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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has performed Aaron Copland‘s Lincoln Portrait on several occasions and with a number of notable narrators. A complete list is below.

Carl Sandburg

Poet, writer, and editor Carl Sandburg was narrator for the Orchestra’s first performances of Lincoln Portrait on March 15 and 16, 1945, in Orchestra Hall; third music director Désiré Defauw conducted. At the time, Sandburg was the country’s leading authority on Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth U.S. president. He had written the two-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years in 1926, and in 1940, he completed the four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize.

Claude Rains

The composer himself conducted the first performance at the Ravinia Festival on July 21, 1956. Popular stage and screen character actor Claude Rains was narrator for the occasion. Winner of a Tony Award and nominated four times for an Academy Award (in the best supporting actor category), he appeared in such classic films as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca, Notorious, and Lawrence of Arabia.

Illinois Governor Otto J. Kerner rubs the nose of Gutzon Borglum‘s Lincoln bust in 1964 (World Telegraph & Sun photo by Roger Higgins)

Copland was again on the podium at the Ravinia Festival on July 6, 1963, when Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. was narrator. Kerner was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and served as a judge in the Illinois Circuit Court of Cook County before his election as the thirty-third governor of Illinois in 1960, winning re-election in 1964. He resigned as governor in 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated him as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Kerner was later convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy, and perjury and sentenced to three years in federal prison; he was released early following his being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The next three performances, all in Orchestra Hall, were narrated by voices quite familiar to Chicagoans. On March 28, 1970, Mel Zellman, an announcer for WFMT for forty years, shared the stage with conductor Irwin HoffmanJim Tilmon, a longtime television reporter for WTTW and NBC, narrated the work on February 25, 1976, with associate conductor Henry Mazer on the podium. On January 29, 1979, Bill Kurtis, then a news anchor with WBBM-TV, was narrator, again under Mazer’s direction.

For a special July 4 celebration in 1982 at the Ravinia Festival, Aaron Copland himself was narrator. Erich Kunzel conducted.

Jane Byrne (Associated Press photo by Fred Jewell)

Jane Byrne was the first woman to serve as Chicago’s mayor—the city’s fortieth—from 1979 until 1983. On October 1, 1982, in Orchestra Hall, she was narrator in Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with Reynald Giovaninetti on the podium. According to her obituary in the Chicago Tribune, “Over her single term in office, Byrne launched Taste of Chicago and crowd-pleasing celebrations like Blues Fest, inspired the redevelopment of Navy Pier and the Museum Campus and encouraged movie making here in a big way by luring production of box office hits like The Blues Brothers.

Aaron Copland and William Warfield in 1963 (Library of Congress photo)

On October 4, 1997, Symphony Center officially opened its doors with a gala concert. The program included a performance of Lincoln Portrait with bass-baritone William Warfield as narrator and ninth music director Daniel Barenboim conducting. Warfield had become well known following a star turn as Joe—singing “Ol Man River“—in MGM‘s 1951 remake of Show Boat. He also recorded a highly acclaimed album of selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with soprano Leontyne Price in 1963. Long associated with Copland, Warfield had sung the premiere performances of the first set of Old American Songs (for soloist and orchestra) as well as the second set (for soloist and piano).

Steppenwolf Theatre Company actors Martha Lavey, Amy Morton, K. Todd Freeman, and Tracy Letts shared narrating duties at the Ravinia Festival on July 4, 2004. David Alan Miller conducted.

Senator Barack Obama narrates Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in Millennium Park on September 11, 2005. William Eddins conducts (Todd Rosenberg photo)

On September 11, 2005, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave a free concert at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Guest conductor William Eddins led the Orchestra in The Star-Spangled Banner, William Schuman’s arrangement of Ives’s Variations on America, Rimsky- Korsakov’s Sheherazade, and Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with freshman U.S. Senator Barack Obama as narrator. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma wrote: “When September 11 comes around each year, the craving for a moment of proverbial silence—a chance to slow down, remember, and mourn—is strong. Sunday’s concert, led by former CSO resident conductor William Eddins and featuring Senator Barack Obama as narrator in Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, provided just that kind of beneficent moment. Despite the steamy weather, a large crowd filled the pavilion’s seats and lawn, giving the CSO in general, and Obama in particular, vociferous applause. . . . Obama brought an orator’s skill without an actor’s slick veneer to Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. The comforting quality of his voice gave added emotional resonance to Lincoln’s words. The CSO was a powerful surging force behind him, alternately sinking into meditation and swelling to majestic heights.”

Most recently, James Earl Jones was narrator at Orchestra Hall on February 21 and 24, 2009, under the baton of James Gaffigan, and on July 18, 2009, soprano Jessye Norman was narrator with James Conlon conducting at the Ravinia Festival.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Copland’s Lincoln Portrait on April 12, 13, 14, and 17, 2018. John Malkovich will be the narrator.

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john-williams

Wishing a very happy eighty-fifth birthday to the incomparable John Williams! Composer, conductor, winner of five Academy Awards (and fifty nominations) and twenty-two Grammy awards, he has given us several of the most popular movie soundtracks in the history of cinema.

When Williams became the first composer to be awarded the American Film Institute‘s lifetime achievement award in 2016, his longtime collaborator Steven Spielberg said, “Without John Williams, bikes don’t really fly, nor do brooms in Quidditch matches, nor do men in red capes. There is no Force, dinosaurs do not walk the Earth, we do not wonder, we do not weep, we do not believe.”

Erich Kunzel first led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Williams’s music—selections from Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope—at the Ravinia Festival on August 13, 1978. Williams himself first guest conducted the Orchestra at Ravinia on July 31, 1994, and at Orchestra Hall on November 28, 29, and December 2, 2003. During that first downtown residency on November 29, he led the Orchestra in the world premiere of his Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, dedicated to then–Principal Horn Dale Clevenger. The work was commissioned by the Edward F. Schmidt Family Commissioning Fund for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Under the baton of the composer, the Orchestra recorded a suite from Memoirs of a Geisha in August 2008, with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist. In May 2012, Williams led the Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Chorus in sessions for the soundtrack for Lincoln, later nominated for both Grammy and Academy awards.

John Williams will return again to lead the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in April 2018 (details will soon be available here, here, and here).

Happy, happy birthday!

roberta-peters

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family remembers the extraordinary soprano Roberta Peters, who died yesterday at her home in Rye, New York. She was 86.

Barely nineteen years old in 1949, Peters was introduced to impresario Sol Hurok, who arranged for her to audition for Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolf Bing. At the audition, she sang “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”—the Queen of the Night’s second aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Bing apparently asked her to perform the aria (with four Fs above high C) seven times, as he listened from different areas of the opera house. Satisfied, he booked Peters to debut in the role in February 1951.

However, on November 17, 1950, Bing called Peters to see if she would be able to step in that evening for an ailing Nadine Conner as Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Peters had learned the role and accepted, even though she had not yet performed onstage, let alone with a full orchestra. She made her debut under the guidance of the evening’s conductor—Fritz Reiner—and her career was launched.

November 1953

November 5 and 6, 1953

During Reiner’s first season as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sixth music director, he wasted no time in engaging Peters. She made her debut with the Orchestra during the fourth subscription week on November 5 and 6, 1953, singing Mozart’s concert aria Ma che vi fece, O stelle (K. 368); “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos; and “No word from Tom” from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

Peters later appeared again with Reiner and the Orchestra, on February 27 and 28, 1958, in Mozart’s concert aria Mia speranza adorata (K. 416) and four songs—Wiegenlied; Säusle, liebe Myrte; Ständchen, and Amor!—by Richard Strauss.

Peters's November 1953 program biography

Peters’s November 1953 program biography

At the Ravinia Festival, Peters appeared numerous times with the Orchestra between 1966 and 1984, performing songs and arias under conductors Josef Krips, Franz Allers, Erich Kunzel, and James Levine. Also under Levine, she appeared as Despina in concert performances of Mozart’s Così fan tutte on July 16 and 18, 1975.

Numerous tributes have been posted online, in The New York Times and Opera News, among others.

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