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Theodore Thomas, the Chicago Orchestra‘s first music director, died on January 4, 1905. For many years after, the Orchestra would dedicate the first concerts of the new year to his memory, frequently performing works closely associated with their founder. We continue that tradition on this week’s radio broadcast, as Frank Villella, director of the CSO’s Rosenthal Archives, co-hosts a retrospective of works that Thomas introduced to audiences in the United States, both with the Chicago Orchestra and other ensembles.
In 1879, the University of Breslau in Poland bestowed upon Johannes Brahms an honorary doctorate, and to show his appreciation, he composed the Academic Festival Overture the following summer. The composer himself led the first public performance at the university in January 1881, and later that year on November 29, Thomas led the U.S. premiere in New York.
Daniel Barenboim, early in his tenure as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director, recorded Brahms’s complete symphonies, along with the Tragic Overture, Variations on a Theme by Haydn, and the Academic Festival Overture, all for Erato Records.
In the nineteenth century, Thomas was Richard Wagner’s greatest advocate in the United States, both before and after he founded the Chicago Orchestra. During his fourteen seasons as music director, he programmed Wagner’s music on nearly half of his concerts, both in Chicago and with the Orchestra on tour. Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of the Prelude from Tristan and Isolde in New York on February 10, 1866, less than a year after the opera’s first complete performances in Munich; and he also gave the first U.S. performance of the Prelude paired with the Liebestod in Boston on December 6, 1871. Thomas programmed these two works together fifteen times on subscription concerts during his tenure as music director.
Artur Rodzinski was the Orchestra’s fourth music director for only one season (1947–48). One of his great successes was a concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in November 1947, featuring soprano Kirsten Flagstad in her first operatic appearance in the United States since the end of World War II. The legendary Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy called the performance “the dawn of a new operatic day in Chicago.” A month later, Rodzinski and the Orchestra recorded the Prelude and Liebestod for RCA.
Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the Chicago Orchestra on January 3, 1902, and it was such a crowd-pleaser that he programmed it a second time later that season. A few years later in April 1907, second music director Frederick Stock invited the composer himself to lead several of his works, including In the South, the first Pomp and Circumstance March, and the Enigma Variations. The Chicago Tribune reported that, “The men of the Orchestra gave him their closest attention and heartiest sympathy yesterday, and the result was a performance of the three compositions which was technically and tonally of highest worth. Sir Edward himself seemed genuinely pleased and his assertion after the concert that the ‘work of the Orchestra surpassed all his fondest expectations’ evidently was the expression of his true feeling.”
Sir Georg Solti, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s eighth music director, recorded the Enigma Variations on May 15, 1974, at Medinah Temple for London Records.
During the summer of 1883, Thomas visited Europe and according to his Memoirs—edited by his widow, Rose Fay Thomas—the conductor, “had met, in Munich, a young and almost unknown composer, one Richard Strauss, who has recently finished writing a symphony. Thomas secured the first movement of the work, and was so much impressed with it that he requested young Strauss to let him have the other movements, promising to bring out the whole work in a concert of the Philharmonic Society.” Thomas kept that promise and in New York in December 1884, he led the world premiere of the Second Symphony in F minor—the first music of Richard Strauss to be performed in the United States. Strauss would later send new scores, and Thomas introduced several works to the United States with the Orchestra, including Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Also sprach Zarathustra, Don Quixote, along with Ein Heldenleben, first performed in Chicago on March 9, 1900.
Near the end of his first season as sixth music director, Fritz Reiner made his first recordings with the Orchestra for RCA. In Orchestra Hall on March 6, 1954, they recorded Strauss’s Dance of the Seven Veils from Salome and Ein Heldenleben, with violin solos performed by then-concertmaster John Weicher. Reiner’s CSO recordings of music by Strauss have never been out of print, and in 2013, Sony re-issued Reiner’s complete CSO catalog on RCA, a boxed set of sixty-three CDs.
TCHAIKOVSKY Final Waltz and Apotheosis from The Nutcracker, Op. 71
Morton Gould, conductor
Recorded by RCA in Orchestra Hall, January 1966
Thomas gave the U.S. premiere of a suite from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker on October 22, 1892, on the first concert of the Orchestra’s second season. The program note described Tchaikovsky as the “composer, who, in his fifth symphony, has led us into the highest realms of art and stirred our very soul,” and the note described the selections from the ballet as “miniature pictures painted with infinite grace and care,” showing the composer, “in one of his playful and trifling moods.”
Morton Gould, a frequent guest conductor on Popular concerts in the 1960s, recorded selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker at Orchestra Hall on January 31, 1966, for RCA. A six-disc set of Gould’s complete recordings with the Orchestra was released by Sony in February 2016.
Virtually every Chicago Symphony Orchestra musician studied with a great teacher, who studied with great teachers before that—a process that traces back to Bernstein, Brahms, and Bach. Along with our beloved Italian maestro, Riccardo Muti, the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Alumni Association are a living link to past generations of legendary performers, conductors, and composers, and our artist musicians hail from many different countries who share a common musical heritage.
As we conclude the celebrations surrounding the Orchestra’s festive 125th season, the CSOAA also celebrates an anniversary this year—its twenty-fifth. The CSOAA consists of nearly 130 members—including retired and former musicians, spouses, and children—an astonishing aggregate total of well over a thousand years of service to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra! In 1991, Isadore Zverow (viola, 1945–1988) fostered the idea of the CSOAA, and subsequent presidents have included Sam Denov (percussion, 1954–1985), Phillip Kauffman (violin and viola, 1927–1930 and 1964–1984), Jerry Sabransky (violin, 1949–1997), and currently Tom Hall (violin, 1970–2006).
Having performed for many years together on stages all over the world, alumni continue to interact with each other through the CSOAA; and each season, members receive discounts to concerts and the Symphony Store. The organization enjoys the warm embrace of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, which holds its former musicians close as senior members of the Orchestra’s family. Current CSOA President Jeff Alexander has been most gracious in supporting the retirees, some of whom are well into their nineties. The CSOAA board of directors meets several times a year to plan annual reunion dinners, which are usually held at the historic Cliff Dwellers club. Members also have contributed to the CSOA’s Rosenthal Archives—a treasure trove of history, recordings, music scores, artifacts, and databases of former orchestra members—lovingly curated and managed by our liaison, director Frank Villella.
So the next time you stroll through Symphony Center’s first-floor arcade, try to imagine the many great musicians of earlier generations behind each portrait—beautifully taken by photographer Todd Rosenberg—of the superb musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
This article also appears in the September/October CSO program book.
Donald Moline was a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra cello section from 1967 until 2006, and he currently serves as secretary of the CSOAA.