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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.

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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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February 8 and 9, 1934

February 8 and 9, 1934

Arnold Schoenberg composed his Five Pieces for Orchestra in 1909, and they were first performed at a Proms concert in London on September 3, 1912, with Sir Henry Wood conducting. Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra introduced the work to the U.S. on October 31, 1913.

Schoenberg, in a letter to Richard Strauss in July 1909, admitted that the Five Pieces are “absolutely not symphonic, completely the opposite, no architecture, no structure. Only a kaleidoscopic, uninterrupted changing of colors, rhythms, and moods.”

Frederick Stock and Arnold Schoenberg in Orchestra Hall, February 1934

Frederick Stock and Arnold Schoenberg in Orchestra Hall, February 1934

On February 8 and 9, 1934, a few months after moving to the United States, Arnold Schoenberg appeared as guest conductor, leading the Orchestra in his Transfigured Night, Five Pieces for Orchestra, and his orchestration of Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major (Saint Anne). In the Chicago Daily News, Eugene Stinson described the composer as “the most eminent, the most obscure, the most debated, and the most explained of any figure in twentieth-century art” and the Five Pieces as an “extraordinarily intellectual [yet] essentially subjective and emotional expression of himself in music.”

Needless to say, Schoenberg’s Five Pieces were difficult for Chicago audiences not only at the U.S. premiere but also under the composer’s baton. In the Chicago American, Herman Devries described them as “grim and repellent studies in dissonance, which, despite their amazing orchestration, do not invite repeated hearing.” Edward Moore in the Chicago Tribune admitted that “they did not always make sense to me. There was no particular logic about their beginning or ending. They just ran along for a time and then stopped. But almost continuously they were saying something pleasant. And there is no question but that Mr. Schoenberg has an unfailing sense of what makes attractive orchestral color. It may be winsome, it may be grotesque, but he never misses his effect.”

This article also appears here.

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01-004 029 Union Stock Yards_1925-26

On November 16, 1925, Frederick Stock and the Orchestra inaugurated a series of Popular Concerts at Chicago’s Union Stock Yards. “The International Amphitheatre, as many thousands of persons know, is customarily devoted to horse shows, stock shows, contests, exhibitions generally,” wrote Edward Moore in the Chicago Tribune. “Last night its scheme was considerably altered. A stage surmounted by a heavy awning had been erected at the east end for the Orchestra and the arena filled with chairs for the audience. Instead of four-footed animals seeking prizes, it was inhabited by two-footed humans seeking—and finding—good music.”

“Buyers and breeders of butcher’s meat will throng next week to the great amphitheater at 43rd and Halsted streets, as the International Live Stock Exposition gets under way,” reported the Chicago Daily News. “But last night people came with a different hunger and listened to something far removed from the lowing and bleating of beasts. . . . [Following the concert, Stock said] ‘Oh, it is too bad we waited so long to try this. We will have many, many more people here next time, don’t worry; and I am looking forward to these concerts as a most extraordinary feature of the season. I think this is a service all orchestras should undoubtedly perform. I am going to enjoy the concerts tremendously.’ ”

Throughout its history, the Orchestra has presented affordable as well as free concerts in a variety of Chicago community locations. During the summer of 1934 at the Swift Bridge of Service (which linked the mainland with Northerly Island at 23rd Street), 125 concerts were given as part of the Century of Progress International Exposition. Symphony in the Streets concerts were given in 1971 in several outdoor locations in Chicago neighborhoods. In the summer of 1935, the Orchestra performed many concerts during the first season of the festival in Grant Park and it has returned on numerous occasions, including concerts celebrating new music directors: Daniel Barenboim at the Petrillo Music Shell on September 21, 1991, and Riccardo Muti at the Pritzker Pavilion on September 19, 2010.

This article also appears here.

Dishpan Symphony - April 1934

Another fantastic donation arrived in the mail earlier this week: this publicity photograph from April 1934, promoting a very special concert.

In order to secure the continued financial stability of The Orchestral Association, a “deficit fund” campaign to raise $70,000 (the anticipated shortfall of the 1933-34 season) was launched in the spring of 1934. After $58,000 of that amount had been raised, music director Frederick Stock and his musicians organized a concert to express their appreciation to the subscribers who had pledged their support.

On the reverse of the image, the following was indicated: “Chicago Symphony to present Dishpan Concert. In celebration of the raising of a deficit fund, the subscribers will be given a special concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 will be played with all of the members of the percussion section using pots, pans, and other kitchen utensils, carefully selected for quality of tone. Dr. Frederick Stock, left, director of the Orchestra, is appraising the tone of a frying pan in the hands of Edward Kopp during a rehearsal.”

Program page for the April 9, 1934, concert

Program page for the April 9, 1934, concert

In an advance notice, Edward Moore in the Chicago Tribune commented that the upcoming concert would be outside the normal routine and “the Chicago Symphony Orchestra can never be considered a conventional organization. . . . Before an invited audience consisting of those public spirited citizens who have subscribed to the deficit fund it will present an entertainment called ‘The Orchestra at Play.’ Here will be a complete program of the orchestra in its light-hearted and comic moments. No advance program has been issued, but it is understood that the spirit of parody and burlesque is running high. Extra and seldom heard instruments will be brought into play, certain revered and decorous compositions have been re-orchestrated in a startling manner, individuals and groups from the orchestra will demonstrate that the most earnest practitioners of music are not always the most solemn in their practice, a master of ceremonies will make running comment thereon.” The complete article is here.

Chicago Herald-Examiner headline from April 10, 1934

Chicago Herald-Examiner headline from April 10, 1934

Another Tribune account by Cousin Eve indicated that music director Frederick Stock’s “merry men have combed the city with tuning forks, tuning in on all kinds of kitchen ware, crockery sets, kegs, kettles, and metal implements to find the desired sound vibration. Often they have been taken for escaped lunatics.” The complete article is here.

Needless to say, the concert was a smashing success. In the Chicago Daily News, Margot Jr. reported “The symphony concerts will never be the same again. No matter how restrained the conduct of the orchestra itself, no matter how reserved the audience, shades of a bassoon quartet, a kitchen symphony and a fan dancer will hereafter forever inject their own particular charms into interpretations of Wagner, Beethoven, or Brahms. . . . [The audience was] packed into every available inch of seating and standing space from footlights to galleries [who] have subscribed to the deficit fund of the orchestra.”

Image from The Daily News - Frederick Stock and members of the percussion section

Frederick Stock and members of the percussion section from an image featured in the Chicago Daily News

A variety of shenanigans were reported: Frederick Stock entering the stage to the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?”; Orchestra members dressed as monks, cooks, and in drag as ballet and fan dancers; manager Henry Voegeli arrested onstage; and, of course, the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony performed on “a huge stove covered with tin skillets and two long tables laden with pans and bowls. . . . The audience wouldn’t let them stop after one number, so with equal agility they played Schubert’s ‘Moment Musicale’ à la dishpan.” Three articles describing the antics are here and here.

We frequently receive donations of a variety of materials, and just recently several vintage advertisements arrived in our mailbox. A sampling is below.

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Advertisement for Jacques Thibaud’s recital at Orchestra Hall on March 4, 1918

French violinist Jacques Thibaud appeared in recital at Orchestra Hall on March 4, 1918, under the auspices of the Musicians Club of Women. According to a review in the Chicago Tribune, he was accompanied primarily by pianist Nicolai Schneer in works by Wieniawski and Saint-Saëns and on the organ by Tina Mae Haines for a “brief concerto by Vivaldi-Nachez.” The reviewer noted that Thibaud also “inserted Bach’s chaconne by request. He would have been in the season’s fashion had he done so without request. And he would have been more entertaining in this recital had he ignored the request; for he did not play it with charm or spark. This is, perhaps, the expected memorandum on anybody’s playing the chaconne with [Jascha] Heifetz‘s performance still in the ear; but it is a piece that had been played badly and played well before Heifetz came. It doesn’t ‘lie’ for Thibaud’s especial talent, maybe.”

Front of a photo postcard of violinist Amy Neill . . .

Front of a photo postcard of violinist Amy Neill . . .

. . . and the reverse of the postcard, announcing her Orchestra Hall recital on April 9, 1924

. . . and the reverse of the postcard, announcing her Orchestra Hall recital on April 9, 1924

American violinist Amy Neill appeared in recital on April 9, 1924, having appeared at Orchestra Hall at least once previously, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in April 1921 as soloist in Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy with Frederick Stock conducting. Her recital program included Mozart’s Violin Concerto in D major (it is not clear if it was no. 2 or no. 4), D’Ambrosio’s Violin Concerto in B minor, and Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantelle, along with a number of Fritz Kreisler arrangements. Her accompanist was Isaac van Grove. Neill appeared again with the Orchestra and Stock in January 1926, in Glazunov’s Violin Concerto. Her program biography from those appearances indicate that she was born in Chicago and had studied with Hugo Kortschak (a member of the CSO’s first violin section beginning in 1907 and assistant concertmaster from 1910 until 1914). Neill had spent some of her early career in Europe, appearing as soloist with the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, and the Vienna Symphony.

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Advertisement for Gregor Piatigorsky’s appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall on February 23, 1932

A frequent and favorite guest artist, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky was in town to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on January 21 and 22, 1932, in Boccherini’s Cello Concero in B-flat major and Bloch’s Schelomo under the baton of Frederick Stock. He returned for a Tuesday subscription concert on February 23 for Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto in A minor and a repeat of the Bloch, again with Stock conducting. Edward Moore’s newspaper account in the Chicago Tribune—devoted primarily to the world premiere of John Alden Carpenter’s Song of Faith (celebrating the bicentennial of Georg Washington‘s birth and performed twice, near the beginning and at the end of the concert)—noted: “Then, too, Gregor Piatigorsky, who plays the cello as easily as other persons play the violin, came as soloist, with a brilliant performance of Saint-Saëns’s Concerto in A minor and Bloch’s earnest if somewhat laborious Schelomo. All in all, it was a program of unusual construction, but a highly enjoyable one.”

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Theodore Thomas

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