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December 7, 1981

December 7, 1981

The original Lyon & Healy pipe organ (the largest instrument the Chicago-based company ever built) was dedicated on April 27 and 28, 1905, by organist Wilhelm Middelschulte shortly after Orchestra Hall’s December 14, 1904, dedicatory concert.

The first significant renovation of Orchestra Hall was guided by Harry Weese and Associates and began in 1966. The project included the installation of new heating, air conditioning, and modern elevators; an increase in lobby space on three floors; expansion of musicians’ lounges and dressing rooms; and replacement of plaster ceiling with acoustically designed aluminum panels. The auditorium and lobby décor were brightened with a new color scheme of gray walls with ivory trim, and the seats were reupholstered with deep red mohair. During the summer of 1967, plans to restore the original organ were dismissed when it was discovered that damage had occurred during the previous years’ renovation, and an Allen electronic organ was pressed into service as a temporary solution.

During the summer of 1981, M.P. Möller installed a new organ in Orchestra Hall, which contained more than 3,000 pipes (forty-five independent stops and seventy-four ranks, controlled through seventy-one registers and twenty-five couplers). The organ installation was the catalyst for an extensive renovation and remodeling of the auditorium by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which included enlarging the stage and rearranging main floor seating, new lighting set into the stage shell, remodeling the Orchestra members’ lounge facilities, repainting the interior (following the original design concepts of architect Daniel Burnham), and other electrical and mechanical adjustments.

Casavant Frères, Opus 3765

Casavant Frères, Opus 3765 (Emma Bilyk photo)

On December 7, 1981, the Orchestra presented a special concert dedicating the newly installed pipe organ. Leonard Slatkin led selections from Bach’s Cantata no. 35 (Geist und Seele wird verwirret), Handel’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, Haydn’s Little Organ Mass, Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in G minor, and Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. Soprano Lucia Popp was featured in the works by Handel and Haydn, and Frederick Swann was organ soloist in all selections.

Nearly fifteen years later, at the beginning of the Symphony Center project, the Möller organ was removed and delivered to the workshops of Casavant Frères in Quebec, where it was overhauled and expanded. The new instrument (with forty-four stops, fifty-nine ranks, fourteen couplers, and 3,414 pipes) was installed during the summer of 1998 and inaugurated by David Schrader on February 18, 1999.

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Illustration by Pam Rossi

Illustration by Pam Rossi

After more than three years of planning, building, testing, and fine-tuning, Symphony Center—a $120 million project that included a facility expansion and extensive renovation of Orchestra Hall—opened its doors on October 4, 1997, with an opening night gala concert.

Led by acousticians Kirkegaard Associates and architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the project encompassed additions and improvements to Orchestra Hall, including raising the roof line for increased sound reverberation, replacing plaster walls, decreasing the width and increasing the depth of the stage, adding an extensive riser system, replacing all seats and adding terrace seating behind the stage, installing an acoustic canopy (to improve onstage ensemble conditions and sound reflection to the audience), and increasing patron amenity spaces. In addition, the project included new administrative offices in the former Chapin & Gore building; Buntrock Hall, a multipurpose rehearsal and performance space; renovation of a private club (formerly the home of the Cliff Dwellers); and a multistory arcade and rotunda. The following year brought the opening of a new restaurant (originally Rhapsody and now tesori) and an education center.

Natyakalalayam Dance Company performing in Symphony Center’s rotunda on October 5, 1997 (Jeff Meacham photo)

Natyakalalayam Dance Company performing in Symphony Center’s rotunda on October 5, 1997 (Jeff Meacham photo)

Launching a three-week inaugural festival, the October 4 gala concert was conducted by Daniel Barenboim and included excerpts from Verdi’s Otello with Soile Isokoski and Plácido Domingo, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 27 (with Barenboim conducting from the keyboard), Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with William Warfield, and Bruckner’s Te Deum with the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Midnight marked the beginning of the first Day of Music: twenty-four hours of free, live performances of music across all genres in multiple Symphony Center venues, attended by more than 20,000 people.

October 22, 1997 (Jim Steere photo)

October 22, 1997 (Jim Steere photo)

Sadly, the many celebrations were bittersweet. Music director laureate Sir Georg Solti—who, during the festival would have celebrated not only his eighty-fifth birthday but also his 1,000th concert with the Orchestra—had unexpectedly died on September 5, 1997. A special, free memorial concert was added on October 22 that included Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde, followed by Mozart’s Requiem with Emily Magee, Anna Larsson, John Aler, René Pape, and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. A celebration concert was given on October 25, with Daniel Barenboim conducting Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto (from the keyboard) and the Seventh Symphony.

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