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Civic Music Student Orchestra, onstage at Orchestra Hall in March 1920 (William T. Barnum photo)

We recently received an extraordinary donation to our collections: a mounted photograph—in remarkable condition—of the Civic Music Student Orchestra onstage in Orchestra Hall from March 1920. This image appeared in the Civic’s first program book (see here), and previously, the only copies in our collections were quite grainy and not the best quality.

In this newly acquired image, clearly visible—downstage, front and center—is the Civic’s founding leadership: (standing) Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Frederick Stock and (seated, left to right) assistant conductors Eric DeLamarter (the CSO’s assistant and associate conductor from 1918 until 1936) and George Dasch (a member of the CSO’s violin and viola sections from 1898 until 1923).

Mildred Brown in the early 1920s (Image courtesy of the Archives of the Sisters of Saint Francis, Rochester, Minnesota)

Also clearly visible in the assistant concertmaster chair is Mildred Brown, the previous owner of this artifact. The photograph came to us from the archives of the Sisters of Saint Francis in Rochester, Minnesota, where Brown—later Sister M. Ancille—lived from 1924 until her death in 1963. The handwriting at the bottom of the image reads, “Mildred Brown (Sr. Ancille), Assistant concert mistress, Front & center,” and an arrow points to her.

Born in Chicago on March 23, 1894, Brown earned a master’s degree in violin at the Chicago Musical College in 1915, where she studied with Alexander Sebald, and Leon Sametini, along with Chicago Symphony Orchestra assistant concertmaster Hugo Kortschak. She also attended the Juilliard School where she was a student of Franz Kneisel.

February 8, 1923

Brown was a member of the Civic Orchestra for its first season in 1919-20, one of fourteen women on the ensemble’s roster. At Stock’s invitation, she returned to the Civic in 1922-23, this time as concertmaster—the first woman to hold that position in the ensemble. During that season, Stock also invited her to be a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on a Popular concert on February 8, 1923. Brown performed Wieniawski’s Fantaisie brillante (based on themes from Gounod’s Faust).

After her first year in the Civic Orchestra, Brown embarked on a solo career and enjoyed considerable success. A press brochure itemized generous critical praise:

  • “Miss Brown has traveled far upon the road to success [performing] with so much brilliance, so much technical clarity with tone so pure and round. Hers is an admirable gift” (Felix Borowski, Chicago Record Herald).
  • “A young violinist of high attainments, both in the technical and interpretative sense (Eric DeLamarter, Chicago Tribune).
  • “She dashed into the finale with brilliance and carried it off with joyous abandon. Miss Brown has the right stuff in her and made such a ‘hit’ with the audience that she had to give an encore (Karleton Hackett, Chicago Evening Post)

    Sister M. Ancille in the early 1960s (Image courtesy of the Archives of the Sisters of Saint Francis, Rochester, Minnesota)

  • “Mildred Brown possesses all the attributes of the finished artist [with] rich tone and brilliant technique. . . . The difficult harmonic passages were played with security and in a flawless fashion” (Milwaukee Free Press).

While on tour in 1923, she performed a concert at the College of Saint Teresa in Winona, Minnesota and served as an instructor for its summer session. In January 1924, she joined the Sisters of Saint Francis. As a postulant, she directed the Teresan Orchestra and gave frequent concerts, and later—as Sister M. Ancille—she served on the faculties of the School of Musical Art and Lourdes High School (both in Rochester) and the College of Saint Teresa. She completed a second master’s degree in music from the University of Michigan in 1941 (likely attending for several summers, as it was common for Sisters teaching at the high school and college levels to continue work on advanced degrees by taking summer classes).

Sister Ancille died unexpectedly on November 19, 1963, at the age of sixty-nine. An obituary published in The Campanile (the college’s newspaper), she was remembered for “her performances as presentations of impeccable technique, finesse of style, and the artistry of a great musician, [always] striving for perfection. Sister Ancille had a reserve and repose that persons of all ages admired and respected. Her complete composure and graciousness exemplified the fullness of her life as a Franciscan. It seems, to us, very fitting that God called her home on the feast of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, the patron of all Third Order Franciscans.”

Mildred Brown in the second chair of the Civic Orchestra’s first violin section in 1920

Special thanks to the Archives of the Sisters of Saint Francis in Rochester, Minnesota, and congregational archivist Sister Marisa McDonald, OSF

December 3 and 4, 1909

December 3 and 4, 1909

Sergei Rachmaninov made his first appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on December 3 and 4, 1909, conducting his Isle of the Dead and performing as soloist in his Second Piano Concerto with Frederick Stock conducting.

“Mr. Rachmaninov appeared in three different roles on yesterday’s program as a creative musician (a composer, as a conductor, and as a pianist), in all three capacities he displayed unusual preeminence and gifts of a transcendent order,” wrote the critic in the Chicago Examiner. “At the conductor’s desk, [he] is a striking personality [and] the members of the Orchestra responded readily to his minutest directions.” In the concerto, “Rachmaninov made no less an artistic impression. He is endowed with a comprehensive technique, his scale passages and chord playing are clean and rapid, his tone is rich and musical, and in his concerto he displayed remarkable gifts . . . after a half dozen recalls [he] responded with his celebrated C-sharp minor prelude.”

According to Phillip Huscher, “Although Chicago didn’t get to hear it, by then Rachmaninov had written a third piano concerto, tailor-made for his first North American tour in late 1909. Rachmaninov introduced the work in New York on November 28, with Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony. He played it there again in January, with Gustav Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic.”

For the first time with Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he performed his Third Piano Concerto on January 23 and 24, 1920. Despite a nasty Chicago storm, Orchestra Hall was packed for the Friday matinee. “The concert of yesterday afternoon was an event,” wrote Karleton Hackett in the Evening Post. “I do not care what the verdict of twenty years from now may be regarding this concerto, for I have just listened to a performance of it that stirred me deeply. . . . It was a work of a man who understands the capacity of the instrument and can write for it in the fresh, vigorous idiom of our day such music as brings out its peculiar power and charm. What is quite as much to the point, he himself can play the instrument with a mastery that makes every phrase a delight. Rachmaninov has supreme virtuosity. There is nothing he cannot do at the keyboard, from the most exquisite delicacy of ornamentation to the downright stroke of elemental power. . . . The music was so vigorous, expressing so spontaneously the emotion of our own time that it seemed as though it were being struck out in the white heat of the creative impulse of the moment.”

Chicago American, January 15, 1932

In January 1932, the composer was again in Chicago for three concerts with Stock and the Orchestra. After a performance of the second concerto on January 12, Herman Devries in the American reported, “It was not Chicago . . . it was not Orchestra Hall . . . it was not Rachmaninov . . . to me it seemed Olympus, and we were all gods. Thus does music glorify when it is itself glorious. It is not the first time that I have waxed passionately enthusiastic over the genius of Rachmaninov. After hearing Horowitz [in recital] on Sunday [January 10], we thought that the season’s thrills were nearly complete.”

Later that week on January 14 and 15, Rachmaninov was soloist in his third concerto. “The most exciting event in the history of Orchestra Hall occurred last night,” wrote Glenn Dillard Gunn in the Herald & Examiner. “With one impulse, the audience rose and shouted its approval. Many eyes were wet and many throats were hoarse before the demonstration ended. For once on their feet, the listeners remained to cheering after the Orchestra had trumpeted and thundered its fanfare and long after the composer-pianist had brought Dr. Stock to the footlights to share his honors. Never have I witnessed such a tribute . . . and never, it is my sincere conviction, has such response been so richly deserved.”

Chicago Sun, February 12, 1943

Chicago Sun, February 12, 1943

Rachmaninov’s final appearances with the Orchestra were on February 11 and 12, 1943, in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto and his own Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, under the baton of associate conductor Hans Lange. “Sergei Rachmaninov evoked a series of ovations when he appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall last night,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “His entrance won standing tribute from orchestra and capacity audience, his Beethoven stirred a storm of grateful applause, and his own Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini ended the concert in a kind of avalanche of cumulative excitement.”

The following week, Rachmaninov traveled to Louisville and Knoxville for solo recitals on February 15 and 17, in what would be his final public performances. He died in Beverly Hills, California on March 28, 1943.

Portions of this article are included in the February 14-17, 2019, program book and also previously appeared here.

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Theodore Thomas

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