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To celebrate Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birthday on October 10, 2013, Riccardo Muti led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (prepared by Duain Wolfe)—along with soloists Tatiana Serjan, Daniela Barcellona, Mario Zeffiri, and Ildar Abdrazakov—in Verdi’s Requiem at Orchestra Hall. The concert capped off a celebration that was comprised of several performances of Verdi’s music, including concert performances of his opera Macbeth.
The video of the Requiem was projected into Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion and Benito Juarez Community Academy in Chicago, as well as streamed live across the Internet via numerous collaborating websites and the Orchestra’s Facebook page.
“All great performances of the Verdi Requiem carry a sense of occasion, and Thursday’s carried a sense of truly momentous occasion,” praised John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “Muti understands the importance of respecting Verdi’s markings in regard to tempo, dynamics, and expression, and he also knows the importance of breathing with the singers and instrumentalists. His wholehearted dedication carried over to every musician under his command.” In The New York Times, Vivien Schweitzer added, “Alluring dynamic contrasts and shadings rendered the performance exciting and moving by turns, with impeccable playing from the Orchestra and exemplary singing by the Chicago Symphony Chorus.”
More than 3,000 people viewed the concert in Millennium Park, reported Mark Caro in the Chicago Tribune. According to one patron, “You get to see the city in the evening, you’re near the lake, the music is beautiful, and we love Muti and think he’s done a beautiful job with the CSO.”
The following year, to open the 124th season on September 18, 2014, Riccardo Muti led the Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists Camilla Nylund, Ekaterina Gubanova, Matthew Polenzani, and Eric Owens in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Orchestra Hall. Also video recorded, the performance was made available for free streaming on the Orchestra’s website.
During Daniel Barenboim’s first season as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s ninth music director, several concerts included music by Mozart to commemorate the bicentennial of the composer’s death. The commemoration culminated in February 1992, with the transformation of Orchestra Hall into an opera house as Barenboim conducted (from memory) performances of the three operas by Mozart with librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte—The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, and Don Giovanni. Presented semistaged in rotating repertory, the productions featured such leading singers as Lella Cuberli, Joan Rodgers, Cecilia Bartoli, Waltraud Meier, Ferruccio Furlanetto, and Michele Pertusi, with costumes by Oscar de la Renta.
Following The Marriage of Figaro, Wynne Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times called the performance “luxurious in the broadest and best sense. There was the CSO’s sumptuous sound, a fine roster of singers and inventive staging . . . [with] a rich elegance that fit beautifully in the affluent, contemporary stage universe created by directors Christopher and David Alden.” And in the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein added, “Indeed, hearing Mozart’s scoring as played by the CSO was without question the chief justification for Barenboim’s presenting the Da Ponte works on the subscription series. Seldom in any theater does one hear orchestral sonorities so warmly blended or impeccably balanced, yet with every detail in clear relief.”
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On November 18, 1990, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra departed for a tour that would include its first concerts in Russia as well as in Sir Georg Solti’s native Hungary.
“Orchestra officials concede this trip was the toughest they have ever put together, requiring more than a year’s planning and a major solicitation,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. Quoting Solti, “I fought very hard for this tour. . . .We have the opportunity to send a message from our city, and from this orchestra, which is unparalleled by any ambassador America could send to Russia [and that] America has produced a cultural institution that is the best in the world.”
Early on November 21, Solti and the Orchestra recorded Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony at the Bolshoi Hall of the Philharmonie in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg); that evening they performed their first concert: Bartók’s Dance Suite and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The following evening’s program featured only Bruckner’s symphony; however, the audience demanded no less than four encores, and Solti and the Orchestra obliged with Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, the second movement (Allegro) from Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Debussy’s Festivals from Nocturnes.
Traveling on to Moscow the next day, a truck hauling instruments and luggage broke an axle just outside Leningrad. “It took dozens of midnight phone calls and a full militia escort to get the instruments and performance clothes to the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory just four-and-a-half hours before the CSO was to begin playing,” reported Thom Shanker, a correspondent in the Tribune’s Moscow bureau. “As if that weren’t enough . . . students, soldiers, museum workers, and average folks lied, pushed, and flashed false passes to win their way into the hall. Fire codes were ignored as spectators filled the aisles, exits, and passageways in the balconies of the nineteenth-century concert hall.”
For the November 28 concert in Budapest, Solti led the Orchestra in an all-Bartók program: the Dance Suite, Third Piano Concerto with András Schiff, and the Concerto for Orchestra. Again, the audience demanded more: Debussy’s Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, Shostakovich’s Allegro, and Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger.
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In May 2015, Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Orchestra, Chorus, and numerous soloists in the French Reveries and Passions Festival. The three weeks of concerts featured Debussy’s La damoiselle élue, Syrinx, and Pelléas et Mélisande with Jenny Carlstedt and Stéphane Degout in the title roles; Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie on ondes martenot; and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Piano Concerto in G major with Thibaudet, and L’enfant et les sortilèges.
“Part conductor, part traffic cop, he kept the semistaged performance flowing tightly and smoothly, securing gossamer textures and refined playing from the Orchestra, and crisp singing from the soloists and choruses,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune after L’enfant et les sortilèges, the Orchestra’s first performances of Ravel’s one-act opera. “If other interpreters have brought out more of the work’s charm and sentiment, Salonen’s cooler, analytical manner presented every measure of this delicious little opera in as clear and direct a manner as possible.”
Regarding Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande—also a first performance by the Orchestra—von Rhein added, “The CSO players may be unfamiliar with this music but so fully did they respond to Salonen’s precise, urgently dramatic direction—particularly in the atmospheric preludes and interludes—that you would have sworn Pelléas is standard repertory for them. I cannot recall when I have heard Debussy’s orchestral music played so ravishingly, or so well.”
Following Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie, von Rhein praised the Orchestra’s “terrific” performance. Salonen “clearly appreciates what makes this mad behemoth unlike anything else in twentieth-century music. His keen ear, his long experience with shaping and organizing its multiple sound-layers, and, most of all, his ability to inspire an orchestra of more than 100 musicians to share his insights and convictions, and convey them to the audience without embarrassment, made the performance feel like an occasion, not just a concert. . . . [Salonen kept] detail in sharp focus rather than wallowing in emotive sensuality for its own dubious sake. Messiaen, the conductor would argue, does quite enough of that without needing any help from the podium. The Orchestra came through magnificently for him in every department, not least the platoon of percussionists.”
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In September 1995, Sir Georg Solti led three concert performances of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Orchestra Hall. The performances were split: the first two acts on one concert and the third act on a separate concert over the course of two open dress rehearsals and four concerts. Principal soloists included Karita Mattila, Iris Vermillion, Ben Heppner, Herbert Lippert, José van Dam, Alan Opie, and René Pape, along with the Chicago Symphony Chorus prepared by Duain Wolfe.
“Last weekend you could call the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, without fear of contradiction, the best and most prestigious Wagnerian pit band in the world of opera,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “Even as Solti blockbusters go, [these concerts] were an extraordinary experience—painstakingly prepared and powerfully executed. . . . It would be no exaggeration to call this a milestone in Solti’s Wagnerian career to rank with his historic recording of the Ring.”
The subsequent London Records release won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. The award marked Solti’s thirty-first Grammy, more than any other recording artist in any genre. He received seven awards in addition to his twenty-four awards with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Solti and producer John Culshaw also received the first NARAS Trustees’ Award in 1967 for their “efforts, ingenuity, and artistic contributions” in connection with the first complete recording of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen with the Vienna Philharmonic. Solti also received the Academy’s 1995 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Claudio Abbado first conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in January 1971, leading three weeks of subscription concerts. For the next twenty years, he was a frequent visitor—both before and after his tenure as second principal guest conductor from 1982 until 1985—also leading the Orchestra in concerts at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. Abbado’s numerous residencies included collaborations with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, recording sessions, and performances with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.
On May 24, 25, and 27, 1984, Abbado led the Orchestra’s first performances of Berg’s landmark opera, Wozzeck. The principal cast included Benjamin Luxon in the title role, Hildegard Behrens as Marie, Alexander Malta as the Doctor, Jacque Trussel as the Drum Major, and Gerhard Unger as the Captain. Members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus were prepared by associate director James Winfield, members of the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus were prepared by Doreen Rao, and the concert staging was directed by Robert Goldschlager.
“Sung by an extraordinary cast and played with surpassing beauty and intensity by the Orchestra, this first CSO performance of the Berg masterpiece served as a resoundingly successful climax to the season,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “In a wondrous score that shifts between Straussian contrapuntal complexity and a translucence of texture worthy of Debussy, Abbado was masterful. His limning of detail was extraordinary, and he never stressed the agonized lyricism at the expense of passion or intensity. Given orchestral playing of power, shimmer, and clarity, Berg’s tight formal structures supported a vocal performance of shattering dramatic impact.”
“Claudio Abbado, who conducted without a score (an achievement appreciated by all who have studied this music) took advantage of the simple setting to permit the work to develop with symphonic continuity, one scene flowing directly into another, and the cumulative effect was tremendous,” raved Robert C. Marsh in the Chicago Sun-Times. “There are occasions when despite our rich diet of superlative music, you say to yourself, ‘This is a historic moment. People will be talking about this for years to come.’ And they will. Abbado and the CSO, in all their years of association, have never done anything finer or more important.”
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Leonard Bernstein made several appearances with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival between 1944 and 1956, and he also conducted the Orchestra on two subscription weeks at Orchestra Hall in 1951. In June 1988, he returned to Chicago to act as artistic advisor for the American Conductors Program, a joint project of the American Symphony Orchestra League and selected major American orchestras. For the program, he coached three young conductors—Kate Tamarkin, Leif Bjaland, and John Fiore, all chosen following a nationwide competition—in works by Richard Strauss.
On the June 16 and 17 concerts with the Orchestra, Fiore conducted Death and Transfiguration, Tamarkin led Don Juan, and Bjaland conducted Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. After intermission, Bernstein took the podium for Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 1, and the following week, he closed the Orchestra’s ninety-seventh season with Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony (Leningrad) on June 21 and 22.
“I cannot recall a season finale of recent years, in fact, that sent the audience home on such a tidal wave of euphoria, and for so many of the right reasons,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune, following the first performance of the Leningrad Symphony. “Indeed, the conductor was constantly pushing the music beyond the rhetorical brink, then drawing back when things threatened to go over the top. Of course, he had the world’s greatest Shostakovich brass section at his ready command. The augmented brasses blared with magnificent menace, the violins sounded their unison recitatives with vehement intensity. And the woodwinds, with their always crisp and characterful playing, reminded us of the many poetic, soft sections that separate the bombastic outbursts.”
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On March 9 and 10, 1928, Vladimir Horowitz first appeared with the Orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto with Frederick Stock conducting. His U.S. debut had been less than two months before, at Carnegie Hall on January 12, when he was soloist in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Sir Thomas Beecham.
In the Herald & Examiner, Glenn Dillard Gunn proclaimed the twenty-four-year old pianist the greatest talent to come out of Russia since Rachmaninov. “Whether he sustains a tenuous thread of melody or thunders more loudly than the Orchestra’s basses and percussions, his playing has diction. He never fails to impart to every moment of his performance that especial inflection, accent, or rhythmic impulse which adds eloquence to mere tonal beauty.” Herman Devries in the Chicago American took it even further, saying, “A sensation, nothing less, one of the most amazingly legitimate sensations of the generation. . . . The Orchestra itself, Mr. Stock, too, whose accompaniment was actually emotionally inspired, was visibly moved and impressed. Don’t ask me to describe his playing, just go. It’s something one does not have to describe. No one can dissect genius—and Horowitz is a genius—a young demi-god.”
Horowitz returned regularly for more than twenty years, performing under music directors Désiré Defauw and Artur Rodzinski and guest conductor Eugene Ormandy in concertos by Beethoven, Brahms, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky. To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his U.S. debut, he was scheduled to appear again in Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto under Rafael Kubelík in March 1953, but having fallen ill with the flu, he was forced to cancel.
He returned to Chicago on several occasions to perform in recital, and his last appearance—at the age of eighty-three— was on October 26, 1986. “Sunday’s concert found the great pianist in a generally more introspective mood,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. Horowitz played with “a lyrical sensitivity, a limpid and beautifully proportioned pianism, a seamless, purling legato of the sort no other pianist can duplicate.”
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On October 23 and 24, 1952, fifth music director Rafael Kubelík led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the music most closely associated with his native Czechoslovakia, Smetana’s Má vlast.
“Smetana’s My Country is regarded in Kubelík’s Czechoslovakia with a reverence which rises superior to admiration and becomes a symbol of patriotic love,” wrote Felix Borowski in the Chicago Sun-Times. He continued that Kubelík’s interpretation “transcended mere music making. It was an impressive, even jubilant, rite. . . . It was evident that Orchestra Hall realized that this concert was more than ordinarily important to its conductor. Kubelík never previously had led his orchestra with so much outward disclosure of inspiration, nor indeed, had the players responded with so much zest. . . . The Moldau was received with notable enthusiasm, and this was as it should be, for the work rarely has been given with so much color and brilliance of effect.”
On December 4 and 5 of that year, the work was recorded by Mercury Records. Returning as a guest conductor, Kubelík led performances of the six symphonic poems on January 23 and 24, 1969, and again on October 27, 28, and 29, 1983.
John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune called Kubelík’s third complete cycle with the Orchestra “his finest. One has only to compare it with the famous recording of Má vlast he made with the Chicago Symphony in 1952 at the start of his final season as CSO music director. In every respect the present performance was superior, not just because Kubelík is a more searching interpreter than he was thirty-one years ago, but also because the Orchestra responds with so much more skill and understanding. And why not? Kubelík taught them the style.”
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To conclude his twenty-two seasons as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s eighth music director in 1991, Sir Georg Solti led concert performances of Verdi’s Otello at Orchestra Hall on April 8 and 12 and at Carnegie Hall on April 16 and 19. Principal soloists included soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa as Desdemona, tenor Luciano Pavarotti as Otello, and baritone Leo Nucci as Iago. All four performances were recorded live by London Records.
After the first performance in Orchestra Hall, John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune reported that “Solti had his Chicago Symphony playing this formidably difficult score as if it were a seasoned opera orchestra; every opera house should have such a band of virtuosi in residence. No minor contributions to the evening were made by the Chicago Symphony Chorus, superbly prepared by the redoubtable Margaret Hillis [along with guest chorus director Terry Edwards], and augmented by the Chicago Children’s Choir.”
Donal Henahan, following the first Carnegie Hall concert, in The New York Times praised “The Chicago, never in our time less than a great orchestra, provided many thrills. In the stupendous opening scene, it and Margaret Hillis’s chorus unleashed every erg of sonic energy the hall could tolerate, vividly establishing the mood for violent events to come.” In London’s Financial Times, Andrew Porter noted, “I’ve never heard Solti’s famous excitability so completely harnessed to a disciplined, long-lined, marvelously vivid, engrossing account of the whole score.”
At the conclusion of the April 19 concert—Solti’s last as music director—von Rhein reported, “A mighty shout of approval immediately went up from the house.” This continued for several minutes until Solti took “co-concertmaster Rubén González by the hand and [led] him off the stage—a sign for the rest of the Orchestra to follow. . . . He will, of course, return to Chicago in the fall, and for many years thereafter, as CSO music director laureate. But no Solti farewell will ever seem as emotionally momentous as this one.”