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Jon Vickers

The extraordinary Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on only one occasion, died on Friday, July 10, 2015, in Ontario. He was 88.

For the opening subscription concerts of the sixty-eighth season on October 23 and 24, 1958, music director Fritz Reiner led the Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Chorus—in its second season and prepared by its founder Margaret Hillis—and soloists Adele Addison, Regina Resnik, Vickers, and Jerome Hines in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The concert opened with the composer’s Leonore Overture no. 3.

In the Chicago American, Roger Dettmer described Vickers as “a Canadian tenor on his vocal way to Valhalla.” And in the Chicago Tribune, Claudia Cassidy wrote that “Jon Vickers’ tenor was stronger than I remembered, as if Bayreuth had invigorated it” (he had made his debut at Wagner’s annual festival only a few months before, as Siegmund in Die Walküre).

October 23 & 24, 1958

October 23 & 24, 1958

Cassidy continued, praising that Reiner delivered, “a Beethoven Ninth Symphony so magnificent that it ranks high in the company of great performances, and may be the finest thing Mr. Reiner has done in and for Chicago. . . . That Mr. Reiner is a master conductor goes without saying, though it is a pleasure to say it. That he can be a great interpreter of essentially spiritual music is not so commonly understood. But no one who heard this Ninth could deny it, for there it was, fully known, fully projected, fully shared. He had what he has made a superb orchestra and what he has insisted on having to match it, a chorus of such quality its newness is hard to remember. Like the orchestra, that chorus can attack like the blow of a fist.

“Out of all this came a Ninth full of mesmeric detail, yet all of one thrusting design soaring to the great finale. The strangely fascinating cacophony of the first movement was crystalline in style, through full of moods and shadows in sound. The scherzo, never capricious, but volatile as ether, held the ear taut and, oddly, the heart. The slow movement sang in layers of floating sound, austere for all its tenderness. The ‘Ode to Joy’ burst out with the jubilation of the freed spirit. When it was over the audience burst into a roar—the kind of roar that means hundreds of people have been, quite without knowing it, holding their breath in pure excitement.”

October 1958 program biography for Jon Vickers

October 1958 program biography for Jon Vickers

Numerous obituaries have been posted online, including in the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Opera News, and The Guardian.

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On June 29, 2014, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rafael Kubelík, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s fifth music director and a beloved guest conductor, who was a presence on the Orchestra Hall podium from 1949 until 1991.

November 1949 program book biography

November 1949 program book biography

On November 17, 1949, thirty-five-year-old Kubelík made his United States conducting debut, leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the first of three weeks of subscription concerts at Orchestra Hall. Those programs (*including a few first CSO performances) were as follows:

November 17 and 18, 1949
SMETANA Overture to The Bartered Bride
MOZART Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504 (Prague)
*JANÁČEK Taras Bulba
BRAHMS Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68

November 17 and 18, 1949, program page

November 17 and 18, 1949, program page

November 24 and 25, 1949
*MÍČA Symphony in D Major
MOZART Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219
Erica Morini, violin
*MARTINŮ Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (Eroica)

December 1 and 2, 1949
HONEGGER Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra
BRUCKNER Symphony No. 8 in C Minor

October 12 and 13, 1950, program page

October 12 and 13, 1950, program page

Barely a month later, on December 29, the Chicago Tribune announced that Kubelík would “become musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra next fall.”

Kubelík began his tenure as the Orchestra’s fifth (and youngest) music director in October 1950, opening the sixtieth season with Bach’s Fourth Orchestral Suite; the Orchestra’s first performances of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta; and Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. During his three-season tenure, he introduced over seventy works to the Orchestra’s repertory, and his interpretations of works from his native Czechoslovakia drew critical praise.

April 23 and 24, 1953, program page

April 23 and 24, 1953, program page

His final concerts as music director, given on April 23 and 24, 1953, included a single work, a concert version of Wagner’s Parsifal with Set Svanholm in the title role. Margaret Harshaw, Sigurd Björling, Jerome Hines, Andrew Földi, and Frederich Lechner filled out the rest of the principal cast.

Following his music directorship, Kubelík returned to guest conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on several occasions. His final appearance with the Orchestra was on October 18, 1991, when he conducted Dvořák’s Husitská Overture concluding the Gala Centennial Finale concert, a re-creation of the Orchestra’s first concert on October 16, 1891.

Stay tuned for part 2 . . .

Rafael Kubelík acknowledging applause at the conclusion of the Gala Centennial Finale concert on October 18, 1991

Rafael Kubelík acknowledging applause at the conclusion of the Gala Centennial Finale concert on October 18, 1991

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Announcement for the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of Wagner's Tannhäuser on December 17, 1960.

On December 17, 1960, Georg Solti made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, conducting the Paris version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. The cast included Leonie Rysanek, Irene Dalis, Hans Hopf, Jerome Hines, and the house debut of Hermann Prey. (Twenty-two-year-old Teresa Stratas was scheduled to perform as the Shepherd, but she was replaced by Mildred Allen.)

According to Robert Sabin, reporting for Musical America: “In some ways, Tannhäuser is a severer challenge to the conductor than the Ring operas or Wagner’s other mature masterpieces, but Mr. Solti had solved every one of its ticklish problems of tempo, balance, phrasing and dramatic emphasis. Most notable were the fluidity of his tempos, the transparence of texture he achieved and the emotional vitality of his conception. True, the Bacchanale was pale and certain of the ensembles could have been weightier and more majestic. But this was a price willingly paid for the flow and clarity of Mr. Solti’s conception. He kept the audience absorbed every minute up to the last note and he richly deserved the prolonged ovations he received (in which the orchestra, be it noted, joined).”

The incredible MetOpera Database indicates that Solti conducted a total of thirty-seven performances with the company, including Tristan und Isolde, Otello, Boris Godunov, Aida, and Don Carlo. His final performances were two special concerts on March 27 and 28, 1964, given in memory of John F. Kennedy, that included a scene from Parsifal (with Jess Thomas, Jerome Hines, and Marcia Baldwin) and Verdi’s Requiem (with Leontyne Price, Rosalind Elias, Carlo Bergonzi, Cesare Siepi, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus).

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