took place at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and for London Records, the recording was produced by David Harvey and Kenneth Wilkinson was the recording engineer. The set of all five concertos won the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance—Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (with orchestra).

For nearly fifty years, Vladimir Ashkenazy was a regular visitor to the stage in Orchestra Hall. In January 2020, he announced that he would be retiring from public performance, capping a career that spanned nearly seventy years.

A complete list of his appearances—with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as a piano recitalist, and as a guest conductor with visiting orchestras—is below.

October 28, 29, and 30, 1965, Orchestra Hall
November 1, 1965, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16
Irwin Hoffman, conductor

March 27, 1967, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
30 and 31, 1967, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
Jean Martinon, conductor

July 25, 1968, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Alfred Wallenstein, conductor

Ashkenazy, Solti, and David Harvey listening to playbacks of Beethoven’s piano concertos in May 1971 at the Krannert Center (Robert M. Lightfoot III photo)

December 5, 6, and 7, 1968, Orchestra Hall
December 9, 1968, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26
William Steinberg, conductor

October 30, 31, and November 1, 1969, Orchestra Hall
November 3, 1969, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
MOZART Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466
Eliahu Inbal, conductor

July 16, 1970, Ravinia Festival
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16
István Kertész, conductor

May 7 and 8, 1971, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Georg Solti, conductor

July 20, 1971, Ravinia Festival
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30
István Kertész, conductor

September 5, 1971, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
MOZART Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466
Georg Solti, conductor

May 20, 1972, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

May 21, 1972, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

March 1, 2, and 3, 1973, Orchestra Hall
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30
Lorin Maazel, conductor

November 7, 8, and 9, 1974, Orchestra Hall
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 5 in G Major, Op. 55
Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor

January 18 and 20, 1980, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

Under the auspices of Allied Arts and Symphony Center Presents, Ashkenazy has appeared as piano recitalist, chamber musician, and guest conductor, as follows (*program book not on file; repertoire culled from advertisements and newspaper clippings).

October 19, 1958

October 19, 1958, Orchestra Hall
BRAHMS Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24
CHOPIN Nocturne in B Major, Op. 9, No. 3
CHOPIN Scherzo No. 4 in E Major, Op. 54
LISZT Mephisto Waltz No. 1
RACHMANINOV Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op. 42
PROKOFIEV Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83

*November 18, 1962, Orchestra Hall
MOZART Sonata No. 9 in D Major, K. 311
PROKOFIEV Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82
CHOPIN Etudes, Op. 25

*May 16, 1971, Orchestra Hall
HAYDN Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI:52
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)
CHOPIN Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

March 4, 1973, Orchestra Hall
DOHNÁNYI String Quartet No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 33
SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 68
SCHUMANN Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44
Chicago Symphony String Quartet
Victor Aitay, violin
Edgar Muenzer, violin
Milton Preves, viola
Frank Miller, cello

*February 17, 1974, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109
CHOPIN Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49
CHOPIN Impromptu in F-sharp Major, Op. 36
CHOPIN Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52
CHOPIN Scherzo in E Major, Op. 54

Vladimir Ashkenazy (Wayne J. Shilkret photo)

*March 20, 1977, Orchestra Hall
SCRIABIN Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19
SCRIABIN Two Poems, Op. 32
SCRIABIN Sonata No. 7, Op. 64 (White Mass)
SCRIABIN Sonata No. 10, Op. 70
SCRIABIN Four Pieces, Op. 56
RACHMANINOV Études-Tableaux, nos. 2 (Allegro in C major), 6 (Allegro con fuoco in E-flat major), 7 (Moderato in G minor), and 3 (Grave in C minor)
RACHMANINOV Selections from Ten Preludes, Op. 23 and Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32

*January 21, 1979, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 16 in G Major, Op. 31, No. 1
SCHUMANN Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6
CHOPIN Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49
CHOPIN Ballade in A-flat
CHOPIN Nocturne in F-sharp Minor, Op. 48, No. 2
CHOPIN Scherzo in C-sharp Minor

*February 20, 1981, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
CHOPIN Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58
CHOPIN Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2

*March 20, 1983, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109
SCHUBERT Klavierstücke No. 1 in E-flat Minor and No. 2 in E-flat Major, D. 946
SCHUBERT Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (Wanderer)

*April 29, 1984, Orchestra Hall
SCHUBERT Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
SCHUMANN Papillons, Op. 2
SCHUMANN Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

December 9, 1990, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
BRAHMS Klavierstücke, Op. 119
BRAHMS Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24

Vladimir Ashkenazy (Ben Ealovega photo for Decca)

November 15, 1992, Orchestra Hall
MENDELSSOHN Selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61
BAX Tintagel
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

November 10, 1997, Orchestra Hall
KODÁLY Dances of Galánta
MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
Christian Tetzlaff, violin
BRAHMS Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

March 31, 2000, Orchestra Hall
JANÁČEK Suite from The Cunning Little Vixen
DVOŘÁK Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53
Kurt Nikkanen, violin
PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100
Czech Philharmonic

March 7, 2003, Orchestra Hall
SHOSTAKOVICH/Barshai Chamber Symphony for Strings in C Minor, Op. 110a
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10
Lukáš Vondráček, piano
DVOŘÁK Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70
Czech Philharmonic

Happy, happy birthday!

This article also appears here.

Chicago Daily News, November 19, 1931

Chicago audiences were first introduced to music from Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast by the Chicago Orchestra’s founder and first music director Theodore Thomas: Vltava in January 1894, Šárka in October 1895, and Vyšehrad in April 1896. Thomas and his successor Frederick Stock regularly included these three symphonic poems on their concerts, but it wasn’t until the Orchestra’s forty-first season that Stock programmed the complete cycle, for a special concert on November 18, 1931, honoring Chicago’s rich Czech heritage.

On November 15, Edward Moore, writing for the Chicago Tribune, happily reported that he was able to hear the work a few days before the performance. The headline read, “Records give preview of new musical event: Critic hears Smetana’s music, Má vlast, on phonographic disks.” Moore wrote that courtesy of Dr. J.E.S. Vojan, president of the Bohemian Arts Club of Chicago (which would sponsor the concert), “through the medium of disk and needle, I have been enabled to hear it in advance of the concert audience.”

Title page of the score to Šárka used by Thomas and Stock

Title page of the score to Vyšehrad used by Thomas and Stock

(The recording most likely was the one made by the Czech Philharmonic in 1929, under the baton of its chief conductor Václav Talich, who later taught Karel Ančerl and Charles Mackerras. This not only was the ensemble’s first commercial recording but also the first complete recording of Smetana’s cycle of tone poems. It was released on ten, twelve-inch 78 rpm discs—just under eighty minutes of music—by His Master’s Voice.)

“Through a course of years, Mr. Stock [along with Thomas before him] and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have made Vltava or the Moldau popular with Chicago audiences,” Moore continued. “They have played Vyšehrad a number of times, and Šárka less frequently. The other three are to come as a first performance next Wednesday.”

Following the November 18 concert, Eugene Stinson in the Daily News wrote, “Through these six works there sweeps the refreshing fragrance of a national spirit. Smetana was not merely the father of a national Bohemian music and the teacher of Dvořák. He was one of the first composers in any land to see the possibilities of such a music, founded on characteristic themes and breathing out the soul of a race.”

Title page of the score to Blaník used by Stock

Title page of the score to Tábor used by Stock

“History, legend, national songs, tonal description of nature, and a poetic imagination to transfigure them all, are in it,” added Moore in his review for the Tribune. “When one considers that Smetana wrote it under the most tragic infliction that may visit a musician, total deafness, it becomes not only one of the masterpieces of the world but the act of one of the world’s great heroes.”

“There is nothing to write but gratitude to the Chicago Bohemians and to Mr. Stock, whose combined efforts acquainted us with this lovely work,” concluded Herman Devries in the American. “What a lesson to the modern school of would-be musical alchemists with their abracadabra of gibberish and geometry, of dissonance and self-conscious abstruseness. Here is pure inspiration. Here is music that wells, untrammeled, from a source of inexhaustible creative talent. Here is melody, melody so simple, so tender, so touching; melody so poetic, so passionate, so spontaneous that one listens happily, without the need of indulgence, excuse, or partiality. But beneath all this simplicity, one hears and senses the mastermind of the great orchestral technician.”

Otto, Edward, and Henri Hyna

Devries also noted that several musicians in the Orchestra that evening were of Bohemian descent, including John Weicher (a member of the violin section from 1923 until 1969; he became concertmaster in 1937), Vaclav Jiskra (principal bass, 1908–1949), Rudolph Fiala (viola, 1922–1952), Joseph Houdek (bass, 1914–1944), and the Hyna brothers: Otto, Edward, and Henri, pictured at right. Natives of Bohemia, the Hyna brothers all served as members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s string section. Otto (1886–1951) was in the bass section from 1930 until 1950, Edward (1897–1958) served as a violinist from 1929 until 1943, and Henri (1901–1955) also was a violinist from 1928 until 1932.

The Orchestra next performed the complete cycle twenty years later on October 23 and 24, 1952, under the baton of fifth music director—and Czech native—Rafael Kubelík. On December 4 and 5 of that year, the work was recorded in Orchestra Hall by Mercury Records. Returning as a guest conductor, Kubelík led performances of the six symphonic poems on January 23 and 24, 1969, and again on October 27, 28, and 29, 1983.

At the Ravinia Festival, James Levine most recently led the work on June 27, 1987. Jakub Hrůša’s upcoming performances will mark the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sixth traversal of Smetana’s cycle of symphonic poems.

__________

Boston Symphony Orchestra program from April 24 and 25, 1896

A footnote: Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra almost were able to claim the U.S. premiere performance of Vyšehrad, the first symphonic poem of Smetana’s Má vlast. However, Emil Paur and the Boston Symphony Orchestra literally were minutes ahead. Both orchestras had 2:30 p.m. matinees on Friday, April 24, 1896, but Boston’s concert was one hour earlier (railway time zones had been standardized in 1883). Also, Vyšehrad was the first work on Paur’s program, while Thomas had programmed the work to follow Tchaikovsky’s Marche slave and Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture and selections from The Damnation of Faust.

Boston also claimed the U.S. premiere of Šárka, performing it on January 25, 1895. Thomas led the first Chicago performance exactly nine months later on October 25.

Portions of this article accompany the program notes for the May 18, 19, and 20, 2017, performances. Special thanks to Bridget Carr, archivist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Program page image courtesy of HENRY, the Boston Symphony Orchestra Archives’s online performance history search engine.

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