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Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler (ca. 1893)

With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, no one has performed Schumann’s Piano Concerto more than Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler.

Born in Austria in 1863, Fannie Blumenfeld and her family immigrated to the United States in 1867 and settled in Chicago. She began piano studies at the age of six and gave her first concert on February 26, 1875. Encouraged by the Russian pianist Anna Essipoff, Blumenfeld returned to Vienna in 1878, where she began studies with Theodor Leschetizky. Shortly after returning to the U.S. in 1883—and anglicizing her name to Bloomfield—she auditioned for Theodore Thomas, then the music director for the New York Philharmonic as well as his eponymous Theodore Thomas Orchestra. It was too late to hire her for his upcoming seasons, but, inspired by her playing, Thomas provided letters of recommendation to help her secure other engagements.

Bloomfield made her professional debut in Chicago’s Central Music Hall on January 11, 1884, performing the first movement of Adolf von Henselt’s Piano Concerto in F minor under the baton of one of her first teachers, Carl Wolfsohn. In the Chicago Tribune, the reviewer described her performance with “A firm but at the same time delicate touch, a technique which overcomes the greatest difficulties without apparent effort, and an intelligent mastery over the mechanism of her instrument were the characteristics of her playing, which made themselves felt before she had finished a small portion of her task. Every note received its due. . . . It was a great treat, Miss Bloomfield’s playing, and one not soon to be forgotten.”

Zeisler was soloist in the Chicago Orchestra’s first performance of Schumann’s Piano Concerto in Pittsburgh on April 19, 1893

Bloomfield’s debut in New York occurred the following year, on February 1, 1885, under Frank Van der Stucken and his orchestra, again with Henselt’s Piano Concerto. In October of that year, she married Sigmund Zeisler (who later served on the defense counsel for the anarchists responsible for the onset of the Haymarket Square riot), and the couple had three sons.

Zeisler made her debut with the Chicago Orchestra during the ensemble’s first season, at the Auditorium Theatre on March 25 and 26, 1892. “The solo part in [Chopin’s second] concerto was played by Mrs. Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, a Chicago artist who is heard but too rarely in local concerts,” wrote the reviewer in the Chicago Tribune. “Few piano performances heard in the Auditorium have possessed as high artistic finish and true musicianly qualities as did that accorded Chopin’s concerto last evening by Mrs. Zeisler. There have been performances more brilliant, performances more impressive in their breadth and power, but none have revealed greater refinement of style and clearer, truer conception than did this.”

All-Schumann concert at the World’s Columbian Exposition on June 9, 1893

Later that spring, Zeisler joined Thomas and the Orchestra on tour to perform three concerts in Omaha, two in Louisville, and one in Kansas City, Missouri; her repertoire included Chopin’s Second, Rubinstein’s Fourth, and Saint-Saëns’s Fourth concertos.

The following season, she appeared with the Orchestra on a pair of subscription concerts in December and on tour on five occasions, including concerts in Pittsburgh and Buffalo in April that included the ensemble’s first performances of Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Soon thereafter, Zeisler was one of only two pianists—along with Ignace Paderewski—chosen by Thomas to perform with the Orchestra at the World’s Columbian Exposition. On June 9, 1893, she appeared in an all-Schumann concert (honoring the composer’s birthday) that included the Manfred Overture, Third Symphony, and the Piano Concerto. “Mme. Zeisler proved herself,” according to the Chicago Tribune, giving “a performance in every respect admirable and satisfying [lending] charm and poetry.”

Over the next thirty years, Zeisler was a frequent and favorite soloist with the Orchestra, performing not only Schumann’s concerto, but also works by Beethoven, Chopin, Grieg, Henselt, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Moszkowski, Mozart, Rubinstein, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky, and Weber.

Zeisler’s Golden Jubilee Concert, February 25, 1925

On February 25, 1925, Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler appeared with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—and before the public—one last time, in a concert celebrating her fiftieth year as a concert artist. The program included Beethoven’s Andante favori, Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, and her eighth performance with the CSO of Schumann’s Piano Concerto. “You might have closed your eyes and been willing to swear that an artist in the first flush of maturity, with intensively cultivated powers and enormous flair for major piano works was playing,” wrote the critic in the Chicago Tribune. “It was the seal on an honorable and highly honored career. Mrs. Zeisler is as sincere an artist as ever appeared before the public. [Her honesty] shone through, every note she played, just as it has always shone whenever she played. And a capacity audience was present to testify to the esteem in which the fine sincerity of a fine artist is held.” She died in Chicago on August 21, 1927.

Portions of this article appear in the May 19, 20, 21, and 22, 2022, program book; and the article also appears here.

Donald Peck in 1994 (Jim Steere photo)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family mourns the passing of Donald Peck, a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1957 until 1999 and principal flute for over forty years. He passed away earlier today, April 29, 2022. Peck was ninety-two.

Born on January 26, 1930, in Yakima, Washington, Donald Peck received his early musical training in Seattle, where he played in the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra. As a teenager, he performed with his first teacher, Frank Horsfall, in the Seattle Symphony. He was a scholarship student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied with William Kincaid. Peck performed with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and spent three years in the U.S. Marine Band. He was principal flute of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra for two years before Fritz Reiner invited him to join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1957 as assistant principal flute. The following year, Reiner promoted Peck to principal flute, a chair he would hold for over forty years until his retirement in 1999.

Peck first appeared as soloist with the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in August 1959, in Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and on subscription concerts in Orchestra Hall in November 1960, in Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite, both with Walter Hendl conducting. During his tenure, he appeared as soloist on more than 120 concerts directed by twenty-five conductors—including music directors Reiner, Jean Martinon, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim—in Orchestra Hall, at the Ravinia Festival, and on tour.

Donald Peck in 1966 (Dorothy Siegel Druzinsky photo)

On April 18, 1985, Solti led the Orchestra in the world premiere of Morton Gould’s Flute Concerto, commissioned for Peck. In a preview article in the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein described his playing as, “Lustrous and penetrating, tender and lyrical, charming and sensual, its hues would put a chameleon to shame. It is one of the most distinctive voices in the orchestral choir, blending well with any ensemble even as it serves a key role within the woodwind section. . . . as principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Peck has carried out that role with a combination of technical skill and musical understanding that has earned him widespread admiration. Within the fraternity of the flute he is considered to be without peer. No less a judge than Julius Baker, the longtime principal flutist of the New York Philharmonic [and principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1951 until 1953], pronounces Peck ‘the greatest flutist I’ve ever heard.'”

Also for Peck, William Ferris wrote his Flute Sonata and Lee Hoiby dedicated his Pastorale Dances for Flute and Orchestra. He regularly performed as a guest artist with other orchestras, including appearances at the Pablo Casals Festival with concerts in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and in Carnegie Hall. In Australia, Peck recorded Mozart’s flute concertos for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and he regularly appeared at the Carmel Bach Festival in California, the Victoria International Festival in Canada, the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, and the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, along with numerous other orchestras from coast to coast.

As principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Peck performed on over three hundred recordings under twenty-two conductors for twelve labels. In his retirement, he recorded works for flute and piano with Melody Lord for the Boston label. Peck also was a longtime member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Alumni Association.

Peck served on the faculties of DePaul and Roosevelt universities, where he taught flute and woodwind ensemble. A frequent lecturer and guest teacher, he gave master classes at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music in New York, at the Rotterdam Conservatory in Holland, for the Osaka Flute Club in Japan, at the Sydney Flute Association in Australia, and at over thirty universities and music groups throughout the United States and Canada. For many years, Peck played a flute—fashioned in platinum-iridium—handmade for him by Powell Flutes of Boston.

In 1997, the National Flute Association honored Peck with a lifetime achievement award. Indiana University Press published Peck’s memoir, The Right Place, The Right Time! Tales of Chicago Symphony Days in 2007, and the Chicago Flute Club’s biennial international flute competition is named in his honor.

Near the end of his tenure as principal flute, Peck spoke again with von Rhein for the Chicago Tribune. “The flute has the potential for more color and brilliance [and] the woodwind section can be most exquisite, like glittering jewels. . . . I have been a very lucky person, having performed with wonderful musicians and done so much. What more could I want?”

Donald Peck warming up backstage, on tour with the CSO in the 1990s (Jim Steere photo)

Plans for a memorial service will be announced at a later date, and memorial gifts may be made to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

This article also appears here.

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!

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins the music world in mourning the loss of legendary American pianist, conductor, and pedagogue Leon Fleisher, who died yesterday in Baltimore. He was ninety-two.

Leon Fleisher (Eli Turner photo)

Fleisher began playing the piano at the age of four, and five years later he became a student of Artur Schnabel. At sixteen in 1944, he made his debut performing Brahms’s First Piano Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony and then with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, both under Pierre Monteux. The following year, he made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Bernstein conducting at the Ravinia Festival.

In 1964, Fleisher lost the use of his right hand due to focal dystonia, forcing him to concentrate on repertoire written for the left hand. By the late 1990s, he had regained use of his right hand. A tireless pedagogue, he was (according to his son Julian) still teaching and conducting master classes online as recently as last week.

Fleisher appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on numerous occasions, both in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival. A complete list is below.

July 31, 1945, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Leonard Bernstein, conductor

August 4, 1945, Ravinia Festival
FRANCK Symphonic Variations
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
Leonard Bernstein, conductor

July 4, 1946, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
George Szell, conductor

July 7, 1946, Ravinia Festival
SCHUMANN Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54
George Szell, conductor

July 11, 1946, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
William Steinberg, conductor

July 14, 1946, Ravinia Festival
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18
William Steinberg, conductor

Leon Fleisher in 1963 (Bender photo)

March 25, 1947, Orchestra Hall
RACHMANINOV Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Désiré Defauw, conductor

March 27 and 28, 1947, Orchestra Hall
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
Désiré Defauw, conductor

February 18, 19, and 23, 1954, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
Fritz Reiner, conductor

July 1, 1954, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
William Steinberg, conductor

July 4, 1954, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
William Steinberg, conductor

July 13, 1956, Ravinia Festival
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503
Igor Markevitch, conductor

July 14, 1956, Ravinia Festival
RACHMANINOV Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Igor Markevitch, conductor

February 1, 1958, Orchestra Hall
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor

July 26, 1958, Ravinia Festival
TCHAIKOVSKY Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23
Igor Markevitch, conductor

July 29, 1958, Ravinia Festival
RACHMANINOV Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
Georg Solti, conductor

July 30, 1959, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73
André Cluytens, conductor

August 1, 1959, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
André Cluytens, conductor

June 27, 1961, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Walter Hendl, conductor

June 29, 1961, Ravinia Festival
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Major, K. 503
Walter Hendl, conductor

April 25 and 26, 1963, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
Walter Hendl, conductor

July 25, 1963, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, conductor

July 27, 1963, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, conductor

July 30, 1964, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Stanisław Skrowaczewski, conductor

August 1, 1964, Ravinia Festival
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488
Seiji Ozawa, conductor

July 6, 1968, Ravinia Festival
RAVEL Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major
Seiji Ozawa, conductor

June 30, 1984, Ravinia Festival
RAVEL Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major
James Levine, conductor

July 27, 1985, Ravinia Festival
BRITTEN Diversions for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra, Op. 21
James Conlon, conductor

August 14, 1986, Ravinia Festival
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 4 in B-flat Major for the Left Hand, Op. 53
James Conlon, conductor

July 28, 1988, Ravinia Festival
RAVEL Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major
Yuri Temirkanov, conductor

July 28, 1989, Ravinia Festival
SCHMIDT Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in E-flat Major
Edo de Waart, conductor
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

July 26, 1990, Ravinia Festival
RAVEL Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major
Gianluigi Gelmetti, conductor

December 3, 4, 5, and 8, 1992
RAVEL Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major
Pierre Boulez, conductor

July 29, 1995, Ravinia Festival
FOSS Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Manfred Honeck, conductor

December 14, 15, and 16, 1995, Orchestra Hall
RAVEL Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major
Pierre Boulez, conductor

July 10, 1998, Ravinia Festival
RAVEL Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

July 1, 1999, Ravinia Festival
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

August 14, 1999, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Adagio from Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Christoph Eschenbach, conductor

July 15, 2000, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Iván Fischer, conductor

July 15, 2001, Ravinia Festival
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414
Sir Andrew Davis, conductor

July 13, 2002, Ravinia Festival
MOZART Concerto for Three Pianos in F Major, K. 242 (Lodron)
Leon Fleisher, piano
Claude Frank, piano
Menahem Pressler, piano
Peter Oundjian, conductor

August 1, 2003, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
John Axelrod, conductor

July 30, 2008, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Sir Andrew Davis, conductor

July 28, 2013, Ravinia Festival
MOZART Concerto for Three Pianos in F Major, K. 242 (Lodron)
Leon Fleisher, piano
Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, piano
Alon Goldstein, piano

Numerous tributes have been posted online, including The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times, and NPR, among many others.

Wishing Donald Peck—a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1957 until 1999 and principal flute for over forty years—a very happy ninetieth birthday!

Donald Peck in 1994 (Jim Steere photo)

Peck received his early musical training in Seattle, where he played in the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra and the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra. As a teenager, he performed with his first teacher, Frank Horsfall, in the Seattle Symphony. He was a scholarship student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he studied with William Kincaid. Peck performed with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and spent three years in the U.S. Marine Band. He was principal flute of the Kansas City Philharmonic Orchestra for two years before Fritz Reiner invited him to join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1957 as assistant principal flute. The following year, Reiner promoted Peck to principal flute, a chair he would hold for over forty years until his retirement in 1999.

Peck first appeared as soloist with the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in August 1959, in Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and on subscription concerts in Orchestra Hall in November 1960, in Bach’s Second Orchestral Suite, both with Walter Hendl conducting. During his tenure, he appeared as soloist on more than 120 concerts directed by twenty-five conductors—including music directors Reiner, Jean Martinon, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim—in Orchestra Hall, at the Ravinia Festival, and on tour.

On April 18, 1985, Solti led the Orchestra in the world premiere of Morton Gould’s Flute Concerto, commissioned for Peck. In a preview article in the Chicago Tribune, John von Rhein described his playing as, “Lustrous and penetrating, tender and lyrical, charming and sensual, its hues would put a chameleon to shame. It is one of the most distinctive voices in the orchestral choir, blending well with any ensemble even as it serves a key role within the woodwind section. . . . as principal flutist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Peck has carried out that role with a combination of technical skill and musical understanding that has earned him widespread admiration. Within the fraternity of the flute he is considered to be without peer. No less a judge than Julius Baker, the longtime principal flutist of the New York Philharmonic [and principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1951 until 1953], pronounces Peck ‘the greatest flutist I’ve ever heard.'”

Donald Peck in 1966 (Dorothy Siegel Druzinsky photo)

Also for Peck, William Ferris wrote his Flute Sonata and Lee Hoiby dedicated his Pastorale Dances for Flute and Orchestra. He regularly performed as a guest artist with other orchestras, including appearances at the Pablo Casals Festival with concerts in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and in Carnegie Hall. In Australia, Peck recorded Mozart’s flute concertos for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and he regularly appeared at the Carmel Bach Festival in California, the Victoria International Festival in Canada, the Grand Teton Music Festival in Wyoming, and the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, along with numerous other orchestras from coast to coast.

As principal flute of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Peck performed on over three hundred recordings under twenty-two conductors for twelve labels. In his retirement, he has recorded works for flute and piano with Melody Lord for the Boston label.

Peck has served on the faculties of DePaul and Roosevelt universities, where he taught flute and woodwind ensemble. A frequent lecturer and guest teacher, he has given master classes at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music in New York, at the Rotterdam Conservatory in Holland, for the Osaka Flute Club in Japan, at the Sydney Flute Association in Australia, and at over thirty universities and music groups throughout the United States and Canada. For many years, Peck played a flute—fashioned in platinum-iridium—handmade for him by Powell Flutes of Boston.

In 1997, the National Flute Association honored Peck with a lifetime achievement award. Indiana University Press published Peck’s memoir, The Right Place, The Right Time! Tales of Chicago Symphony Days in 2007, and the Chicago Flute Club’s biennial international flute competition is named in his honor.

Near the end of his tenure as principal flute, Peck spoke again with von Rhein for the Chicago Tribune. “The flute has the potential for more color and brilliance [and] the woodwind section can be most exquisite, like glittering jewels. . . . I have been a very lucky person, having performed with wonderful musicians and done so much. What more could I want?”

Happy, happy birthday!

Theodore Thomas in the 1860s

There are conflicting accounts as to when Theodore Thomas—the Chicago Orchestra’s founder and first music director—made his debut as a conductor. Mostly self-taught on the violin, as a young teenager he toured the U.S. on his own, concertizing as a soloist. Returning to New York in the early 1850s, he performed as a member and leader of several theater, opera, and concert orchestras, working with Karl Eckert and Louis Jullien.

The name of nineteen-year-old Thomas first appeared on the roster of the New York Philharmonic Society at the beginning of its twelfth season on November 26, 1853, and early the following year, he was formally invited to be a first violin in the ensemble.

Based on a variety of sources, his conducting debut might have been in 1858 for Bernard Ullmann’s opera company. In April 1859, he was a last-minute replacement for conductor Karl Anschütz at the Academy of Music in New York for a performance of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, and three weeks later, he was reengaged for the composer’s La favorite; both operas featured Marietta Gazzaniga (who had created the title role in Verdi’s Luisa Miller in 1849 and Lina in Stiffelio in 1850). On December 7, 1860, Thomas again replaced Anschütz at the Academy, leading Halévy’s La Juive, having never before seen the score.

First-chair horn part to Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman (Theodore Thomas collection)

However, Thomas’s debut on an orchestral podium is well documented. On May 13, 1862, the twenty-six-year-old conductor programmed and led his first symphony orchestra concert (with a few more than forty musicians) at Irving Hall in New York. The program featured no less than four U.S. premieres(*), including the overture to Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman:

  • *Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman
  • Apell’s Lord, Be Thou with Us with the Teutonia Choral Society
  • *Liszt’s orchestration of Schubert’s Fantasy in C major, D. 760 (Wanderer) with pianist William Mason
  • Rossini’s “Bel raggio lusinghier” from Semiramide with soprano Eugénie de Lussan
  • The first movement of Molique’s Violin Concerto no. 5 in A minor, op. 21 with violinist Bruno Wollenhaupt
  • *Moscheles’s Les contrastes, for two pianos (eight hands) with pianists Mills, Goldbeck, Hartmann, and Mason
  • Verdi’s “Ernani, Ernani involami” from Ernani with de Lussan
  • *Meyerbeer’s Overture and Incidental Music from Struensee with the Teutonia Choral Society and harp obbligato (not credited)

The reception of Wagner’s overture was mixed. The reviewer in the New York World wrote, “Most of the audience expected dreary wastes of dissonant harmony and were agreeably surprised to find not merely defined ideas but actual bits of melody.” However, the New York Daily Tribune disagreed: “Ghastly rumpus was its main feature.”

Cello part to Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman (Theodore Thomas collection)

According to Thomas’s biographer Ezra Schabas, Irving Hall was “only three-quarters full . . . there was speculation that the one-dollar admission price was too high.” Despite the attendance, the New York Daily Transcript hailed the concert as, “undoubtedly the most intellectual and artistic musical offering of the season.”

Two years later in 1864, Thomas founded his eponymous ensemble—the Theodore Thomas Orchestra—and toured throughout the country for the next twenty-five years. He also served as music director of both the Brooklyn Philharmonic (1866–1891) and the New York Philharmonic (1877–1891) before leading the Chicago Orchestra as its founder and first music director from 1891 until 1905.

Theodore Thomas’s autobiography is available here, and his Memoirs (edited by his widow, Rose Fay Thomas) here.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Wagner’s Overture to The Flying Dutchman on November 7, 9, and 12, 2019. 

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.

On August 25, 2018, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra joins the music world in celebrating the centennial of composer, conductor, pianist, author, and lecturer Leonard Bernstein, who was, according to John von Rhein, “one of the most phenomenally gifted and successful Renaissance men of music in American history.”

Shortly after his remarkable debut—replacing an ailing Bruno Walter—with the New York Philharmonic on November 14, 1943, Bernstein first appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on July 4, 1944. The “much discussed young conductor . . . drew 4,100 people to Ravinia last night,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “It was Mr. Bernstein’s concert. . . . The eye and the ear inevitably gravitated to the slight young figure on the podium, a dark young man with a sensitive, sensuous face a little like David Lichine’s, hands that gyrate so convulsively they scarcely could hold a baton if they tried, and eyes that somehow manage to be agonized, supplicant, and truculent without losing their place in the score. A fascinating fellow, this Bernstein, dynamic, emotional, yet under complete control.”

Bernstein appeared with the Orchestra on several occasions in Orchestra Hall, at the Ravinia Festival, and in Milwaukee and New York City, as follows:

July 4, 1944, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Overture to Egmont, Op. 84
BEETHOVEN Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61
Joseph Szigeti, violin
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39

July 6, 1944, Ravinia Festival
TCHAIKOVSKY Romeo and Juliet
RAVEL Piano Concerto in G Major
Leonard Bernstein, piano
Herman Felber, Jr., conductor
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36

July 8, 1944, Ravinia Festival
BARTÓK Rhapsody No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra
Joseph Szigeti, violin
MOZART Serenade in G Major, K. 525 (Eine kleine Nachtmusik)
MOZART Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major, K. 218
Joseph Szigeti, violin
STRAUSS Don Juan, Op. 20
STRAVINSKY Suite from The Firebird

July 9, 1944, Ravinia Festival
BERNSTEIN Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah)
Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano
COPLAND Suite from Our Town
ROSSINI “Non più mesta” from La Cenerentola
Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano
ROSSINI Overture to La gazza ladra
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 1 in E Minor, Op. 39

July 31, 1945, Ravinia Festival
BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture in C Minor, Op. 80
BRAHMS Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15
Leon Fleisher, piano
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

August 2, 1945, Ravinia Festival
CASADESUS/Steinberg Concerto in D Major
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 (Eroica)

August 4, 1945, Ravinia Festival
COPLAND El salón México
FRANCK Symphonic Variations for Piano and Orchestra
Leon Fleisher, piano
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
Leon Fleisher, piano
MOZART Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504 (Prague)

August 5, 1945, Ravinia Festival
BERNSTEIN Suite from Fancy Free
HAYDN Symphony No. 85 in B-flat Major (La reine)
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47

January 1951

January 18, 19, and 23, 1951, Orchestra Hall
January 22, 1951, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
HAYDN Symphony No. 102 in B-flat Major
RAVEL Piano Concerto in G Major
Leonard Bernstein, piano and conductor
STRAVINSKY The Rite of Spring

January 25 and 26, 1951, Orchestra Hall
BACH Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050
René Rateau, flute
John Weicher, violin
Leonard Bernstein, piano and conductor
MAHLER Symphony No 2 in C Minor (Resurrection)
Alyne Dumas Lee, soprano
Ruth Slater, mezzo-soprano
Chicago Musical College Chorus
Christian Choral Club
James Baar, director

July 26, 1956, Ravinia Festival
CASADESUS/Steinberg Andante lento molto from Concerto in D Major
BERNSTEIN Serenade
Vladimir Spivakovsky, violin
TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique)

July 27, 1956, Ravinia Festival
BERNSTEIN Symphony No. 2 (The Age of Anxiety)
Byron Janis, piano
MOZART Symphony No. 29 in A Major, K. 201
SCHUMANN Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61

July 28, 1956, Ravinia Festival
BACH Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050
Ernst Liegl, flute
John Weicher, violin
Leonard Bernstein, piano and conductor
BERNSTEIN Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah)
Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano
MOZART “Zeffiretti lusinghiere” from Idomeneo, K. 366
Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano
MOZART “Ch’io mi scordi di te?”, K. 505
Jennie Tourel, mezzo-soprano
Leonard Bernstein, piano and conductor
STRAVINSKY Suite from The Firebird

Leonard Bernstein in rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in June 1988 (Jim Steere photo)

June 16 and 17, 1988, Orchestra Hall
STRAUSS Death and Transfiguration, Op. 24
John Fiore, conductor
STRAUSS Don Juan, Op. 20
Kate Tamarkin, conductor
STRAUSS Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Op. 28
Leif Bjaland, conductor
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 1, Op. 10
Bjaland, Fiore, and Tamarkin appeared in conjunction with the 1988 American Conductors Program for which Bernstein was the artistic advisor. A joint project of the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the program was made possible through the generous support of the Ford Motor Company Fund.

June 21 and 22, 1988, Orchestra Hall
June 24, 1988, Avery Fisher Hall, New York
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 7, Op. 60 (Leningrad)

“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 on June 21. “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.”

Both of Shostakovich’s symphonies were recorded live by Deutsche Grammophon and the subsequent release received the 1990 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.

Portions of this article previously appeared here.

You never know what might arrive in the mail.

A few days ago, we received a package from our friends at the New York Philharmonic Archives, and it contained a number of early Theodore Thomas programs, pre-dating his founding of the Chicago Orchestra. A few of these fantastic items are described below.

October 23 and 24, 1871

October 18-24, 1871

In early October 1871, Thomas was on tour with his orchestra—the Theodore Thomas Orchestra—on its way to Chicago. According to Memoirs of Theodore Thomas, completed in 1911 by his widow Rose Fay: “At the close of the summer season, Thomas and the orchestra started westward on their customary fall tour over the ‘highway.’ The Chicago engagement on this trip was to have been an unusually long and important one, for the Crosby Opera House there had been handsomely renovated and Thomas was to open it with a two-weeks’ series of orchestral concerts.

“As the train, bearing the orchestra, neared the city on the morning of October 9, 1871, Thomas was paralyzed by the announcement that Chicago was burning, and the Opera House already in ashes! In short, they had arrived just in time to witness the terrible conflagration which so nearly wiped Chicago off the map altogether, and, of course, the concerts which Thomas had expected to give there for two years to come, were canceled. . . . he and the orchestra stayed [in Joliet] until it was time for the next engagement in Saint Louis.”

In addition to the five concerts originally scheduled at DeBar’s Opera House in Saint Louis—not even two weeks after the Great Chicago Fire—a “grand extra concert” was added on Monday, October 23, “for the benefit of the Chicago sufferers, for which occasion all the members of Mr. Thomas’ troupe have volunteered their services.”

March 31–April 3, 1873

April 2 and 3, 1873

Thomas and his orchestra were later in New York in the spring of 1873 for a series of concerts at Steinway Hall. These concerts were billed as “the greatest concert combination on record” and the “last joint appearance” of Thomas; composer, pianist, and conductor Anton Rubinstein; and violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski. Rubinstein’s 1872-74 tour was his first and only visit to the United States, and he later communicated to William Steinway of Steinway & Sons (who had sponsored his journey): “I shall take away with me from America one unexpected reminiscence. Little did I dream to find here the greatest and finest orchestra in the wide world . . . never in my life have I found an orchestra and a conductor so in sympathy with one another, or who followed me as the most gifted accompanist can follow a singer on the piano.”

Wagner’s Centennial March cover

In addition to several other concert programs, the donation also included a piano version of Richard Wagner’s Centennial March, arranged by Thomas. The work had been commissioned by Thomas for the 1876 Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, for which he served as music director. According to Chicago Symphony Orchestra program annotator Phillip Huscher, “The premiere took place in Philadelphia as part of the exposition opening ceremonies, before President [Ulysses S.] Grant, members of Congress, and justices of the Supreme Court. The New York Tribune called Wagner’s Centennial March a masterpiece and the Herald critic found it noble and grand. But the New York Times concluded that it was ‘altogether devoid of pomp and circumstance,’ and that its impressive orchestral writing did not make up for its ‘lack of thought.’ Wagner later confided to his friends that the best thing about the piece was his [$5,000] fee.” Huscher’s complete note from the Orchestra’s October 2010 performances is here.

Wagner’s Centennial March first page

Wagner’s Centennial March title page

To our friends and colleagues in New York . . . thank you for these amazing additions to our Theodore Thomas collection!

 

Theodore Thomas, founder and first music director of the Chicago Orchestra, insisted that his young ensemble also needed its own chorus in order to perform important works in the repertoire. He enjoyed frequent collaboration with local choruses but desired an ensemble specifically dedicated to the Orchestra.

Arthur Mees

At Thomas’s insistence, the board of trustees of The Orchestral Association voted on July 3, 1896, to proceed with the organization of a chorus with the hope that Arthur Mees* would agree to serve as the Orchestra’s first associate conductor and chorus director, as well as program annotator. Mees previously had worked with Theodore Thomas in training the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus and also was assistant to Thomas at the American Opera Company.

Mees agreed and began to audition singers on September 8, 1896, but interest was much less than expected. According to Philo Adams Otis (a member of the board and the author of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Its Organization, Growth, and Development 1891–1924), the timing was off—it was just before the presidential election and Chicago was “aflame with excitement over the rival parties—[William J.] Bryan and ‘Free Silver!’ [William] McKinley and ‘Protection!’—but it was not a favorable time to talk of symphony concerts and chorus rehearsals.”

Roster for the Chorus of the Association’s official debut on December 18 and 19, 1896

Despite the sparse turnout, the Chorus of the Association began rehearsals on October 5, with ninety-five singers. Membership gradually increased, and the Chorus made its informal debut on the second concert of the season on October 31, leading the audience in The Star-Spangled Banner in “recognition of the presidential election, then near at hand.”

According to Thomas’s Memoirs (edited by Rose Fay, Thomas’s second wife), the Banner was performed as an encore, following Massenet’s “quiet and almost ethereal” suite, Les Érinnyes, using a “device [Thomas] had employed at the opening ceremonies of the World’s Fair. His new chorus were seated in the front rows of the parquet, to lead the singing of the audience, and a drum corps was placed on the stage behind the orchestra. As the last strains of the Massenet suite were still vibrating on the strings, the drums began a double roll so softly that it was barely audible. Louder, louder, and still louder it rose, till every heart began to beat wildly with excitement, wondering what was coming next. At last the moment of climax was reached, and then Thomas turned toward the audience, motioned to them to rise and sing, and, with the full power of the orchestra, the great organ, the chorus, and the [four] thousand people of the audience, all joining together in one stupendous maelstrom of sound, The Star-Spangled Banner was given such a performance as is not often heard. Many people were in tears before it was over, and when Thomas held aloft both hands to sustain through the full measure its final glorious chord, the singing was merged in a great shout—cheer on cheer echoing through the hall.”

December 18 and 19, 1896

The ranks soon increased to 125, in time for the Chorus’s formal debut in the Choral Fantasy and the chorus from The Ruins of Athens on an all-Beethoven program on December 18 and 19, 1896.

The Chorus would appear three more times during the Orchestra’s sixth season (1896–97)—in Grieg’s Olaf Trygvason, Nicolai’s Festival Overture on Ein’ feste burg, and selections from Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Parsifal—and then on five occasions during the following season—the chorale and chorus from Bach’s Reformation Cantata (no. 80), Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Brahms’s A German Requiem, and Mendelssohn’s 114th Psalm and selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

After William L. Tomlins, who had led the Apollo Chorus since 1875, announced his resignation in 1898, there was some discussion (according to newspaper accounts) regarding merging the Chorus of the Association with the Apollo. The accounts also mention the possibility of Mees serving as the director of the new ensemble.

A merger did not occur, and the Chorus of the Association was disbanded in the fall of 1898, most probably as a result of the Orchestra’s deficit following its seventh season and the departure of Arthur Mees, who returned to New York. The next year, Thomas appointed the Orchestra’s twenty-seven-year-old assistant principal viola—Frederick Stock—to also serve as his next assistant conductor.

*Arthur Mees (1850–1923) and Theodore Thomas likely first worked together during the inaugural Cincinnati May Festival in 1873, and Mees would serve the festival in a variety of capacities—including organist, chorus master, and assistant director—until 1898. He also was the program annotator for the New York Philharmonic Society from 1887 until 1896. After Mees returned to New York in 1898, he conducted the Mendelssohn Glee Club (1898–1904) and, in 1913, the Bridgeport Oratorio Society. His New York Times obituary concluded with, “He was a thorough musician and a constant friend to students. As a writer he had a gift of clear analysis and expression. His loss is a grievous one, not only to his friends, but to American music.”

Portions of this article previously appeared in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s program book in November 1997.

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