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Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—according to Frederick Stock, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra‘s second music director, in Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies—is “dedicated to all Mankind. Embracing all phases of human emotion, monumental in scope and outline, colossal in its intellectual grasp and emotional eloquence, the Ninth stands today as the greatest of all symphonies.”

First page detail of a choral score, edited by Arthur Mees, the Orchestra’s first assistant conductor

Stock continues: “The Ninth is unquestionably the greatest of all symphonies not only because it is the final résumé of all of Beethoven’s achievements, colossal as they are even without the Ninth, but also because it voices the message of one who had risen beyond himself, beyond the world and the time in which he lived. The Ninth is Beethoven, the psychic and spiritual significance of his life.

“In the first movement we find the bitter struggle he waged against life’s adversities, his failing health, his deafness, his loneliness. The Scherzo depicts the quest for worldly joy; the third movement, melancholy reflection, longing—resignation. The last movement, the ‘Ode to Joy,’ is dedicated to all Mankind.”

“There’s something astonishing about a deaf composer choosing to open a symphony with music that reveals, like no other music before it, the very essence of sound emerging from silence,” writes CSOA scholar-in-residence and program annotator Phillip Huscher. “The famous pianissimo opening—sixteen measures with no secure sense of key or rhythm—does not so much depict the journey from darkness to light, or from chaos to order, as the birth of sound itself or the creation of a musical idea. It is as if the challenges of Beethoven’s daily existence—the struggle to compose music, his difficulty in communicating, the frustration of remembering what it was like to hear—have been made real in a single page of music.”

Founder and first music director Theodore Thomas first led the Chicago Orchestra in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on December 16 and 17, 1892, at the Auditorium Theatre. The soloists were Minnie Fish, Minna Brentano, Charles A. Knorr, and George E. Holmes, along with the Apollo Chorus (prepared by William L. Tomlins).

1961 recording (RCA)

Sixth music director Fritz Reiner led the Orchestra’s first recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on May 1 and 2, 1961, in Orchestra Hall. Phyllis Curtin, Florence Kopleff, John McCollum, and Donald Gramm were the soloists, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Margaret Hillis. For RCA, Richard Mohr was the producer and Lewis Layton was the recording engineer.

1972 recording (London)

Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus first recorded Beethoven’s nine symphonies between May 1972 and September 1974 for London Records. The recordings were ultimately released as a set (along with three overtures: Egmont, Coriolan, and Leonore no. 3); that set won the 1975 Grammy Award for Classical Album of the Year from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. The Ninth Symphony was recorded at the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois in Urbana on May 15 and 16, and June 26, 1972. Pilar Lorengar, Yvonne Minton, Stuart Burrows, and Martti Talvela were the soloists, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus was prepared by Margaret Hillis. David Harvey was the recording producer, and Gordon Parry, Kenneth Wilkinson, and Peter van Biene were the balance engineers.

1986 recording (London)

Between September 1986 and January 1990, Solti and the Orchestra and Chorus recorded the complete Beethoven symphonies a second time, again for London Records; and again, the recordings were ultimately released as a set (along with two overtures: Egmont and Leonore no. 3). The Ninth Symphony was recorded in Medinah Temple on September 29 and 30, 1986. Michael Haas was the recording producer, John Pellowe the balance engineer, and Neil Hutchinson the tape editor. Jessye Norman, Reinhild Runkel, Robert Schunk, and Hans Sotin were soloists, and Margaret Hillis prepared the Chorus. The release won the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

On September 18, 20, 21, and 23, 2014, Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Orchestra Hall. Camilla Nylund, Ekaterina Gubanova, Matthew Polenzani (September 18), William Burden (September 20, 21, and 23), and Eric Owens were the soloists, and the Chorus was prepared by Duain Wolfe. The performance on September 18 was recorded for YouTube and is available in the link below.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on February 24, 25, 26, and 27, 2022.

This article also appears here.

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Orchestra Hall, October 10, 2013 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Orchestra Hall, October 10, 2013 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

To celebrate Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birthday on October 10, 2013, Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (prepared by Duain Wolfe)—along with soloists Tatiana Serjan, Daniela Barcellona, Mario Zeffiri, and Ildar Abdrazakov—in Verdi’s Requiem at Orchestra Hall. The concert capped off a celebration that was comprised of several performances of Verdi’s music, including concert performances of his opera Macbeth.

The video of the Requiem was projected into Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion and Benito Juarez Community Academy in Chicago, as well as streamed live across the Internet via numerous collaborating websites and the Orchestra’s Facebook page.

“All great performances of the Verdi Requiem carry a sense of occasion, and Thursday’s carried a sense of truly momentous occasion,” praised John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “Muti understands the importance of respecting Verdi’s markings in regard to tempo, dynamics, and expression, and he also knows the importance of breathing with the singers and instrumentalists. His wholehearted dedication carried over to every musician under his command.” In The New York Times, Vivien Schweitzer added, “Alluring dynamic contrasts and shadings rendered the performance exciting and moving by turns, with impeccable playing from the Orchestra and exemplary singing by the Chicago Symphony Chorus.”

Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, October 10, 2013 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, October 10, 2013 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

More than 3,000 people viewed the concert in Millennium Park, reported Mark Caro in the Chicago Tribune. According to one patron, “You get to see the city in the evening, you’re near the lake, the music is beautiful, and we love Muti and think he’s done a beautiful job with the CSO.”

The following year, to open the 124th season on September 18, 2014, Riccardo Muti led the Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists Camilla Nylund, Ekaterina Gubanova, Matthew Polenzani, and Eric Owens in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Orchestra Hall. Also video recorded, the performance was made available for free streaming on the Orchestra’s website.

This article also appears here. Videos of Verdi’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are available here and here.

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