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Wishing a very happy seventy-fifth birthday to American pianist André Watts!

André Watts (Steve J. Sherman photo)

Watts was born in Nuremberg, Germany, to a Hungarian mother and an African American U.S. Army soldier. His mother was his first piano teacher, and by the age of nine, he had won a competition to perform on a children’s concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Watts became a part of the American musical fabric when, at the age of sixteen, he appeared on a nationally televised Young People’s Concert with the New York Philharmonic on January 15, 1963, performing Liszt’s First Piano Concerto under the baton of Leonard Bernstein. Two weeks later, an ailing Glenn Gould canceled with the Philharmonic, and Bernstein invited Watts to perform the same Liszt concerto on subscription concerts on short notice. Columbia Masterworks soon recorded Watts’s interpretation, and the release The Exciting Debut of André Watts won the 1963 Grammy Award for Most Promising New Classical Recording Artist.

Watts became a student of Leon Fleisher at the Peabody Conservatory, combining his studies with a packed concert schedule that quickly included as many as 150 concerts a year. He soon made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in June 1965, one day before his nineteenth birthday. Since then, Watts has been a frequent guest, appearing with the Orchestra on many occasions, as follows:

June 19, 1965, Ravinia Festival
MACDOWELL Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 23
Seiji Ozawa, conductor

May 7, 8, and 9, 1970, Orchestra Hall
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major
Irwin Hoffman, conductor

Watt’s debut with the CSO at the Ravinia Festival on June 19, 1965

July 14, 1970, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
István Kertész, conductor

May 20, 21, and 22, 1971, Orchestra Hall
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Henry Mazer, conductor

December 2 and 3, 1971, Orchestra Hall
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491
Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor

July 18, 1972, Ravinia Festival
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Seiji Ozawa, conductor

July 3, 1974, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
James Levine, conductor

August 3, 1975, Ravinia Festival
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Lawrence Foster, conductor

July 15, 1976, Ravinia Festival
MACDOWELL Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 23
James Levine, conductor

July 7, 1977, Ravinia Festival
FRANCK Symphonic Variations
LISZT Totentanz
James Levine, conductor

Watt’s Ravinia Festival debut biography (June 19, 1965)

May 31 and June 1, 1979, Orchestra Hall
BRAHMS Concerto for Piano No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

July 7, 1979, Ravinia Festival
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
James Levine, conductor

July 11, 1980, Ravinia Festival
FRANCK Symphonic Variations
SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22
James Levine, conductor

June 28, 1981, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
James Levine, conductor

August 7, 1982, Ravinia Festival
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Maxim Shostakovich, conductor

July 13, 1984, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
James Levine, conductor

July 12, 1985, Ravinia Festival
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
James Levine, conductor

January 23, 24, and 26, 1986, Orchestra Hall
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major
LISZT Totentanz
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

July 11, 1986, Ravinia Festival
SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22
James Levine, conductor

August 15, 1987, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
George Cleve, conductor

Watt’s debut with the CSO in Orchestra Hall on May 7, 8, and 9, 1970

July 2, 1989, Ravinia Festival
SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22
James Levine, conductor

July 20, 1991, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conductor

July 17, 1992, Ravinia Festival
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
James Conlon, conductor

February 25, 26, 27, and 28, 1993, Orchestra Hall
MENDELSSOHN Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25
David Loebel, conductor

July 23, 1993, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
John Nelson, conductor

November 1, 1993, Orchestra Hall
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
Gerhardt Zimmermann, conductor

August 6, 1994, Ravinia Festival
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Riccardo Chailly, conductor

June 30, 1995, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

January 24 and 25, 1996, Orchestra Hall
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
LISZT Totentanz
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

January 26, 1996, Orchestra Hall
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major
LISZT Totentanz
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

Watt’s CSO subscription concert debut biography (May 7, 8, and 9, 1970)

January 27, 1996, Orchestra Hall
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

July 2, 1996, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
MACDOWELL Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 23
LUTOSŁAWSKI Variations on a Theme by Paganini
Hermann Michael, conductor

August 1, 1997, Ravinia Festival
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

May 14, 15, 16, and 19, 1998, Orchestra Hall
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

August 14, 1998, Ravinia Festival
FRANCK Symphonic Variations
SAINT-SAËNS Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

July 16, 1999, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Claus Peter Flor, conductor

November 2, 1999, Orchestra Hall
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
William Eddins, conductor

January 11, 2000, Orchestra Hall
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

André Watts in 1971 (James J. Kriegsmann photo)

August 4, 2000, Ravinia Festival
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major
Roberto Abbado, conductor

April 19, 20, and 21, 2001, Orchestra Hall
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
Daniel Barenboim, conductor

July 1, 2001, Ravinia Festival
SCHUBERT/Stein Fantasy in F Minor, D. 940
LISZT Totentanz
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

July 29, 2005, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
Leonard Slatkin, conductor

August 5, 2007, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
James Conlon, conductor

July 8, 2011, Ravinia Festival
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

Happy, happy birthday!

Willard Elliot in the early 1990s (Jim Steere photo)

For more than thirty years, Willard Elliot (1926-2000) was the foundation of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s wind section. A native of Fort Worth, Texas, he studied piano and clarinet before switching to the bassoon at the age of fourteen, even though he wanted to play the instrument much sooner. According to his widow, Patricia, “He was waiting until he was big enough to play the bassoon.” Elliot earned a bachelor’s degree from North Texas State University, and, at the age of nineteen, he completed a master’s degree in composition from the Eastman School of Music. He spent three years with the Houston Symphony and eleven years as principal bassoon with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, in addition to performing with the Fourth Army Band at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. In 1964, Elliot was hired by seventh music director Jean Martinon as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal bassoon.

As a composer, Elliot was co-winner of the 1961 Koussevitzky Foundation Award for his Elegy for Orchestra. Under Seiji Ozawa, he was soloist with the CSO in the world premiere of his Concerto for Bassoon, first performed at the Ravinia Festival on June 27, 1965; and Richard Graef was soloist in The Snake Charmer (Concerto for Alto Flute and Orchestra), first performed on Youth Concerts on January 7, 1976, under the baton of then–associate conductor Henry Mazer. Elliot also composed two symphonies; arrangements of works by Glinka, Granados, Grieg, Mozart, Ravel, Scriabin, and Weber; along with numerous chamber works for a variety of instrument combinations.

During his thirty-three-year tenure, Elliot performed as a soloist under Claudio Abbado, Lawrence Foster, Carlo Maria Giulini, Morton Gould, Antonio Janigro, Martinon, and Sir Georg Solti. On March 19, 1966, he was a soloist—along with his colleagues Clark Brody, Dale Clevenger, Jay Friedman, Adolph Herseth, Donald Koss, Donald Peck, and Ray Still—in recording sessions for Martin’s Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra for RCA under Martinon’s baton. On February 4, 1984, Elliot recorded Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto with Abbado conducting for Deutsche Grammophon.


As an educator, Elliot taught at the University of North Texas and DePaul and Northwestern universities, and he also coached the Civic Orchestra of Chicago‘s bassoon section. Following his retirement from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1996, Elliot and his wife moved to Fort Worth to teach music at Texas Christian University and give master classes around the country. They also continued their work with Bruyere Music Publishers (founded in 1986), preparing his compositions and arrangements for publication.

“When I joined the CSO in 1992, Willard was nearing the end of a long performing career. I was very aware of being a different generation from Willard, but he was very collegial from the first time we worked together,” commented William Buchman, assistant principal bassoon. “He encouraged me to play with real gusto and engagement. It made me feel like my contributions to the Orchestra’s sound were important.”

“Willard Elliot was a fascinating man and wonderful musician,” according to John Bruce Yeh, assistant principal clarinet. He was “a true renaissance musician: arranger, composer, educator, as well as orchestral bassoonist par excellence.” Elliot and Yeh were both founding members of the Chicago Symphony Winds, and together they toured and recorded Elliot’s transcription of Grieg’s Four Lyric Pieces as well as Mozart’s Serenade in E-flat major, K. 375, both for the Sheffield Lab label.

Willard Elliot in 1970 (Zeloof-Stuart Photography)

“In 1979, I formed Chicago Pro Musica,” Yeh continued, and “Willard and I were pleased to explore a wide range of chamber music with our CSO colleagues and guests.” In 1983, the ensemble recorded Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale along with Elliot’s arrangement of Scriabin’s Waltz in A-flat major for their debut on Reference Recordings. “Willard loved the music of Scriabin and the composer’s exotic harmonies. Those of us in the CSO woodwind section to this day fondly remember some of the inspired little signature harmonic touches Willard would inject into standard repertoire, a small alteration that only those close by would be able to hear during a rehearsal, for example. He would always liven things up that way.” The ensemble won the 1985 Grammy Award for Best New Classical Artist.

“Willard was always an upbeat man with a smile on his face,” remembered Michael Henoch, assistant principal oboe. “He was, of course, a marvelous musician, a consummate master of the bassoon, but he had many other interests including geology, gardening, and researching his family’s genealogy. . . . He had a huge presence in the CSO woodwind section, and I was honored to perform with him. Over the years, I also played many chamber music concerts with him in the Chicago Symphony Chamber Players, Chicago Pro Musica, and the Chicago Chamber Musicians.  We played many of his own compositions and arrangements, all crafted with a high degree of professionalism.”

“I remember being aware that Willard was always so well-prepared and enthusiastic. He had played just about every piece at least once before, and he had a photographic memory of all of his previous performances,” added Buchman. “He also was remarkably organized with his reeds. He had a journal in which he kept notes about every reed he made and used, including what pieces he had used each reed for. . . . He adjusted well to retirement, though, and he kindly bestowed upon me a couple of large boxes of reed cane he had been storing for decades. I still have some of it today!”

Willard Elliot’s Two Sketches for Woodwind Quintet—performed by Jennifer Gunn, Michael Henoch, John Bruce Yeh, William Buchman, and Oto Carrillo—can be heard on CSO Sessions Episode 19, available on CSOtv from May 6 until June 4, 2021.

Elliot also can be heard as part of the continuo in the January 1990 London recording of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, under the baton of Sir Georg Solti and featured on the May 11, 2021, From the CSO’s Archives: The First 130 Years radio broadcast.

Gail Niwa makes her subscription concert debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Schumann’s Piano Concerto on February 9, 1995 (Jim Steere photo)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family mourns the loss of pianist Gail Niwa, who passed away on February 9, 2021, at home in New York City, following a long illness. She was sixty-one.

Born in Chicago in 1959, Gail was the daughter of two professional musicians. Her mother (and first teacher) Eloise was an accomplished pianist and pedagogue, and her father Raymond was a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s violin section from 1951 until 1997. David Niwa, Gail’s brother, also is a skilled violinist with degrees from the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School, and he currently serves as assistant concertmaster of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. Together, the Niwa family claims a singular distinction: all four have been soloists with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

At the age of eight, Gail Niwa was a second-place winner (tying with cellist Gary Hoffman) in the CSO’s youth auditions on December 11, 1967, and she subsequently made her debut with the Orchestra on youth concerts on February 19 and April 8, 1968, performing the third movement of Haydn’s Piano Concerto no. 11 in D major with Irwin Hoffman conducting. She later appeared with the Orchestra on special Music is the Message concerts for high school students, performing Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto on March 7, 1972, and Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos in D minor (along with David Lackland) on April 8, 1975, both under the baton of Henry Mazer. A graduate of William Howard Taft High School, Niwa was a two-time Chicago City Parks tennis champion.

Gail Niwa and Gary Hoffman receive their youth soloist awards from Louis Sudler, president of the Orchestral Association, and Irwin Hoffman, associate conductor on December 11, 1967

On scholarship to the Juilliard School, Niwa earned bachelor and master’s degrees as a student of Adele Marcus. She was awarded first prize at the 1987 Washington International Competition, which led to her recital debut at the Kennedy Center. In 1991, She became the first woman to win the top prize at the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, receiving not only the gold medal but also the audience and chamber music prizes. This led to her debut at New York’s Alice Tully Hall in October of that year. Recognized as an excellent chamber musician, she received the award for best accompanist at the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition for violinists in Moscow.

She gave recitals in Athens, Miami, Montreal, Seoul, Toronto, and at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and she also performed as soloist with the Augusta, Memphis, San Luis Obispo, Utah, Reno, and Grant Park symphony orchestras, and performed Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with the California Philharmonic. Niwa also appeared with the Highland Park Strings, Kammergild Chamber Players in Saint Louis, the Ocean State Chamber Players, and the Banff Festival Chamber Orchestra, and she was a member of the Partita and Chelsea chamber ensembles in New York. With violinist David Kim, she made recordings for the Musical Heritage Society and Teldec labels, and with CSO bassoon Bruce Grainger on the Centaur label.

On April 4, 1993, Niwa made her Orchestra Hall recital debut on the Allied Arts series, performing the following program:

BACH/Busoni Chaconne from Unaccompanied Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004
CHOPIN Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58
SZYMANOWSKI Shéhérazade and Sérénade de Don Juan from Masques, Op. 34
TCHAIKOVSKY Dumka, Op. 59
LYAPUNOV Lezghinka, Transcendental Etude, Op. 11, No. 10

“It was easy to hear why the young Chicago pianist already has racked up so many competition victories,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “She plays with the kind of confident fluency that makes competition juries take notice. . . . Taste, elegance, and musical intelligence were the hallmarks of Niwa’s Chopin sonata [and] the afternoon’s finest playing came in two of Szymanowski’s Masques [that] emerged here in all their exotic coloration, with plenty of intensity and atmosphere.”

On April 25, 1994, Niwa, along with Philip Sabransky—a former student of Eloise Niwa and the son of CSO violin Jerry and founding Chorus member Martha Sabransky—joined the Orchestra at Medinah Temple for recording sessions for Disney’s Fantasia 2000. Together they recorded the finale from Saint-Saëns’s The Carnival of the Animals with James Levine conducting.

Niwa was back in Orchestra Hall for her subscription concert debut on February 9, 11, and 14, 1995, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as soloist in Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Sir Georg Solti on the podium. “She reveled in Schumann’s lyricism, especially in the concerto’s first movement, lingering over the expressive opening theme, stretching its rhythmic outlines to the limit,” commented Wynne Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times. “The CSO, in turn, provided unusually sumptuous accompaniment [and] the second movement was a relaxed, expansive conversation between soloist and sections of the Orchestra.”

At the University of Southern California, she served as assistant professor of piano and was founder and artistic director of Chamber Music at Great Gorge in northwest New Jersey.

Niwa is survived by her partner Glenn Powell, son Matthew, and brother David (Mariko). There are no immediate plans for services. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in her memory.

Emanuel Ax in 1980 (Nick Sangiamo photo)

Wishing a very happy seventieth birthday to the remarkable American pianist Emanuel Ax! A longtime Chicago favorite—in recital, as a chamber musician, and as soloist with orchestra—he has appeared in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival on near-countless occasions.

Following first place triumphs at the Michaels Award of Young Concert Artists and the Artur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, Ax made his local debut at Ravinia on July 23, 1975, substituting for an indisposed Alexis Weissenberg. Performing an all-Chopin program, “the young Polish-American master took the evening by storm,” according to Thomas Willis in the Chicago Tribune. “Still in his middle twenties . . . there is nothing of the poseur in him, no excess mannerism, no youthful sentimentality, no histrionic display. He walks onstage, settles solidly onto the bench, shakes a hand to limber up, and begins to play. At that moment, or within a few seconds, a transformation of near miraculous proportions takes place. . . . This is quite possibly the outstanding poet-performer of his generation.”

Ax made two debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the following year in 1976, on May 20 and 21 in Orchestra Hall, performing Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto under the baton of Henry Mazer, and on July 29 at the Ravinia Festival, as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 with Andrew Davis on the podium. According to Alan Artner in the Chicago Tribune, media reports following Ax’s competition wins had compared the young pianist to Vladimir Horowitz and Sviatoslav Richter. “But to have actually heard him in Liszt’s Second Concerto was to discover that Ax in n a class virtually by himself. . . . His performance was intelligent, wholly refreshing . . .”

Emanuel Ax in 2016 (Lisa Marie Mazzucco photo)

Since then, Ax has been one of the most frequent guest artists in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival, performing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as with visiting orchestras, and as a chamber musician and recitalist with an astounding array of collaborators. He has worked with conductors David Afkham, Daniel Barenboim, James Conlon, James DePreist, Sir Mark Elder, Christoph Eschenbach, Lawrence Foster, Bernard Haitink, Daniel Harding, Mariss Jansons, Bernhard Klee, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Itzhak Perlman, David Robertson, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Leonard Slatkin, Sir Georg Solti, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Christoph von Dohnányi. Ax also has collaborated with Yefim Bronfman, Robert Chen, Evelyn Glennie,
Benjamin Hochman, Aleksey Igudesman, Richard Hyung-ki Joo, Jaime Laredo, Yo-Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, Orli Shaham, Raimi Solomonow, Isaac Stern, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Orion Weiss. With visiting orchestras, he also has performed in Orchestra Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra, Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Juilliard Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Ax returns to the Ravinia Festival this summer, as soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on August 2, 2019, in Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto with Rafael Payare on the podium. He will be back in Orchestra Hall next season on March 2, 2020, for an all-Beethoven chamber music concert, collaborating with violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Happy, happy birthday!

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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In March 1898, Theodore Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra embarked on a monthlong tour through Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C. In New York, the tour included six concerts at the Metropolitan Opera House, one at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Orchestra’s debut in Carnegie Hall on March 7.

March 7, 1898

March 7, 1898

The program for Carnegie was entirely comprised of music by French composers, featuring the U.S. premiere of Franck’s Variations symphoniques and Saint-Saëns’s Fifth Piano Concerto, both with Raoul Pugno as soloist. Composer Alexandre Guilmant also appeared, as organ soloist in his Adoration, Allegro, and Final à la Schumann, as well as Lefebvre’s Méditation. Berlioz’s Overture to King Lear, Franck’s Le chasseur maudit, Saint-Saëns’s Le rouet d’Omphale, and Massenet’s Suite from Les Erinnyes rounded out the program.

The reviewer in Harper’s Bazaar praised the performances of both Pugno and Guilmant, “and the enjoyment of the afternoon was increased by the good work done by the Chicago Orchestra.” The New York Times added, “The Orchestra was heard to great advantage in Saint-Saëns’s symphonic poem, which was played with consummate finish, and Mr. Thomas’s accompaniments to the soloists were a source of joy.” And the New York Tribune heralded the concert as “an exhibition of virtuosity.”

The Orchestra has returned to Carnegie Hall on numerous occasions, under music directors Frederick Stock, Rafael Kubelík, Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, and Riccardo Muti; principal guest conductors Carlo Maria Giulini, Claudio Abbado, and Pierre Boulez; principal conductor Bernard Haitink; chorus director and conductor Margaret Hillis; and associate conductor Henry Mazer.

This article also appears here.

Over the course of three short weeks in late 1938, Chicago hosted an embarrassment of riches for violin fans.

November 1938

November 24 and 25, 1938

On November 20 and 26, respectively, Fritz Kreisler and Joseph Szigeti appeared in recital at Orchestra Hall. The following week on December 4, Jascha Heifetz gave a recital at the Civic Opera House. Kreisler returned to Chicago a few days later on December 8 and 9, as soloist with the Orchestra in Brahms’s Violin Concerto under the baton of second music director Frederick Stock.

And right in the middle of all of that, twenty-two-year-old Yehudi Menuhin made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on November 24 (Thanksgiving Day) and 25, 1938, performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Stock conducting.

“His way with the Beethoven was magnificent in every aspect—in singing tone, in brilliance of passage work, in dazzling sparkle of cadenzas, in the deep song of the haunting larghetto, and in the suddenly glittering shift of mood that announces the rondo,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “Mr. Stock and the Orchestra gave him a rare opportunity and he responded with an unforgettable performance.”

On April 22, 2016, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Menuhin, who—for well over forty years and under seven music directors—was a regular visitor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, both at Orchestra Hall and the Ravinia Festival. A complete list of his appearances with the Orchestra is below (subscription concerts at Orchestra Hall, unless otherwise noted):

November 24 and 25, 1938
BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Frederick Stock, conductor

November 9 and 10, 1939
BRAHMS Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
Hans Lange, conductor

February 13 and 14, 1941
BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Frederick Stock, conductor

Menuhin 1

July 24, 1941 (Ravinia Festival)
BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Carlos Chávez, conductor

July 26, 1941 (Ravinia Festival)
MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
Carlos Chávez, conductor

April 14, 1942
BRAHMS Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77
Hans Lange, conductor

April 16 and 17, 1942
PAGANINI Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, Op. 6
Frederick Stock, conductor

November 2 and 3, 1944
BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Désiré Defauw, conductor

February 21 and 22, 1946
ELGAR Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61
Désiré Defauw, conductor

January 22 and 23, 1948
BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Artur Rodzinski, conductor

November 2 and 3, 1950
BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Rafael Kubelík, conductor

October 24 and 25, 1957
BARTÓK Violin Concerto No. 2
Fritz Reiner, conductor

Menuhin 2

October 31, November 1 and 2, 1963
SHOSTAKOVICH Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 99
Jean Martinon, conductor

November 18 and 19, 1965
PÁRTOS Violin Concerto
Jean Martinon, conductor

December 15, 16, and 17, 1966
BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Rafael Kubelík, conductor

Thursday, December 14 and 15, 1967
BERG Violin Concerto
Sixten Ehrling, conductor

December 18, 19, and 20, 1969
BARTÓK Violin Concerto No. 2
Georg Solti, conductor

March 10, 1981 (Musicians’ Pension Fund concert)
ELGAR Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61
Henry Mazer, conductor

Lucia-Popp

On November 12, 2014, we celebrate the seventy-fifth birthday of the extraordinary Slovak soprano Lucia Popp, a favorite soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between 1970 and 1984.

According to Sir Georg Solti, one of her frequent collaborators in Chicago and at Covent Garden, “To my mind, there will never be a Sophie (in Der Rosenkavalier) or a Susanna (in The Marriage of Figaro) to equal hers.” Popp’s career was tragically cut short and she succumbed to brain cancer in 1993, only days after her fifty-fourth birthday.

Popp appeared and recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a number of notable occasions. Her complete performance history and discography is listed below:

March 12, 14 & 16, 1970, at Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Fidelio, Op. 72
Georg Solti, conductor
Anja Silja, soprano
Lucia Popp, soprano
Jess Thomas, tenor
Frank Porretta, tenor
Herbert Fliether, baritone
Kurt Boehme, bass
Thomas Paul, bass
William Wahman, tenor
Gary Kendall, bass-baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, chorus director

August 30, 31 & September 1, 1971, at Sofiensaal in Vienna (recording sessions only, no public performances)
MAHLER Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major
Georg Solti, conductor
Heather Harper, soprano
Lucia Popp, soprano
Arleen Augér, soprano
Yvonne Minton, mezzo-soprano
Helen Watts, contralto
René Kollo, tenor
John Shirley-Quirk, bass-baritone
Martti Talvela, bass
Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Norbert Balatsch, chorus master
Singverein Chorus
Helmut Froschauer, chorus master
Vienna Boys’ Choir
David Harvey produced the recording, and Gordon Parry and Kenneth Wilkinson were the engineers for London Records. The recording won the 1972 Grammy Award for Album of the Year—Classical, Best Choral Performance—Classical (other than opera), and Best Engineered Recording—Classical from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

May 5, 6 & 7, 1977, at Orchestra Hall
May 13, 1977, at Carnegie Hall
BEETHOVEN Missa solemnis in D Major, Op. 123
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Victor Aitay, violin
Lucia Popp, soprano
Yvonne Minton, mezzo-soprano
Mallory Walker, tenor
Gwynne Howell, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Following the Carnegie Hall performance, the work was recorded for London Records with multiple sessions in Chicago’s Medinah Temple. Ray Minshull was the producer and Kenneth Wilkinson, John Dunkerley, and Michael Mailes were the engineers. The recording won the 1978 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance, Classical (other than opera) from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Lucia Popp in Strauss's Four Last Songs at Orchestra Hall in October 1977. Sir Georg Solti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Lucia Popp in Strauss’s Four Last Songs at Orchestra Hall in October 1977. Sir Georg Solti conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

October 17 & 19, 1977, at Orchestra Hall
STRAUSS Four Last Songs
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano
These performances originally were recorded by Unitel for television broadcast and recently were commercially released on the four-DVD set Sir Georg Solti: The Maestro.

October 27 & 28, 1977, at Orchestra Hall
October 31, 1977, at Carnegie Hall
MAHLER Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major
Sir Georg Solti, conductor (October 27 & 28)
Margaret Hillis, conductor (October 31)
Christiane Eda-Pierre, soprano
Lucia Popp, soprano
Barbara Hendricks, soprano
Jan DeGaetani, mezzo-soprano
Helen Watts, contralto
Kenneth Riegel, tenor
William Walker, baritone
Donald Gramm, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus
Doreen Rao, director

November 1 & 2, 1977, at Carnegie Hall
STRAUSS Four Last Songs
Henry Mazer, conductor (November 1)
Sir Georg Solti, conductor (November 2)
Lucia Popp, soprano

December 13, 14, 15 & 16, 1978, at Orchestra Hall
MOZART Mass in C Minor, K. 427
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano
Maria Venuti, soprano
Daniel Nelson, tenor
Samuel Jones, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

March 13, 14, & 15, 1980, at Orchestra Hall
MOZART Mass in C Major, K. 317 (Coronation)
Rafael Kubelík, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano
Mira Zakai, mezzo-soprano
Alexander Oliver, tenor
Malcolm King, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Originally recorded by WFMT for radio broadcast, this was released on the CSO’s From the Archives, vol. 13 (Chicago Symphony Chorus: A Fortieth Anniversary Celebration).

October 21, 22, 23 & 24, 1981, at Orchestra Hall
MOZART Nehmt meinen Dank, K. 383
MOZART Ah, lo previdi, K. 272
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano

December 7, 1981, at Orchestra Hall (special concert dedicating the newly installed Möller pipe organ)
HAYDN Benedictus from Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo, Hob. XXII, No. 7
HANDEL “But oh! what art can teach” and “Orpheus could lead the savage race” from Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day
Leonard Slatkin, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano
Frederick Swann, organ

March 15, 16 & 17, 1984, at Orchestra Hall
March 19, 1984, at Uihlein Hall, Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee
MAHLER Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Giuseppe Sinopoli, conductor
Lucia Popp, soprano
Walton Grönroos, baritone

A marvelous tribute to Lucia Popp by Louise T. Guinther appears in the November 2014 issue of Opera News.

This week Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s First Symphony, almost exactly one hundred years since Frederick Stock first conducted it in Chicago.

Program page for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's first performances of Mahler's First Symphony

Program page for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of Mahler’s First Symphony

That first performance of the symphony (sandwiched between Handel’s Concerto grosso, op. 6, no. 2 and Schumann’s Piano Concerto with Josef Hofmann) on November 6, 1914, left Ronald Webster of the Chicago Daily Tribune a bit puzzled: “The Mahler symphony is less important but more interesting to talk about because it is strictly earthy. There is a suggestion in the program notes that Mahler was not wholly serious in this symphony. It was obvious yesterday that he was not serious at all. Even the finale is not serious, though it is tiresome, being too long. But it is the quality of the humor which is likely to cause people to turn up their noses. The humor is a little coarse, definitely ironical, of a barnyard kind and healthy. Mahler is himself partly to blame for such ideas about him. Definite conceptions such as his (though he may not have been serious about them either) are death to all mystic attitude toward this work. . . . He suggests that the first movement is nature’s awakening at early morning. One suspects that Mahler included in nature the cows and chickens as well as the cuckoo and the dewy grass.” The complete review is here.

Despite that critic’s early apprehensions, the symphony soon became a staple in the Orchestra’s repertoire and has been led—at Orchestra Hall, the Ravinia Festival, and on tour—by a vast array of conductors, including: Roberto Abbado, Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, James Conlon, Christoph von Dohnányi, Gustavo Dudamel, Christoph Eschenbach, Adam Fischer, Carlo Maria Giulini, Bernard Haitink, Irwin Hoffman, Paul Kletzki, Kirill Kondrashin, Rafael Kubelík, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Igor Markevitch, Henry Mazer, Eugene Ormandy, Seiji Ozawa, George Schick, Leonard Slatkin, Sir Georg Solti, William Steinberg, Klaus Tennstedt, Michael Tilson Thomas, Edo de Waart, Bruno Walter, and Jaap van Zweden.

And the Orchestra has recorded the work six times, as follows:

Giulini 1971Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor
Recorded by Angel at Medinah Temple in March 1971
Christopher Bishop, producer
Carson Taylor, engineer
Giulini’s recording won the 1971 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance—Orchestra from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Abbado 1981Claudio Abbado, conductor
Recorded by Deutsche Grammophon at Orchestra Hall in February 1981
Rainer Brock, producer
Karl-August Naegler, engineer

Solti 1983Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Recorded by London at Orchestra Hall in October 1983
James Mallinson, producer
James Lock, engineer

Tennstedt 1990Klaus Tennstedt, conductor
Recorded by EMI at Orchestra Hall in May and June 1990
John Fraser, producer
Michael Sheady, engineer

Boulez 1998Pierre Boulez, conductor
Recorded by Deutsche Grammophon at Orchestra Hall in May 1998
Karl-August Naegler, producer
Rainer Maillard and Reinhard Lagemann, engineers

Haitink 2008Bernard Haitink, conductor
Recorded by CSO Resound at Orchestra Hall in May 2008
James Mallinson, producer
Christopher Willis, engineer

For more information on Muti’s performances of Mahler’s First this week, please visit the CSO’s website.

Wishing a very happy eightieth birthday to the remarkable mezzo-soprano, Dame Janet Baker. Several excellent tributes have been written (here and here, among many others) to recognize her extraordinary career as an artist—in opera, concert, and on recording.

xx

Janet Baker recording Verdi’s Requiem with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Medinah Temple in June 1977

Dame Janet appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on four occasions, all at Orchestra Hall:

January 15, 16, and 18, 1976
BERLIOZ Les nuits d’été
Sir Georg Solti, conductor (January 15 and 16)
Henry Mazer, conductor (January 18)

May 31, 1977
VERDI Requiem
Leontyne Price, soprano
Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano
Veriano Luchetti, tenor
José van Dam, bass-baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

April 20, 21, and 22, 1978
RAVEL Shéhérazade
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

May 3, 4, and 6, 1984
ELGAR Sea Pictures, Op. 37
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

Of course, the 1977 interpretation of Verdi’s Requiem was recorded by RCA in Medinah Temple on June 1 and 2. Thomas Z. Shepard produced the recording, and Paul Goodman was the engineer (this was one of the few records Solti made independent of London/Decca). The recording won the 1977 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance (other than opera) from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

One of Dame Janet’s signature works—and the vehicle for her CSO debut—was Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été. Here’s the second song from the cycle (“Le spectre de la rose”) from a March 1972 concert conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.

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