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Program biography for Sergei Rachmaninov’s November 1935 appearances

Sergei Rachmaninov made his first appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on December 3 and 4, 1909, conducting his Isle of the Dead and performing as soloist in his Second Piano Concerto with second music director Frederick Stock conducting. Over the next thirty-four years, the composer was a regular visitor to Orchestra Hall—as conductor, concerto soloist, and recitalist—and his appearances were consistently sold-out events.

On November 7 and 8, 1935, Rachmaninov presented his new Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini to Chicago audiences. “Last night a new star was added to music’s firmament,” wrote Glenn Dillard Gunn in the Chicago Herald and Examiner. “The composer was present to play the solo part and to stir the staid patrons of the symphony in shouts of excited approval, punctuated by fanfares from the orchestra, while the audience and the players stood in homage to the master.” The response was so great that, at Stock’s invitation, the composer repeated the last section of his new composition, “a thrilling page, a harsh and sardonic utterance, diabolically brilliant and, at moments, strangely wistful.”

“There are other faultless pianists,” added Eugene Stinson in the Chicago Daily News, “though none who plays with Mr. Rachmaninoff’s nobility of tone [and] icy luminosity of color. There is no pianist I can think of who, playing faultlessly and playing without ardor, yet plays at such a pitch of perfection as he.”

Chicago Herald & Examiner, November 8, 1935

In the fall of 1940, during the first month of the fiftieth season, Stock had invited Rachmaninov to lead the Orchestra’s first performance of his choral symphony The Bells, but it was postponed to the following March, due to a pending revision of the score. Instead, the composer appeared as soloist in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and his Rhapsody, on October 22. “So pervasive was the festal mood,” commented Edward Barry in the Chicago Tribune, “that Mr. Stock actually grinned and even Mr. Rachmaninoff almost smiled. An audience that filled Orchestra Hall from top to bottom wore itself out with ovations . . . so smooth and delicate was his passage work [in Beethoven’s concerto, and] Mr. Rachmaninoff’s own Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini[‘s] big passages shone with the easy brilliance of sunlight.”

Woodcut by Curt Gfroerer for the Chicago Daily News, also used in a program book advertisement for Lyon & Healy, exclusive distributor of Steinway pianos in Chicago

For his final appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on February 11 and 12, 1943, Rachmaninov again presented Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, under the baton of associate conductor Hans Lange. “Sergei Rachmaninoff evoked a series of ovations when he appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall last night,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “His entrance won standing tribute from orchestra and capacity audience, his Beethoven stirred a storm of grateful applause, and his own Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini ended the concert in a kind of avalanche of cumulative excitement.”

Beatrice Rana is soloist in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on February 9, 10, and 11, 2023. Lahav Shani conducts.

This article also appears here and and in the program book for the February 2023 performances.




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.”

April 24, 1941

April 24, 1941

“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.”

This article also appears here



August 15, 1967

August 15, 1967

On August 15, 1967, more than 50,000 Chicagoans gathered to witness the unveiling of what would quickly become an iconic landmark. “With applause, startled exclamations, and incredulous smiles, Chicago received its long-awaited gift yesterday from the most celebrated of living artists,” wrote Edward Barry in the Chicago Tribune. “Shortly after noon, Mayor Daley pulled the cord which controlled the coverings of Pablo Picasso’s untitled steel sculpture in the Civic Center Plaza. The sheets billowed to the ground. There, looming against the sky and against the glass and steel of the Civic Center,* was a huge, rust-colored object calculated to baffle the mind and stir the imagination.”

Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1967

Chicago Tribune, August 16, 1967

Architect William E. Hartmann served as master of ceremonies and read a telegram from President Lyndon B. Johnson: “Your new Civic Center Plaza with its unique and monumental sculpture by one of the acknowledged geniuses of modern art is a fitting addition to a city famous for its creative vitality. Chicago, which gave the world its first skyscraper and America some of our greatest artists and poets, has long recognized that art, beauty, and open space are essential. . . . You have demonstrated once again that Chicago is a city second to none.”

The Englewood Neighborhood Corps Youth Choir led the singing of The Star-Spangled Banner, representatives of multiple faiths pronounced invocations, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks read a poem written especially for the occasion, and Seiji Ozawa led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Gershwin’s An American in Paris along with Bernstein’s Overture to Candide and excerpts from the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

*The building was renamed Richard J. Daley Center on December 27, 1976, seven days after the mayor’s death.

This article also appears here.



March 2 and 3, 1939

March 2 and 3, 1939

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented the U.S. premiere of Béla Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto on March 2, 1939, in Orchestra Hall. Twenty-five-year-old Storm Bull—who was, for three years, a student of the composer in Budapest— was the soloist and Frederick Stock conducted.

“Storm Bull is not at all the angry fellow that his name suggests but a smiling, sunny, spirited youth who looks barely out of his teens,” wrote Edward Barry in the Chicago Tribune. “[He] revealed himself as an immensely facile pianist. Everything comes off for him without apparent effort. He possesses a good sense of rhythm, and manages to make the music walk along for him in an infectious way. . . . The new concerto is a glittering creation whose colors are mostly on the light side. Its headlong line breaks only two or three times to allow place for perverse little poetic episodes. The concerto’s free harmonic scheme gives it a pleasant, out-of-focus, or oddly angled quality— as if a photographer should decide that the world is better seen obliquely than head on.”

November 20 and 21, 1941

November 20 and 21, 1941

Two years later, on November 20 and 21, 1941, Bartók—in his only appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra— performed his Second Piano Concerto, also under Stock. Barry reported that the concerto was “easier on second hearing. . . . We were impressed by the concerto’s enormous rhythmic vigor, the consummate skill with which the composer handles its shifting harmonic background, the challenging way in which dynamic extremes are used, and the frequent emergence of perfectly clear and meaningful melodies. Mr. Bartók softened some of the concerto’s severity and played down its extreme percussiveness. Much of the performance was sensuously beautiful.”

This article also appears here.



Stravinsky program page

Following the success of his Dumbarton Oaks Concerto—composed in 1938 to celebrate the thirtieth wedding anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods BlissIgor Stravinsky was commissioned that same year by Mrs. Bliss, Mrs. John Alden Carpenter, and several of their friends to compose a work to celebrate the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s fiftieth season.

According to Phillip Huscher, Stravinsky “decided to tackle the ‘standard’ by writing a symphony in C in the four orthodox movements—sonata-allegro, slow movement, scherzo, finale—scored for a Beethoven orchestra (throwing in the tuba for added measure). He did not foresee that this work would become, in effect, his American passport—the score that would accompany his move to this country.”

CSO cello Robert Smith, principal clarinet Clark Brody, principal harp Edward Druzinsky, and assistant concertmaster Victor Aitay look on as Columbia producer John McClure and Igor Stravinsky review the Orpheus score.

CSO cello Robert Smith, principal clarinet Clark Brody, principal harp Edward Druzinsky, and assistant concertmaster Victor Aitay look on as Columbia producer John McClure and Stravinsky review the Orpheus score on July 20, 1964 (Arthur Siegel photo).

The composer himself was on hand on November 7 and 8, 1940, to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an entire evening of his music, including the world premiere of his Symphony in C. Edward Barry in the Chicago Tribune wrote, “In the course of the performance we caught ourselves muttering, ‘Ha! A major work!’ ” Robert Pollak in the Chicago Daily Times proclaimed that “Musical history is made at night and perhaps it was made last night at Orchestra Hall.” And Claudia Cassidy in the Journal of Commerce described the work as “both contemporary and timeless, autobiographical and impersonal. It has the lovely sense of form as much a part of all Stravinsky scores as indescribable richness of instrumentation is the signature of the finest. It is lyrical to the point of intoxication, and at the same time delicately, immaculately restrained.”

Stravinsky was a frequent guest conductor, leading the Orchestra in concerts at Orchestra Hall, the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, and at the Ravinia Festival between 1925 and 1965. In July 1964, he led the Orchestra in recording sessions of his Orpheus ballet for Columbia Records.

This article also appears here.

Program book for the August 22, 1942, performance at the Ravinia Festival

Program book cover for the August 22, 1942, performance at the Ravinia Festival

As Phillip Huscher includes in his program note, “Shostakovich composed most of his seventh symphony in Leningrad, his birthplace, during the siege of the city that ultimately took nearly a million lives—roughly one-third of its inhabitants—as a result of hunger, cold, and air raids.”

Less than a year later at the height of one of the worst periods of World War II, the symphony was given its world premiere in Kuibyshev (now Samara) on March 5, 1942, with Samuil Samosud conducting the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra. Later that month on March 29, it was performed in Moscow with members of the Bolshoi orchestra and the All-Union Radio Orchestra. The now legendary premiere in Leningrad took place on August 9 under the baton of Karl Eliasberg.

In the United Kingdom, Sir Henry Wood led the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a broadcast performance on June 22 followed by a concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall on June 29. The United States broadcast premiere was given on July 19 in New York, with Arturo Toscanini leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra (the now-famous Time magazine cover story anticipated the broadcast). Serge Koussevitzky conducted the student orchestra of the Berkshire Music Centre in the first U.S. concert performance on August 14.

Dmitri Shostakovich's program book biography

Shostakovich’s August 22 program book biography

And on August 22, 1942, less than six months after the world premiere, Frederick Stock led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony—“which has aroused more interest than any other symphonic work in decades”—in a special concert for the benefit of Russian war relief at the Ravinia Festival. A complete copy of the program book is here.

According to Edward Barry’s account in the Chicago Tribune, “All that we had heard in advance about the new work, even in the broadcast of July 19, failed to prepare us adequately for the full impact of it. Its scale is huge, and this does refer to its length (over an hour and a quarter) alone. It calls for a mammoth orchestra (99 players crowded the Ravinia stage last night). . . . These huge forces Shostakovich deploys with a boldness and a vigor and a boiling passion that are often electrifying. . . . To our generation the symphony’s faults are comparatively unimportant because of the smoking passion with which it treats of the events which are so strongly affecting our lives and enlisting our emotions. ‘My music is a weapon,’ says Shostakovich boldly, thus confounding those who would criticize the work because of a too close connection with immediate political and military events.”

Barry concludes, “Last night’s performance was an extraordinarily fine one, especially when one realizes that Dr. Stock had to master the bewildering score on short notice and communicate his findings to the orchestra in two rehearsals [for the New York premiere, Toscanini had six rehearsals].” The complete review is here.

Frederick Stock's program book biography for the August 22, 1942, concert

Stock’s August 22 program book biography

Stock was determined to perform the work again—and soon—so he added it to the programming for the upcoming season at Orchestra Hall on October 27, 29, and 30. According to Cecil Smith, “No symphony in modern times—and perhaps no symphony in musical history—has ever been prepared for by such a barrage of publicity.”

Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened the fifty-second season with subscription concerts on October 15 and 16 and a Popular concert on October 17, 1942. On Monday October 19 it was business as usual and Stock was in Orchestra Hall’s offices, “talking over plans for the season with Henry E. Voegeli, business manager of the orchestra and his coworker for forty-three seasons.” But tragically, Stock died of a heart attack the following day and, according to Claudia Cassidy, “The bottom dropped out of Chicago’s music life . . .”

Associate conductor Hans Lange immediately assumed conducting duties, leading the majority of concerts for the remainder of the 1942-43 season, including the three performances of Shostakovich’s Seventh in Chicago and one in Milwaukee. The program was as follows (and the program note for the Leningrad Symphony is here):

October 27, 29 & 30, 1942 (Orchestra Hall)
November 15, 1942 (Pabst Theatre, Milwaukee)
SMITH/Stock The Star-Spangled Banner
BRAHMS Tragic Overture, Op. 81

(On October 27, Stock’s orchestration for strings of the Andante from Bach’s Sonata for Violin no. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003 was performed in memory of the Orchestra’s second music director, following The Star-Spangled Banner, also in his arrangement.)

After the October 27 concert, Cassidy wrote, “That Hans Lange and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave a calm and competent performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony at Orchestra Hall yesterday is undeniably, almost immeasurably, to their credit. Mr. Lange had less than a week—and a tragic week—to prepare the huge and sprawling score. . . . What counts in the score, and what should count in performance, is its blazing expression of the sound and fury of our own times, when invasion, death, defiance, and ultimate triumph are facts we understand and, a least vicariously, share.” The complete review is here.

And following the performance on October 29, Smith commented, “Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, perhaps the most successful musical best seller since Ravel’s Boléro, was repeated in magnificent style last evening. . . . [the composer] is very good at beginning musical ideas, extremely clumsy at continuing them, and virtually unable to stop them.”

Smith ended his review with, “Well, the symphony goes on the shelf for a while, after this afternoon’s repetition and a performance in Milwaukee on Nov. 15. I wonder what it will sound like after the war?”

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Theodore Thomas

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The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.


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