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Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestra onstage at the Ravinia Festival on July 3, 1936 (Ravinia Festival photo)

Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestra onstage at the Ravinia Festival on July 3, 1936 (Ravinia Festival photo)

On July 3, 1936, Ernest Ansermet and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra inaugurated the first season of the Ravinia Festival* with a program that included Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, Clouds and Festivals from Debussy’s Nocturnes, and Stravinsky’s Suite from The Firebird.

“Three days ago the last seat in the pavilion was sold. The audience was socially brilliant and musically responsive, so that a full-length Beethoven symphony and the most sonorous of the preludes which Wagner wrote for any of his music-dramas evoked a veritable tumult of applause,” wrote Glenn Dillard Gunn in the Herald & Examiner following that first concert. “For the next five weeks the Chicago Symphony will continue the season begun last night, playing on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings and offering programs quite as serious as those presented in Orchestra Hall during the winter season.”

July 3, 1936

July 3, 1936

Several notable conductors made their Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts at the Ravinia Festival, including future music directors Riccardo Muti, Georg Solti, Jean Martinon, Fritz Reiner, and Artur Rodzinski; future festival music directors James Conlon, Christoph Eschenbach, James Levine, and Seiji Ozawa; and prominent guest conductors Sir Thomas Beecham, Leonard Bernstein, Josef Krips, Erich Leinsdorf, Kurt Masur, Pierre Monteux, Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, and Michael Tilson Thomas.

“I look around at the beauty of the park, the acoustics and proportion of the Pavilion . . . and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in residence,” commented James Levine in the 1985 book Ravinia: The Festival at Its Half Century. “Look at how these people work during the Festival weeks—putting on performances of difficult music under extreme weather conditions sufficiently well to be worthy of recording, finishing one concert and getting up the next morning to rehearse for another. . . . Most of the people around Ravinia seem to find a rejuvenation synonymous with summer from the change of pace, the change of style, the challenge of new repertoire, and the opportunity to work from a different vantage point. It’s that kind of thinking, that buoyant spirit, which has been prevalent throughout the unique history of Ravinia. And it’s that spirit which makes Ravinia truly magical!”

*Ravinia Park had opened on August 15, 1904, and Frederick Stock and the Orchestra first performed at the park’s theater on November 20, 1905. The Orchestra appeared there semiregularly through August 1931, after which the park was closed for most of the Great Depression.

This article also appears here.

Here in the Archives, we frequently receive donations of old program books and occasionally, the programs are a little extra special when they contain annotations from their original owner. Just today we received a small collection from an anonymous donor, and a few of our favorites are below (click on the image for a larger view). Priceless.


January 21 and 22, 1954

Guest conductor Ernest Ansermet led concerts in January 1954 that included Schumann’s First Symphony, Debussy’s Clouds and Festivals from Nocturnes, Honegger’s Fifth Symphony, and Falla’s Three Dances from The Three-Cornered Hat: “The Honegger was terrifying! Thank the Lord that Ansermet had the good sense to not end the program with it. If I ever hear that damn Schumann again I’ll go nuts. What nonsense it is.”


March 25 and 26, 1954

The second program is from a March 1954 concert that included Joseph Szigeti as soloist in Tartini’s Concerto for Violin in D minor and Bartók’s First Portrait. Fritz Reiner, still in his first season as music director, also conducted Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas Overture, the CSO’s first performances of Alvin Etler‘s First Symphony, Tommasini’s arrangement of Scarlatti’s ballet suite from The Good-Humored Ladies, and Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela from Four Legends of the Kalevala and Alla Marcia from the Karelia Suite: “I can’t remember when I changed my mind so much about the merits of a work during its performance as I did during the premiere of Etler’s Symphony. I want very much to hear it again. Though I suspect it has no ‘guts,’ I also suspect it may have a long life. Szigetti [sic] was quite wonderful in the Bartók and Tartini. Reiner was better than I have ever heard him but Lord how uninspiring and competent he is.”


February 16 and 17, 1956

In February 1956, Karl Böhm was in Chicago to lead the Orchestra in Weber’s Overture to Der Freischütz, Richard Mohaupt’s Town Piper Music, and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony: “Karl Böhm was excellent; made a lasting impression. The Bruckner was magnificent!”


January 14 and 15, 1954

And finally, Igor Stravinsky was guest conductor in January 1954, leading his Divertimento The Fairy’s Kiss, the Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra (with his son Soulima Stravinsky as soloist), and suites from Petrushka and The Firebird: “A chaste, perilously classical, yet exciting performance. S[travinsky] took six bows—a real ovation. I could not help but lean over the gallery and shout: ‘Keep Reiner on vacation!'”


At the beginning of a video documentary chronicling the recording sessions for Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion in 1987, Sir Georg Solti said, “I was fortunate enough. I met in my life many great musicians, composers, conductors, piano players. But if I’m looking back on my long life now today, who is the musician whom I admire most, I think it is Bartók.”

Solti was also a part of the premiere in Hungary, and recounted in his Memoirs: “I remember that in 1938, when Bartók and his wife, Ditta Pásztory, gave the Hungarian premiere of his Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, with Ernest Ansermet conducting, at the Budapest Opera, I was called upon at the last minute to turn pages for Mrs. Bartók. As I had not seen the complicated score before, the task was not easy. I have never in my life attended any other performance that had as little success as this one. When the piece ended, most of the audience remained silent; then there were a few perfunctory claps. I felt sad and embarrassed for Bartók.”

With fellow pianist Murray Perahia and percussionists Evelyn Glennie and David Corkhill, Solti recorded the sonata at Snape Maltings Concert Hall in October 1987. For the release, the sonata was paired with Solti and Perahia’s account of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn recorded in September 1982.

For CBS Masterworks Records, Anthony B. Faulkner was the control engineer, Peter Jones was the tape operator and technical supervisor, and Thomas MacCluskey was the editor. The recording won the 1988 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

The video documentary was released by Kultur and was directed by Herbert Chappell. A few excerpts from the program are posted below.

The attached YouTube videos are not the property of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association. We just thought they were interesting.

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


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