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Wishing Donald Peck—a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1957 until 1999 and principal flute for over forty years—a very happy ninetieth birthday!

Donald Peck in 1994 (Jim Steere photo)

Peck received his early musical training in Seattle, where he played in the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra. As a teenager, he performed with his first teacher, Frank Horsfall, in the Seattle Symphony. He was a scholarship student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied with William Kincaid. Peck performed with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and spent three years in the U.S. Marine Band. He was principal flute of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra for two years before Fritz Reiner invited him to join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1957 as assistant principal flute. The following year, Reiner promoted Peck to principal flute, a chair he would hold for over forty years until his retirement in 1999.

Peck first appeared as soloist with the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in August 1959, in Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and on subscription concerts in Orchestra Hall in November 1960, in Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite, both with Walter Hendl conducting. During his tenure, he appeared as soloist on more than 120 concerts directed by twenty-five conductors—including music directors Reiner, Jean Martinon, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim—in Orchestra Hall, at the Ravinia Festival, and on tour.

On April 18, 1985, Solti led the Orchestra in the world premiere of Morton Gould’s Flute Concerto, commissioned for Peck. In a preview article in the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein described his playing as, “Lustrous and penetrating, tender and lyrical, charming and sensual, its hues would put a chameleon to shame. It is one of the most distinctive voices in the orchestral choir, blending well with any ensemble even as it serves a key role within the woodwind section. . . . as principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Peck has carried out that role with a combination of technical skill and musical understanding that has earned him widespread admiration. Within the fraternity of the flute he is considered to be without peer. No less a judge than Julius Baker, the longtime principal flutist of the New York Philharmonic [and principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1951 until 1953], pronounces Peck ‘the greatest flutist I’ve ever heard.'”

Donald Peck in 1966 (Dorothy Siegel Druzinsky photo)

Also for Peck, William Ferris wrote his Flute Sonata and Lee Hoiby dedicated his Pastorale Dances for Flute and Orchestra. He regularly performed as a guest artist with other orchestras, including appearances at the Pablo Casals Festival with concerts in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and in Carnegie Hall. In Australia, Peck recorded Mozart’s flute concertos for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and he regularly appeared at the Carmel Bach Festival in California, the Victoria International Festival in Canada, the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, and the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, along with numerous other orchestras from coast to coast.

As principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Peck performed on over three hundred recordings under twenty-two conductors for twelve labels. In his retirement, he has recorded works for flute and piano with Melody Lord for the Boston label.

Peck has served on the faculties of DePaul and Roosevelt universities, where he taught flute and woodwind ensemble. A frequent lecturer and guest teacher, he has given master classes at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music in New York, at the Rotterdam Conservatory in Holland, for the Osaka Flute Club in Japan, at the Sydney Flute Association in Australia, and at over thirty universities and music groups throughout the United States and Canada. For many years, Peck played a flute—fashioned in platinum-iridium—handmade for him by Powell Flutes of Boston.

In 1997, the National Flute Association honored Peck with a lifetime achievement award. Indiana University Press published Peck’s memoir, The Right Place, The Right Time! Tales of Chicago Symphony Days in 2007, and the Chicago Flute Club’s biennial international flute competition is named in his honor.

Near the end of his tenure as principal flute, Peck spoke again with von Rhein for the Chicago Tribune. “The flute has the potential for more color and brilliance [and] the woodwind section can be most exquisite, like glittering jewels. . . . I have been a very lucky person, having performed with wonderful musicians and done so much. What more could I want?”

Happy, happy birthday!

Sherrill Milnes (Dario Acosta photo)

Wishing a very happy eighty-fifth birthday to the legendary American baritone Sherrill Milnes! A native of Downers Grove, Illinois, he also was a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus in the beginning of his professional singing career.

Milnes auditioned for Margaret Hillis in 1958 and became a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus in time for the beginning its second season. “I was knocked out by Margaret’s personality and musicality,” he said in a March 1976 interview with Winthrop Sargeant for The New Yorker. “Singing under Fritz Reiner could only be a great thrill for an amateur singer, and I was an amateur. It was pre-career. She had all the techniques of a modern choral conductor. For example, ‘staccato du.” It was the first time I had encountered it. To make sure you know the notes, you sing them ‘du-du-du’—each note very short. Also speaking the words to rhythm—in a monotone, with the rhythm of the music but without the melody. She was the first choral conductor I’d ever know who molded the sound of the chorus, making it change color, and so on. She had everybody sing the soprano part where there was a melody, and the same with the bass and other parts. She opened up a whole new world of musical ideas and rehearsal ideas. . . . I’m on the recording of Reiner’s Beethoven Ninth in the chorus [and] Alexander Nevsky with Reiner too. . . . I was hearing phrases thrown at me for the first time, and it was opening up a whole new world.”

Milnes has been a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a number of occasions, both in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival, all listed below.

December 16, 1961, Orchestra Hall
BACH Magnificat in D Major, BWV 243
HAYDN Mass in D Minor, Hob. XXII:11 (Lord Nelson)
Margaret Hillis, conductor
Maria Ferriero, soprano
Teresa Orantes, soprano
Lili Chookasian, contralto
David Paige, tenor
Sherrill Milnes, baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

February 15, 1964, Orchestra Hall
MENDELSSOHN Elijah, Op. 70
Margaret Hillis, conductor
Lillian Garabedian, soprano
Marion Vincent, soprano
Julia Diane Ragains, soprano
Robert Johnson, tenor
Sherrill Milnes, baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

December 19, 1964, Orchestra Hall
BERLIOZ L’enfance du Christ, Op. 25
Margaret Hillis, director
Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano
Seth McCoy, tenor
Sherrill Milnes, baritone
John West, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

HAYDN July 18, 1965, Ravinia Festival
ORFF Carmina burana
Seiji Ozawa, conductor
Julia Diane Ragains, soprano
Pierre Duval, tenor
Sherrill Milnes, baritone
Alfred Reichel, baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Chicago Children’s Choir
Christopher Moore, director

August 7 and 9, 1969, Ravinia Festival
VERDI Aida
Giuseppe Patanè, conductor
Sheldon Patinkin, stage director
Robert Hale, bass-baritone
Lili Chookasian, contralto
Martina Arroyo, soprano
Richard Tucker, tenor
Sherrill Milnes, baritone
Ara Berberian, bass
Herbert Kraus, tenor
Carolyn Smith-Meyer, soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

July 15 and 17, 1971, Ravinia Festival
VERDI Rigoletto
István Kertész, conductor
Sherrill Milnes, baritone
Patricia Wise, soprano
John Alexander, tenor
Robert Hale, bass-baritone
John Walker, tenor
Bernard Izzo, baritone
Edna Garabedian, mezzo-soprano
Susan Lutz, mezzo-soprano
Eugene Johnson, bass
Phyllis Kirian, soprano
Julia Diane Ragains, soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

July 1, 1972, Ravinia Festival
PUCCINI Tosca
James Levine, conductor
Teresa Kubiak, soprano
John Alexander, tenor
Sherrill Milnes, baritone
Bernard Izzo, baritone
Charles Anthony, tenor
Andrew Földi, bass
Eugene Johnson, bass
Joseph Caccamo, boy soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Theatre Chorus
Doreen Rao, director

July 24, 1976, Ravinia Festival
WALTON Belshazzar’s Feast
André Previn, conductor
Sherrill Milnes, baritone
Royal Scottish National Orchestra Chorus
John Currie, director

July 9, 1978, Ravinia Festival
MENDELSSOHN Elijah, Op. 70
James Levine, conductor
Jessye Norman, soprano
Kathleen Battle, soprano
Beverly Wolff, mezzo-soprano
Isola Jones, mezzo-soprano
Philip Creech, tenor
Kirk Stuart, tenor
Sherrill Milnes, baritone
John Cheek, bass-baritone
Philip Kraus, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

June 26, 1981, Ravinia Festival
VERDI Macbeth
James Levine, conductor
Renata Scotto, soprano
Giuliano Ciannella, tenor
Sherrill Milnes, baritone
John Cheek, bass-baritone
Timothy Jenkins, tenor
Gene Marie Callahan, soprano
Michelle Harman-Gulick, soprano
Sharon Graham, mezzo-soprano
Duane Clenton Carter, baritone
Rush Tully, bass-baritone
Terry Cook, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis and James Winfied, directors

June 27, 1992, Ravinia Festival
SAINT-SAËNS Samson and Delilah
James Levine, conductor
Denyce Graves, mezzo-soprano
Plácido Domingo, tenor
Sherrill Milnes, baritone
Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone
Sergei Koptchak, bass
David Anderson, tenor
John Concepcion, tenor
Paul Grizzell, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

Milnes also gave one recital under the auspices of Allied Arts (now Symphony Center Presents):

February 14, 1987, Orchestra Hall
Jon Spong, piano
MONDONVILLE Eole’s Aria from Titon et l’Aurore
LULLY Bois épais from Amadis
GRÉTRY O Richard, O mon roi from Richard Coeur-de-lion
SCHUBERT An die Leier, D. 737
SCHUBERT Die Liebe hat gelogen, D. 751
SCHUBERT Kriegers Ahnung from Schwanengesang, D. 957
SCHUBERT Die Allmacht, D. 852
SANTOLIQUIDO Le domandai
SANTOLIQUIDO Quando le domandai
SANTOLIQUIDO Io mi levai dal centro della terra
SANTOLIQUIDO Riflessi
MOZART Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo, K. 584
McGILL Duna
COPLAND The World Feels Dusty from Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson
TRADITIONAL/Copland At the River
arr. Dalway Love Trapped Me
arr. Dalway Killiney Strand
DUKE Luke Havergal
SAINT-SAËNS Qui donc commande from Henry VIII
Encores:
MOZART Fin ch’han dal vino calda la testa from Don Giovanni, K. 527
TRADITIONAL Shenandoah
TRADITIONAL/Britten Oliver Cromwell (sung by Spong with Milnes at the piano)
GIORDANO Nemico della patria from Andrea Chénier

Happy, happy birthday!

Title page of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Fritz Reiner collection)

Regarding the Third Symphony, “Beethoven, now fully emancipated from the preceding era, may be said for the first time to stand forth and show his lion’s paw!” wrote Theodore Thomas, the Chicago Orchestra‘s founder and first music director, in Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies. “In my judgment, the Eroica is only a perfectly legitimate step forward, a logical sequence in his normal development. . . . His soul now began to long to express that which had never before been said in music—anticipating centuries; hence this symphony, the first dawn of modern music, written in a definite mood, giving expression to the soul through color and contrast rather than attempting to illustrate a specific program.”

1954 recording (RCA)

“The Eroica is perhaps the first great symphony to have captured the romantic imagination,” according to CSOA scholar-in-residence and program annotator Phillip Huscher. “Beethoven’s vast and powerful first movement and the funeral march that follows must have sounded like nothing else in all music. Never before had symphonic music aspired to these dimensions. . . . Beethoven’s Allegro con brio was longer—and bigger, in every sense—than any other symphonic movement at the time (the first movement of Mozart’s Prague Symphony comes the closest). It’s also a question of proportion, and Beethoven’s central development section, abounding in some truly monumental statements, is enormous.”

Thomas first led the Orchestra in Beethoven’s Third Symphony during the first season, on January 12, 1892, at The Odeon in Cincinnati and later that week in Chicago on January 15 and 16 at the Auditorium Theatre.

1973–74 recording (London)

Sixth music director Fritz Reiner led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first commercial recording of the work in Orchestra Hall on December 4, 1954. For RCA, Richard Mohr was the producer.

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 Third Symphony was recorded at Medinah Temple on November 5, 6, and 9, 1973, and May 18, 1974. Ray Minshull was the recording producer, and Kenneth Wilkinson and James Lock were the balance engineers.

1989 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 Third Symphony was recorded in Orchestra Hall on May 6 and 8, 1989. Michael Haas was the recording producer and Stanley Goodall was the balance engineer.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture and Symphonies nos. 1 and 3 on September 26, 27, and 28, 2019.

Title page of Beethoven’s First Symphony (Fritz Reiner collection)

In Beethoven’s First Symphony, “the composer tries his wings,” according to Theodore Thomas, the Chicago Orchestra‘s founder and first music director. In Talks About Beethoven’s Symphonies, Thomas continues: “It is sometimes said that the First Symphony is Haydn and Mozart rather than Beethoven, but that is not correct. It is Beethoven, pure and simple, but Beethoven carrying on the art of his day as it had been transmitted to him by his predecessors. He knew no other style of symphonic writing because, until his own later development, there was no other. . . . One might say that Haydn and Mozart were the cradle in which the art of Beethoven was rocked, and in the First Symphony, his art was still in this cradle. . . . [The First Symphony] is a noble work and is of especial interest as the connecting link between the art of the classic and that of the romantic period.”

1961 recording (RCA)

CSOA scholar-in-residence and program annotator Phillip Huscher agrees. “As the first symphony by the greatest symphonist who ever lived, one might expect clues of the daring and novelty to come; since it was written at the turn of the century and premiered in Vienna, the great musical capital, in 1800, one might assume that it is with this work that Beethoven opened a new era in music. But, in fact, this symphony belongs to the eighteenth, not the nineteenth, century; it honors the tradition of Mozart, dead less than a decade, and Haydn, who had given Beethoven enough lessons to know that his student would soon set out on his own.”

Thomas first led the Orchestra in Beethoven’s First Symphony during the third season, on May 4 and 5, 1894, at the Auditorium Theatre.

1974 recording (London)

Sixth music director Fritz Reiner led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first commercial recording of the work in Orchestra Hall on May 8, 1961. For RCA, Richard Mohr was the producer and Lewis Layton was the recording engineer.

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 First Symphony was recorded at Medinah Temple on May 13, 14, 15, and 18, 1974 (along with the Second Symphony). Ray Minshull was the recording producer, and Kenneth Wilkinson and James Lock were the balance engineers.

1989-90 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 First Symphony was recorded in Orchestra Hall on November 14 and 16, 1989, and January 27, 1990 (along with the Second Symphony). Michael Haas was the recording producer and Stanley Goodall was the balance engineer.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture and Symphonies nos. 1 and 3 on September 26, 27, and 28, 2019.

Wishing a very happy ninetieth birthday to the celebrated American mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias!

A stalwart at the Metropolitan Opera, between 1954 and 1996, Elias performed 687 performances of fifty-four roles. Also at the house, she created the role of Erika in Samuel Barber‘s Vanessa in January 1958.

The following year, she made her only appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as soloist in the following programs.

March 5 and 6, 1959
Fritz Reiner, conductor
RAVEL La valse
CHAUSSON Poem of Love and the Sea, Op. 19
PROKOFIEV Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

March 10, 1959
Fritz Reiner, conductor
PROKOFIEV Alexander Nevsky, Op. 78
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
CHAUSSON Poem of Love and the Sea, Op. 19
TCHAIKOVSKY Marche miniature from Suite No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 43
TCHAIKOVSKY Marche slav, Op. 31

On March 7, RCA was on hand to record Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky—the first recording collaboration with the Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Chorus—in Orchestra Hall. Richard Mohr was the producer and Lewis Layton was the recording engineer, and the recording recently was re-released as part of a comprehensive box set of Fritz Reiner’s complete recordings with the CSO on RCA.

Happy, happy birthday!

Robert Rada at the CSO Alumni Association reunion, November 30, 2012 (Dan Rest photo)

The Chicago Symphony mourns the loss of Robert Rada, a member of the Orchestra’s trombone section from 1954 until 1957. He died in Hilton Head, South Carolina on February 17, 2019, at the age of 88.

Born on the south side of Chicago on August 14, 1930, Rada began playing the cornet in grade school, later adding the trombone in high school at the Farragut Career Academy. He performed with the Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago and studied with Chicago Symphony Orchestra members David Anderson (trombone, 1929-1955) and Arnold Jacobs (principal tuba, 1944-1988). While attending the University of Chicago and Chicago Musical College, Rada was a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago from 1948 until 1950.

During the summer of 1950, Rada was a member of the Denver Symphony Orchestra, performing on several occasions under the baton of Igor Stravinsky. Later that same year through the fall of 1954, Rada attended the United States Military Academy as a member of the West Point Band. While at West Point, he studied with Neal DiBiase, principal trombone of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and he also performed as an extra with the ensemble on two occasions under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. During his years at the academy, Rada met his soon-to-be wife Lindsley Burnham, and he also developed a strong interest in aviation.

In 1954, Rada was invited by Fritz Reiner to join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he would serve through the 1956-57 season. His love of airplanes eventually led him to start his own aviation company, in which he sold corporate business jets. Rada occasionally subbed with the Philadelphia Orchestra and performed with the Kennett Symphony in Pennsylvania, and later he also was a member of the Hilton Head Orchestra. He was a longtime member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Alumni Association.

When interviewed for the Rosenthal Archives’s oral history project in 1995, Rada reflected on his years in the Orchestra under Reiner: “He made phenomenal music and he did it in a demanding way. He may have ruled with fear, but he produced a quality of music that I have never experienced before or since.”

Rada is survived by his wife of nearly sixty-four years, Lindsley; his three children; David (Sally), Paul (Anna) and Gretchen Willingham (John); and six grandchildren, Pamela, Michael, Molly, Madison, Sawyer, and Payton. A memorial service will be given on March 9, 2019, at the TidePointe Clubhouse (arrangements through Island Funeral Home and Crematory). An obituary also is posted here.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family remembers legendary dramatic soprano Inge Borkh, who died at her home in Stuttgart on Sunday, August 26, 2018. She was 97.

To close the Orchestra’s sixty-fifth season, music director Fritz Reiner chose Strauss’s Elektra. “This was a monumental performance superbly cast, and scaled to the full grandeur of Inge Borkh’s magnificent singing in the title role,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “I for one have heard nothing like the outpouring of that amazing voice since the days of Kirsten Flagstad. . . . This is a huge soprano, glistening in timbre, most beautiful when it mounts the high tessitura and welcomes the merciless orchestra of the still fabulous Strauss. She can ride the whirlwinds, or she can touch, surprisingly, the heart.”

Borkh appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival, as follows:

December 8 and 9, 1955, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Abscheulicher . . . Komm Hoffnung from Fidelio, Op. 72
STRAUSS Closing Scene from Salome, Op. 54
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Inge Borkh, soprano

April 12 and 13, 1956, Orchestra Hall
STRAUSS Elektra, Op. 58
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Elektra Inge Borkh, soprano
Chrysothemis Frances Yeend, soprano
Clytemnestra Martha Lipton, mezzo-soprano
Orestes Paul Schöffler, baritone
Aegisthus Julius Patzak, tenor
Chorus from the Lyric Theatre of Chicago

July 12, 1956, Ravinia Festival
WEBER Ozean, du Ungeheuer from Oberon
WAGNER Dich, theure Halle from Tannhäuser
WAGNER Du bist der Lenz from Die Walküre
Igor Markevitch, conductor
Inge Borkh, soprano

July 22, 1956, Ravinia Festival
MENOTTI To this we’ve come from The Consul
BEETHOVEN Ah! perfido, Op. 65
Georg Solti, conductor
Inge Borkh, soprano

November 1 and 2, 1956, Orchestra Hall
WAGNER Overture to Tannhäuser
WAGNER Dich, theure Halle from Tannhäuser
WAGNER Wahn! Wahn! Uberall Wahn! from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
WAGNER Leb’ wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind! and Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre
WAGNER Traft ihr das Schiff from Der fliegende Holländer
WAGNER Wie aus der Ferne längst vergangner Zeiten from Der fliegende Holländer
WAGNER Ride of the Valkryies from Die Walküre
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Inge Borkh, soprano
Paul Schöffler, baritone

Borkh also committed excerpts from Strauss’s Elektra and Salome to disc shortly after her performances. With Reiner and the Orchestra, she recorded Salome on December 10, 1955, and Elektra on April 16, 1956, both in Orchestra Hall. For RCA, Richard Mohr was the producer and Lewis Layton the recording engineer.

Numerous tributes have appeared at The New York Times and Opera News, among other outlets.

Byron JanisSending happy ninetieth birthday wishes to the legendary pianist Byron Janis!

Between 1952 and 1974, Janis appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on numerous occasions at Orchestra Hall, in Milwaukee, and at the Ravinia Festival, under the batons of music directors Fritz Reiner and Jean Martinon; associate conductors Walter Hendl and Irwin Hoffman; Ravinia Festival music directors Seiji Ozawa and James Levine; and guest conductors Leonard Bernstein, André Cluytens, Igor Markevitch, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Hans Rosbaud, Joseph Rosenstock, William Steinberg, Leopold Stokowski, Willem Van Otterloo, and David Zinman.

Janis made his debut with the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival on July 10, 1952, in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting.

Two years later—a few weeks shy of his twenty-sixth birthday—he first performed in Orchestra Hall on March 4 and 5, 1954, in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Fritz Reiner on the podium. “If you have it, you have it, and Mr. Janis does,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune following his debut. “He has good fingers, a direct approach, and a good tone. He has temperament and fire and he wants, perhaps more than anything else in the world, to play the piano. You can always tell that by the sound. It comes out in the explosions of the double octaves, in the instinctive sensing of the crest of a phrase, in the way a Russian song suddenly knows pain, which is not quite the same thing as being sad. Because of these things, because he is such a pianist, his Tchaikovsky was big, beautiful, and dynamic, yet with all its tensions it sensed the relaxed sweep of the grand style. Few things could be more stupid than to patronize such playing, which Reiner and the orchestra gave superb collaboration, part Russian song, part Russian bear. When I look forward to what that playing can be, I am speaking of it in Janis’s own terms. Give him time to strengthen those fingers, to deepen and polish that tone. But listen as he does it, for he is worth hearing now.”

He most recently appeared with the CSO in Orchestra Hall on April 20 and 21, 1967, in Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto and Strauss’s Burleske with Irwin Hoffman conducting, and at the Ravinia Festival on August 15, 1974, in Saint-Saëns’s Fifth Piano Concerto under the baton of David Zinman.

Janis also made several recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as follows:

RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Recorded March 2, 1957, in Orchestra Hall by RCA

Byron Janis’s complete RCA catalog—including his recordings with the CSO—recently was re-released in a box set.

STRAUSS Burleske for Piano and Orchestra
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Recorded March 4, 1957, in Orchestra Hall by RCA

SCHUMANN Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Recorded February 21, 1959, in Orchestra Hall by RCA

LISZT Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Recorded February 23, 1959, in Orchestra Hall by RCA

PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10
Irwin Hoffman, conductor
Recorded by WFMT on April 20 and 21, 1967, in Orchestra Hall
Released in 1995 on From the Archives, vol. 10: Great Soloists

Happy, happy birthday!

Wishing a very happy ninetieth birthday to the wonderful mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig!

Christa Ludwig in 1967 as Fricka in Wagner’s Die Walküre (Metropolitan Opera photo)

Ludwig has appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on numerous occasions, at Orchestra Hall, the Ravinia Festival, and Carnegie Hall, as follows (concerts at Orchestra Hall, unless otherwise noted):

February 20, 21, and 25, 1958
MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano
Richard Lewis, tenor

October 26 and 27, 1967
MAHLER Songs from Des knaben Wunderhorn
Alfred Wallenstein, conductor
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano

July 7, 1970 (Ravinia Festival)
MAHLER Kindertotenlieder
István Kertész, conductor
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano

April 24, 25, and 26, 1980
May 2 and 3, 1980 (Carnegie Hall)
MAHLER Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (Resurrection)
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Isobel Buchanan, soprano
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

Christa Ludwig in 2014 (Ernst Kainerstorfer photo)

April 25, 26, and 27, 1985
April 29, 1985 (Carnegie Hall)
VERDI Falstaff
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Guillermo Sarabia, baritone
Wolfgang Brendel, baritone
Yordi Ramiro, tenor
Heinz Zednik, tenor
Francis Egerton, tenor
Aage Haugland, bass
Katia Ricciarelli, soprano
Kathleen Battle, soprano
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano
Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

July 5, 1991 (Ravinia Festival)
MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde
James Levine, conductor
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano
Gary Lakes, tenor

Happy, happy birthday!

Fritz Reiner (Oscar Chicago photo)

One of Fritz Reiner’s primary goals, early in his tenure as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sixth music director, was to program major choral works. However, the repertory he wished to perform was, in his opinion, too demanding for the amateur and student groups usually engaged.

While visiting New York in February 1954, Reiner observed a rehearsal of the New York Concert Choir, under the direction of its founder, Margaret Hillis. He was so impressed that on his return to Chicago, Reiner convinced the board of trustees to hire Hillis and her ensemble for performances the following season of Barber’s recently composed Prayers of Kirkegaard and Orff’s Carmina burana, both new to the Orchestra’s repertoire. (For performances of Beethoven’s “less demanding” Ninth Symphony, the local Swedish Choral Club was engaged.)

Margaret Hillis

Hillis and the New York Concert Choir first traveled to Chicago in March 1955 for three performances of the works by Barber and Orff. Roger Dettmer, writing for the American, exclaimed, “it was Miss Hillis’s magnificent choir of sixty which matched most closely the Orchestra’s astonishing virtuosity by giving Dr. Reiner the fullest measure of choral artistry.” In the Daily News, Irving Sablosky added, “We’re not used to hearing choral singing of such refinement and nuance in symphony concerts. I hope we’ll hear more.”

Despite scheduling challenges, Reiner reengaged Hillis the following season for Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Bruckner’s Te Deum in January 1956. Dettmer wrote that the Orchestra and “Margaret Hillis’s magnificent [choir], easily the finest professional chorus in this country today, [performed] with uncommon brilliance, and maestro himself was in supremely spirited command.”

For the 1957–58 season, Reiner hoped to perform and record Verdi’s Requiem, and again he contacted Hillis. The New York Concert Choir averaged only sixty voices, and she informed Reiner they would need nearly double that in order to do justice to the Verdi. It would simply be too expensive.

This impasse gave Reiner an idea. He persuaded board president Eric Oldberg to hire Hillis to organize a chorus permanently affiliated with the Orchestra in Chicago. She initially agreed to advise on how to audition a director and choristers, but Reiner insisted there would be no chorus unless Hillis herself was the director. At the trustees meeting on September 20, 1957, Oldberg reported on successful negotiations and the plan to hire Hillis was approved.

Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1957

“As choral literature takes on increasing importance in the orchestral sphere, the Chicago Symphony is making its move to institutionalize the trend,” wrote Seymour Raven in the Chicago Tribune on September 22. “From Orchestra Hall comes word that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus is to be a new factor in the city’s musical life.”

Auditions began on October 5, and in less than two weeks the Sun-Times reported that they had “produced an exceptionally high rate of successful applicants. . . . Skill in sight-reading, interpretative ability, and voice quality were the main prerequisites for success. Voices with a tremolo or breathless quality were automatically rejected.” On October 13, the Daily News advertised that auditions were continuing: “Men’s voices are still urgently needed.”

Chicago Tribune, December 1, 1957

The Chicago Symphony Chorus, nearly one hundred voices strong, began rehearsals on October 28, and on November 30, the ensemble made an informal debut at a private concert for guarantors and sustaining members. On the first half of the concert, Reiner led Cailliet’s orchestration of Bach’s Little G minor fugue and Strauss’s Oboe Concerto (with principal Ray Still), and after intermission, Hillis took the podium, becoming the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She led the Orchestra and Chorus in Thompson’s Alleluia and Billings’s Modern Music (both a cappella), the final section of Purcell’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, and the Servants’ Chorus from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Dettmer reported in the American that the debut was “more than promising . . . Miss Hillis’s choristers were fresh-voiced, musically sensitive, already balanced internally . . . she has accomplished much in the briefest time span.”

When popular guest conductor Bruno Walter informed the Orchestral Association that his March 1958 appearances would be his last in Chicago, Oldberg insisted that he should lead Mozart’s Requiem with the new chorus as his swansong. To prepare for both sets of concerts, Hillis and the Chorus began their work in earnest on Mozart’s and Verdi’s requiems, with Reiner regularly attending rehearsals.

Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1958

On March 13 and 14, 1958, the Chicago Symphony Chorus made its official debut in Mozart’s Requiem, under Walter’s baton with soloists Maria Stader, Maureen Forrester, David Lloyd, and Otto Edelmann. In the Chicago Tribune, Claudia Cassidy wrote: “The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is in high estate, with the kind of clairvoyance that gives a conductor what he wants in sound. . . . The evening’s card up the Mozartean sleeve was the new Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus of about 100 voices, expertly chosen and admirably trained by Margaret Hillis. It had balance and hints of brilliance, it was adroit in attack and it had moments of reassuringly imaginative song. The Confutatis in particular caught the haunted terror that was Mozart’s when the mysterious commission for the Requiem convinced him that the death knell he wrote was his own.”

Program page for Verdi’s Requiem, performed on April 3 and 4, 1958. It was repeated the following Tuesday, April 8.

Less than a month later, the Chorus appeared in Verdi’s Requiem with Reiner conducting and soloists Leonie Rysanek, Regina Resnik, David Lloyd, and Giorgio Tozzi. In the Sun-Times, Robert C. Marsh wrote that “Miss Hillis’s chorus proved its virtues earlier this season. Again its excellent enunciation, reliable intonation, and intelligent response were praiseworthy.”*

The following season, at Reiner’s invitation, Hillis conducted the Orchestra and Chorus in Honegger’s Christmas Cantata in December 1958. In the Daily News, Donal Henahan wrote, “Miss Hillis, who has been until now unknown except by name to most symphony subscribers, ruled her vast forces with a firm beat and a sure hand.” And the critic in the American noted, “With a clear (if inflexible) beat, Miss Hillis marshalled her forces, choral and orchestra, in a tight, sensitive, sweet-sounding statement of the music. . . . All in all, a glorious Christmas program.”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus onstage in March 1959. Also pictured is chorus director Margaret Hillis, music director Fritz Reiner, and associate conductor Walter Hendl (Oscar Chicago photo).

Later that season in March 1959, Reiner led Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky. “The climactic ‘Battle on the Ice’ was approached with expansive calm and deliberation. . . . A conductor who tries to pile climax after climax into this work can never achieve the hair-raising thrust that Reiner drew from Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus at such a moment,” observed Henahan in the Daily News. The Chorus “produced a pleasing sound in all voices and a more homogeneous tone than at any time since Miss Hillis began her missionary work in Chicago.” On March 7, Reiner, the Orchestra, and Chorus committed their performance to disc for RCA, collaborating for the first time in recording sessions.

The Chorus’s first recording with the Orchestra: Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, released by RCA in May 1960

Margaret Hillis directed the Chicago Symphony Chorus for thirty-seven years, preparing and leading concerts—in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival, as well as on tour to Carnegie Hall, London’s Royal Albert Hall, and Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus—and amassing an award-winning discography. Following her death in February 1998, the Rosenthal Archives received her collection of papers, photographs, over 1,000 scores bearing her markings, awards (including nine Grammy statuettes), recordings, and memorabilia. Representing an exceptional and pioneering career, the collection is regularly accessed by researchers, scholars, and musicians.

In June 1994, following an international search, music director Daniel Barenboim appointed Duain Wolfe to succeed Hillis. Currently in his twenty-fourth season, Wolfe continues in Hillis’s tradition, maintaining the Chorus’s extraordinarily high standards of excellence.

*Due to scheduling conflicts, Reiner was unable to get the soloists—primarily Zinka Milanov and Jussi Björling—he wanted to record Verdi’s Requiem in Chicago. He, along with Leontyne Price, Rosalind Elias, Björling (in his last commercial recording), and Giorgio Tozzi, recorded it in Vienna in June 1960 with the Vienna Singverein and Philharmonic for RCA.

This article also appears in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s March 2018 program book and here.

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Theodore Thomas

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