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First television concerts copy

Rafael Kubelík conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first television concert on September 25, 1951, carried over WENR-TV Chicago and fed to twenty-two stations. The thirty-minute program, performed at the Civic Theatre* for a studio audience, included Rossini’s Overture to The Silken Ladder, Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Orpheus and Eurydice, Schubert’s ballet music from Rosamunde, and Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Because the initial contract specified a minimum of only twenty-five musicians, the earliest programs credited the “Chicago Symphony Chamber Orchestra” rather than the full orchestra. Sponsored by Chicago Title and Trust Company, twenty-nine programs were broadcast during the 1951–52 season.

“This series represents something new for television, particularly for Chicago TV,” wrote Larry Wolters in the Chicago Tribune. “Symphony orchestras have been telecast on a single-program basis, but this is the first time for such a venture on a weekly basis.”

Fritz Reiner and the Orchestra in the WGN-TV studios

Fritz Reiner and the Orchestra in the WGN-TV studios (Lawrence-Phillip Studios photo)

Considerable changes were initiated in 1953 at the beginning of Fritz Reiner’s tenure as music director, and WGN-TV, now the producer, extended the program to an Hour of Music. The show was syndicated over the fourteen-station DuMont network, and as many as fifty musicians were hired each week. The series continued through the spring of 1958, when Chicago Title and Trust withdrew its sponsorship.

After only a year’s absence, the Orchestra returned to WGN-TV for Great Music from Chicago, appearing in twenty-six shows during the 1959–60 season. Carson Pirie Scott, RCA Victor, and United Airlines provided sponsorship, and Deems Taylor was the first host. As many as seventy musicians were used for each program with most shows originating in WGN’s Studio 1-A in the Tribune Tower; other programs were taped at Orchestra Hall, the ballroom of the Edgewater Beach Hotel, and at the Ravinia Festival. The Orchestra’s participation lasted four seasons through the spring of 1963, after which the series continued for three more years but focused exclusively on popular artists and music.

*The 850-seat Civic Theatre, originally part of the Civic Opera Building that opened in 1929, was consolidated with the backstage areas during an extensive renovation completed in 1996.

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