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Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Wladimir Polak photo)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins the classical music community in mourning the loss of Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky, who passed away on June 16. He was 87.

Rozhdestvensky made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on subscription concerts in Orchestra Hall in October 1974, leading Tchaikovsky’s Suite no. 3 in G major and Scriabin’s Symphony no. 3 (The Divine Poem). At the Ravinia Festival, he made his debut in July 1987, conducting Haydn’s Symphonies nos. 70 and 71, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 with Frank Peter Zimmermann, and Massenet’s Suite no. 4 (Scènes pittoresques).

Stephen Williamson solos in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto on February 11, 2016, under Rozhdestvensky’s baton (Todd Rosenberg photo).

Most recently, Rozhdestvensky was in Chicago in February 2016 for two weeks of concerts with the Orchestra, first with Shostakovich’s Symphonies nos. 1 and 15, followed by Sibelius’s Rakastava, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with Stephen Williamson, Pärt’s Orient and Occident, and Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C major.

Numerous tributes have been posted online, including The New York Times, The Telegraph, and The Guardian, among many others.

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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony were given on April 6 and 7, 1950, in Orchestra Hall under the baton of guest conductor George Szell. Since then, the work has been led by music directors Rafael Kubelík, Sir Georg Solti, and Daniel Barenboim; principal conductor Bernard Haitink; principal guest conductors Carlo Maria Giulini and Pierre Boulez; and Ravinia Festival music directors James Levine and James Conlon; along with guest conductors Sir John Barbirolli, Lawrence Foster, Michiyoshi Inoue, Hans Rosbaud, and Michael Tilson Thomas.

The Orchestra has recorded the work on three notable occasions, as follows.

Carlo Maria Giulini, the Orchestra’s first principal guest conductor, led Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in December 1971 and March 1975 before returning in April 1976 to perform and record the work. Following the first concert of that residency, Karen Monson in the Chicago Daily News wrote that “each time the aristocratic maestro meets the transcendent symphony, the relationship becomes more and more special, Giulini and the Orchestra have delved into the deepest secrets of this music, and Thursday evening they delivered a performance so rich and complete . . .”

In the Chicago Tribune, Thomas Willis called the performance “one of Giulini’s great nights in Orchestra Hall.” Recording sessions were scheduled for the following week, and “by the time the tape is rolling, this could be the most heartfelt and compelling recorded version of Mahler’s grief-stricken penultimate symphony. . . . The Chicago Symphony players will take any risks for Giulini. If he wishes them to play softer than soft, applying bow to string, or breath to mouthpiece or reed, they proceed to just this side of bobble or discomfiting silence. . . . No other guest has such control over orchestral color and emotional variation.”

Deutsche Grammophon was on hand on April 5 and 6, 1976, to record the symphony in Medinah Temple. Günther Breest was the executive producer and Klaus Scheibe the recording engineer. The release won the 1977 Grammy Award for Best Classical Orchestral Performance from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Eighth music director Sir Georg Solti first led the Orchestra in Mahler’s symphony at Orchestra Hall and Carnegie Hall in April 1981 before taking it on the road to Lucerne, Paris, Amsterdam, and London later that year. Back in Chicago, Solti led a concert performance (benefiting the musicians’ pension fund) on April 28, 1982, and recorded the symphony on May 2 and 4 in Orchestra Hall.

Reviewing in Gramophone magazine, Richard Osborne noted: “When Solti conducted Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in London in the autumn of 1981 the critic of The Financial Times observed: ‘Solti obviously knew how this music should gobut not why.’ Such a reading would be an evident act of self-parody, for it is to this very theme—the modern world’s nightmarish preoccupation with sensation, spiraling, self-referring and impossible to assuage—that Mahler so fearlessly addresses himself in the symphony’s third movement, the Rondo Burleske. It’s clear, though, from the present recording, made in Orchestra Hall, Chicago in May 1982, that Solti’s sense of the music is a good deal more rooted than it appeared to be amid the unsettling razzmatazz of an end-of-tour London performance.

“The new performance has a measure of repose about it as well as much splendour. The second movement is robust and resilient as Mahler directs. There is defiance and obstinacy in the third movement, an awful power which illuminates the music rather than the orchestra’s known expertise.”

James Mallinson produced the recording, and James Lock was the engineer for London Records. The recording won 1983 Grammy awards for Best Orchestral Recording, Best Engineered Recording—Classical, and Best Classical Album.

Soon after being named as the Orchestra’s third principal guest conductor, Pierre Boulez was in Chicago to lead four performances of Mahler’s Ninth in November December 1995.

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma wrote that Boulez led “one of classical music’s most profound meditations on relentless death and tumultuous life” as a “study in musical clarity, elegant balances, and proportion. . . . Many conductors play up the contrasts, creating dramatic mood shifts. Boulez and the CSO were after something more subtle.” John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune added that Boulez “[filtered] the work through his own modernist sensibility. Granted, there are ambiguities and uncertainties in this symphony that resist so rational an approach. But there are also levels of purely musical meaning few other conductors have uncovered. The otherworldly stillnesses, the demonic humor, the desolate nostalgia, the strange lapses into folkish banality registered that much more strongly because the hand organizing them was so calm and precise. . . . Let us hope the studio sessions capture in full the splendor of the live performances.”

For Deutsche Grammophon, the work was recorded at Medinah Temple on December 2 and 4, 1995. Roger Wright was the executive producer, Karl-August Naegler recording producer and editor, Ulrich Vette was the balance engineer, and Jobst Eberhardt and Stephan Flock were recording engineers. The release won the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.

Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony no. 9 on May 17, 18, 19, and 22, 2018.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has performed Aaron Copland‘s Lincoln Portrait on several occasions and with a number of notable narrators. A complete list is below.

Carl Sandburg

Poet, writer, and editor Carl Sandburg was narrator for the Orchestra’s first performances of Lincoln Portrait on March 15 and 16, 1945, in Orchestra Hall; third music director Désiré Defauw conducted. At the time, Sandburg was the country’s leading authority on Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth U.S. president. He had written the two-volume Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years in 1926, and in 1940, he completed the four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, for which he won his second Pulitzer Prize.

Claude Rains

The composer himself conducted the first performance at the Ravinia Festival on July 21, 1956. Popular stage and screen character actor Claude Rains was narrator for the occasion. Winner of a Tony Award and nominated four times for an Academy Award (in the best supporting actor category), he appeared in such classic films as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca, Notorious, and Lawrence of Arabia.

Illinois Governor Otto J. Kerner rubs the nose of Gutzon Borglum‘s Lincoln bust in 1964 (World Telegraph & Sun photo by Roger Higgins)

Copland was again on the podium at the Ravinia Festival on July 6, 1963, when Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, Jr. was narrator. Kerner was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and served as a judge in the Illinois Circuit Court of Cook County before his election as the thirty-third governor of Illinois in 1960, winning re-election in 1964. He resigned as governor in 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated him as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Kerner was later convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy, and perjury and sentenced to three years in federal prison; he was released early following his being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The next three performances, all in Orchestra Hall, were narrated by voices quite familiar to Chicagoans. On March 28, 1970, Mel Zellman, an announcer for WFMT for forty years, shared the stage with conductor Irwin HoffmanJim Tilmon, a longtime television reporter for WTTW and NBC, narrated the work on February 25, 1976, with associate conductor Henry Mazer on the podium. On January 29, 1979, Bill Kurtis, then a news anchor with WBBM-TV, was narrator, again under Mazer’s direction.

For a special July 4 celebration in 1982 at the Ravinia Festival, Aaron Copland himself was narrator. Erich Kunzel conducted.

Jane Byrne (Associated Press photo by Fred Jewell)

Jane Byrne was the first woman to serve as Chicago’s mayor—the city’s fortieth—from 1979 until 1983. On October 1, 1982, in Orchestra Hall, she was narrator in Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with Reynald Giovaninetti on the podium. According to her obituary in the Chicago Tribune, “Over her single term in office, Byrne launched Taste of Chicago and crowd-pleasing celebrations like Blues Fest, inspired the redevelopment of Navy Pier and the Museum Campus and encouraged movie making here in a big way by luring production of box office hits like The Blues Brothers.

Aaron Copland and William Warfield in 1963 (Library of Congress photo)

On October 4, 1997, Symphony Center officially opened its doors with a gala concert. The program included a performance of Lincoln Portrait with bass-baritone William Warfield as narrator and ninth music director Daniel Barenboim conducting. Warfield had become well known following a star turn as Joe—singing “Ol Man River“—in MGM‘s 1951 remake of Show Boat. He also recorded a highly acclaimed album of selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with soprano Leontyne Price in 1963. Long associated with Copland, Warfield had sung the premiere performances of the first set of Old American Songs (for soloist and orchestra) as well as the second set (for soloist and piano).

Steppenwolf Theatre Company actors Martha Lavey, Amy Morton, K. Todd Freeman, and Tracy Letts shared narrating duties at the Ravinia Festival on July 4, 2004. David Alan Miller conducted.

Senator Barack Obama narrates Copland’s Lincoln Portrait in Millennium Park on September 11, 2005. William Eddins conducts (Todd Rosenberg photo)

On September 11, 2005, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave a free concert at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Guest conductor William Eddins led the Orchestra in The Star-Spangled Banner, William Schuman’s arrangement of Ives’s Variations on America, Rimsky- Korsakov’s Sheherazade, and Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with freshman U.S. Senator Barack Obama as narrator. In the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma wrote: “When September 11 comes around each year, the craving for a moment of proverbial silence—a chance to slow down, remember, and mourn—is strong. Sunday’s concert, led by former CSO resident conductor William Eddins and featuring Senator Barack Obama as narrator in Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, provided just that kind of beneficent moment. Despite the steamy weather, a large crowd filled the pavilion’s seats and lawn, giving the CSO in general, and Obama in particular, vociferous applause. . . . Obama brought an orator’s skill without an actor’s slick veneer to Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. The comforting quality of his voice gave added emotional resonance to Lincoln’s words. The CSO was a powerful surging force behind him, alternately sinking into meditation and swelling to majestic heights.”

Most recently, James Earl Jones was narrator at Orchestra Hall on February 21 and 24, 2009, under the baton of James Gaffigan, and on July 18, 2009, soprano Jessye Norman was narrator with James Conlon conducting at the Ravinia Festival.

Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Copland’s Lincoln Portrait on April 12, 13, 14, and 17, 2018. John Malkovich will be the narrator.

Byron JanisSending happy ninetieth birthday wishes to the legendary pianist Byron Janis!

Between 1952 and 1974, Janis appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on numerous occasions at Orchestra Hall, in Milwaukee, and at the Ravinia Festival, under the batons of music directors Fritz Reiner and Jean Martinon; associate conductors Walter Hendl and Irwin Hoffman; Ravinia Festival music directors Seiji Ozawa and James Levine; and guest conductors Leonard Bernstein, André Cluytens, Igor Markevitch, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Hans Rosbaud, Joseph Rosenstock, William Steinberg, Leopold Stokowski, Willem Van Otterloo, and David Zinman.

Janis made his debut with the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival on July 10, 1952, in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting.

Two years later—a few weeks shy of his twenty-sixth birthday—he first performed in Orchestra Hall on March 4 and 5, 1954, in Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with Fritz Reiner on the podium. “If you have it, you have it, and Mr. Janis does,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune following his debut. “He has good fingers, a direct approach, and a good tone. He has temperament and fire and he wants, perhaps more than anything else in the world, to play the piano. You can always tell that by the sound. It comes out in the explosions of the double octaves, in the instinctive sensing of the crest of a phrase, in the way a Russian song suddenly knows pain, which is not quite the same thing as being sad. Because of these things, because he is such a pianist, his Tchaikovsky was big, beautiful, and dynamic, yet with all its tensions it sensed the relaxed sweep of the grand style. Few things could be more stupid than to patronize such playing, which Reiner and the orchestra gave superb collaboration, part Russian song, part Russian bear. When I look forward to what that playing can be, I am speaking of it in Janis’s own terms. Give him time to strengthen those fingers, to deepen and polish that tone. But listen as he does it, for he is worth hearing now.”

He most recently appeared with the CSO in Orchestra Hall on April 20 and 21, 1967, in Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto and Strauss’s Burleske with Irwin Hoffman conducting, and at the Ravinia Festival on August 15, 1974, in Saint-Saëns’s Fifth Piano Concerto under the baton of David Zinman.

Janis also made several recordings with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as follows:

RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 1
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Recorded March 2, 1957, in Orchestra Hall by RCA

Byron Janis’s complete RCA catalog—including his recordings with the CSO—recently was re-released in a box set.

STRAUSS Burleske for Piano and Orchestra
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Recorded March 4, 1957, in Orchestra Hall by RCA

SCHUMANN Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Recorded February 21, 1959, in Orchestra Hall by RCA

LISZT Totentanz for Piano and Orchestra
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Recorded February 23, 1959, in Orchestra Hall by RCA

PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10
Irwin Hoffman, conductor
Recorded by WFMT on April 20 and 21, 1967, in Orchestra Hall
Released in 1995 on From the Archives, vol. 10: Great Soloists

Happy, happy birthday!

Under the leadership of chorus directors Margaret Hillis and Duain Wolfe, the Chicago Symphony Chorus has won ten Grammy awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in the category of Best Choral Performance.*

Recordings have been led by music directors Sir Georg Solti and Riccardo Muti, principal guest conductor Pierre Boulez, and Ravinia Festival music director James Levine on RCA, London, Deutsche Grammophon, and CSO Resound.

1977 – Best Choral Performance–Classical
VERDI Requiem
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Leontyne Price, soprano
Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano
Veriano Luchetti, tenor
José van Dam, bass-baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Recorded in Medinah Temple on June 1 and 2, 1977, for RCA
Thomas Z. Shepard, producer
Paul Goodman, recording engineer

1978 – Best Choral Performance–Classical
BEETHOVEN Missa solemnis in D Major, Op. 123
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Victor Aitay, violin
Lucia Popp, soprano
Yvonne Minton, mezzo-soprano
Mallory Walker, tenor
Gwynne Howell, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Recorded in Medinah Temple on May 16, 17, and 18, 1977, for London
Ray Minshull, producer
Kenneth Wilkinson, John Dunkerley, and Michael Mailes, balance engineers

1979 – Best Choral Performance–Classical
BRAHMS A German Requiem, Op. 45
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano
Bernd Weikl, baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Recorded in Medinah Temple on May 15 and 16, 1978, for London
James Mallinson, recording producer
Kenneth Wilkinson and Colin Moorfoot, balance engineers

1982 – Best Choral Performance–Classical
BERLIOZ The Damnation of Faust, Op. 24
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Frederica von Stade, mezzo-soprano
Kenneth Riegel, tenor
José van Dam, bass-baritone
Malcolm King, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Recorded in Medinah Temple on May 4, 5, 6, and 7, 1981, for London
James Mallinson, recording producer
James Lock and Simon Eadon, balance engineers

1983 – Best Choral Performance
HAYDN The Creation
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Sylvia Greenberg, soprano
Norma Burrowes, soprano
Rudiger Wohlers, tenor
James Morris, bass-baritone
Siegmund Nimsgern, bass
David Schrader, harpsichord
Frank Miller, cello
Joseph Guastafeste, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall on November 9, 10, and 11, 1981, for London
Paul Myers, recording producer
James Lock and John Dunkerley, balance engineers

1984 – Best Choral Performance
BRAHMS A German Requiem, Op. 45
James Levine, conductor
Kathleen Battle, soprano
Håkan Hagegård, baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall on July 5 and 6, 1983, for RCA
Thomas Z. Shepard, producer
Paul Goodman, recording engineer
John Newton and Thomas MacCluskey, engineers

1986 – Best Choral Performance
ORFF Carmina burana
James Levine, conductor
June Anderson, soprano
Philip Creech, tenor
Bernd Weikl, baritone
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall on July 9 and 10, 1984, for Deutsche Grammophon
Steven Paul, producer
Cord Garben, recording supervisor
Klaus Scheibe, recording engineer
Jürgen Bulgrin, editing

1991 – Best Performance of a Choral Work
BACH Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Felicity Lott, soprano
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Hans Peter Blochwitz, tenor
William Shimmell, baritone
Gwynne Howell, bass
Richard Webster, organ
John Sharp, cello
Willard Elliot, bassoon
Joseph Guastafeste, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall on January 25, 26, and 28, 1990, for London
Michael Haas, recording producer
Stanley Goodall and Simon Eadon, balance engineers

1993 – Best Performance of a Choral Work
BARTÓK Cantata profana
Pierre Boulez, conductor
John Aler, tenor
John Tomlinson, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall on December 16, 1991, for Deutsche Grammophon
Alison Ames, executive producer
Karl-August Naegler, recording producer
Rainer Maillard, balance engineer
Oliver Rosalla, editing

2010 – Best Choral Performance
VERDI Messa da Requiem
Riccardo Muti, conductor
Barbara Frittoli, soprano
Olga Borodina, mezzo-soprano
Mario Zeffiri, tenor
Ildar Abdrazakov, bass
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Duain Wolfe, director
Recorded in Orchestra Hall on January 15, 16, and 17, 2009, for CSO Resound
Christopher Alder, producer
Christopher Willis, recording engineer
David Frost and Tom Lazarus, mixing
Silas Brown and David Frost, stereo mastering

*The name of the category has changed slightly over the years; see here for details.

Wishing a very happy ninetieth birthday to the wonderful mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig!

Christa Ludwig in 1967 as Fricka in Wagner’s Die Walküre (Metropolitan Opera photo)

Ludwig has appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on numerous occasions, at Orchestra Hall, the Ravinia Festival, and Carnegie Hall, as follows (concerts at Orchestra Hall, unless otherwise noted):

February 20, 21, and 25, 1958
MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde
Fritz Reiner, conductor
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano
Richard Lewis, tenor

October 26 and 27, 1967
MAHLER Songs from Des knaben Wunderhorn
Alfred Wallenstein, conductor
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano

July 7, 1970 (Ravinia Festival)
MAHLER Kindertotenlieder
István Kertész, conductor
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano

April 24, 25, and 26, 1980
May 2 and 3, 1980 (Carnegie Hall)
MAHLER Symphony No. 2 in C Minor (Resurrection)
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Isobel Buchanan, soprano
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

Christa Ludwig in 2014 (Ernst Kainerstorfer photo)

April 25, 26, and 27, 1985
April 29, 1985 (Carnegie Hall)
VERDI Falstaff
Sir Georg Solti, conductor
Guillermo Sarabia, baritone
Wolfgang Brendel, baritone
Yordi Ramiro, tenor
Heinz Zednik, tenor
Francis Egerton, tenor
Aage Haugland, bass
Katia Ricciarelli, soprano
Kathleen Battle, soprano
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano
Ann Murray, mezzo-soprano
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Margaret Hillis, director

July 5, 1991 (Ravinia Festival)
MAHLER Das Lied von der Erde
James Levine, conductor
Christa Ludwig, mezzo-soprano
Gary Lakes, tenor

Happy, happy birthday!

Fritz Reiner (Oscar Chicago photo)

One of Fritz Reiner’s primary goals, early in his tenure as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sixth music director, was to program major choral works. However, the repertory he wished to perform was, in his opinion, too demanding for the amateur and student groups usually engaged.

While visiting New York in February 1954, Reiner observed a rehearsal of the New York Concert Choir, under the direction of its founder, Margaret Hillis. He was so impressed that on his return to Chicago, Reiner convinced the board of trustees to hire Hillis and her ensemble for performances the following season of Barber’s recently composed Prayers of Kirkegaard and Orff’s Carmina burana, both new to the Orchestra’s repertoire. (For performances of Beethoven’s “less demanding” Ninth Symphony, the local Swedish Choral Club was engaged.)

Margaret Hillis

Hillis and the New York Concert Choir first traveled to Chicago in March 1955 for three performances of the works by Barber and Orff. Roger Dettmer, writing for the American, exclaimed, “it was Miss Hillis’s magnificent choir of sixty which matched most closely the Orchestra’s astonishing virtuosity by giving Dr. Reiner the fullest measure of choral artistry.” In the Daily News, Irving Sablosky added, “We’re not used to hearing choral singing of such refinement and nuance in symphony concerts. I hope we’ll hear more.”

Despite scheduling challenges, Reiner reengaged Hillis the following season for Mozart’s Mass in C minor and Bruckner’s Te Deum in January 1956. Dettmer wrote that the Orchestra and “Margaret Hillis’s magnificent [choir], easily the finest professional chorus in this country today, [performed] with uncommon brilliance, and maestro himself was in supremely spirited command.”

For the 1957–58 season, Reiner hoped to perform and record Verdi’s Requiem, and again he contacted Hillis. The New York Concert Choir averaged only sixty voices, and she informed Reiner they would need nearly double that in order to do justice to the Verdi. It would simply be too expensive.

This impasse gave Reiner an idea. He persuaded board president Eric Oldberg to hire Hillis to organize a chorus permanently affiliated with the Orchestra in Chicago. She initially agreed to advise on how to audition a director and choristers, but Reiner insisted there would be no chorus unless Hillis herself was the director. At the trustees meeting on September 20, 1957, Oldberg reported on successful negotiations and the plan to hire Hillis was approved.

Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1957

“As choral literature takes on increasing importance in the orchestral sphere, the Chicago Symphony is making its move to institutionalize the trend,” wrote Seymour Raven in the Chicago Tribune on September 22. “From Orchestra Hall comes word that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus is to be a new factor in the city’s musical life.”

Auditions began on October 5, and in less than two weeks the Sun-Times reported that they had “produced an exceptionally high rate of successful applicants. . . . Skill in sight-reading, interpretative ability, and voice quality were the main prerequisites for success. Voices with a tremolo or breathless quality were automatically rejected.” On October 13, the Daily News advertised that auditions were continuing: “Men’s voices are still urgently needed.”

Chicago Tribune, December 1, 1957

The Chicago Symphony Chorus, nearly one hundred voices strong, began rehearsals on October 28, and on November 30, the ensemble made an informal debut at a private concert for guarantors and sustaining members. On the first half of the concert, Reiner led Cailliet’s orchestration of Bach’s Little G minor fugue and Strauss’s Oboe Concerto (with principal Ray Still), and after intermission, Hillis took the podium, becoming the first woman to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She led the Orchestra and Chorus in Thompson’s Alleluia and Billings’s Modern Music (both a cappella), the final section of Purcell’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day, and the Servants’ Chorus from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Dettmer reported in the American that the debut was “more than promising . . . Miss Hillis’s choristers were fresh-voiced, musically sensitive, already balanced internally . . . she has accomplished much in the briefest time span.”

When popular guest conductor Bruno Walter informed the Orchestral Association that his March 1958 appearances would be his last in Chicago, Oldberg insisted that he should lead Mozart’s Requiem with the new chorus as his swansong. To prepare for both sets of concerts, Hillis and the Chorus began their work in earnest on Mozart’s and Verdi’s requiems, with Reiner regularly attending rehearsals.

Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1958

On March 13 and 14, 1958, the Chicago Symphony Chorus made its official debut in Mozart’s Requiem, under Walter’s baton with soloists Maria Stader, Maureen Forrester, David Lloyd, and Otto Edelmann. In the Chicago Tribune, Claudia Cassidy wrote: “The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is in high estate, with the kind of clairvoyance that gives a conductor what he wants in sound. . . . The evening’s card up the Mozartean sleeve was the new Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus of about 100 voices, expertly chosen and admirably trained by Margaret Hillis. It had balance and hints of brilliance, it was adroit in attack and it had moments of reassuringly imaginative song. The Confutatis in particular caught the haunted terror that was Mozart’s when the mysterious commission for the Requiem convinced him that the death knell he wrote was his own.”

Program page for Verdi’s Requiem, performed on April 3 and 4, 1958. It was repeated the following Tuesday, April 8.

Less than a month later, the Chorus appeared in Verdi’s Requiem with Reiner conducting and soloists Leonie Rysanek, Regina Resnik, David Lloyd, and Giorgio Tozzi. In the Sun-Times, Robert C. Marsh wrote that “Miss Hillis’s chorus proved its virtues earlier this season. Again its excellent enunciation, reliable intonation, and intelligent response were praiseworthy.”*

The following season, at Reiner’s invitation, Hillis conducted the Orchestra and Chorus in Honegger’s Christmas Cantata in December 1958. In the Daily News, Donal Henahan wrote, “Miss Hillis, who has been until now unknown except by name to most symphony subscribers, ruled her vast forces with a firm beat and a sure hand.” And the critic in the American noted, “With a clear (if inflexible) beat, Miss Hillis marshalled her forces, choral and orchestra, in a tight, sensitive, sweet-sounding statement of the music. . . . All in all, a glorious Christmas program.”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus onstage in March 1959. Also pictured is chorus director Margaret Hillis, music director Fritz Reiner, and associate conductor Walter Hendl (Oscar Chicago photo).

Later that season in March 1959, Reiner led Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky. “The climactic ‘Battle on the Ice’ was approached with expansive calm and deliberation. . . . A conductor who tries to pile climax after climax into this work can never achieve the hair-raising thrust that Reiner drew from Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus at such a moment,” observed Henahan in the Daily News. The Chorus “produced a pleasing sound in all voices and a more homogeneous tone than at any time since Miss Hillis began her missionary work in Chicago.” On March 7, Reiner, the Orchestra, and Chorus committed their performance to disc for RCA, collaborating for the first time in recording sessions.

The Chorus’s first recording with the Orchestra: Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, released by RCA in May 1960

Margaret Hillis directed the Chicago Symphony Chorus for thirty-seven years, preparing and leading concerts—in Orchestra Hall and at the Ravinia Festival, as well as on tour to Carnegie Hall, London’s Royal Albert Hall, and Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus—and amassing an award-winning discography. Following her death in February 1998, the Rosenthal Archives received her collection of papers, photographs, over 1,000 scores bearing her markings, awards (including nine Grammy statuettes), recordings, and memorabilia. Representing an exceptional and pioneering career, the collection is regularly accessed by researchers, scholars, and musicians.

In June 1994, following an international search, music director Daniel Barenboim appointed Duain Wolfe to succeed Hillis. Currently in his twenty-fourth season, Wolfe continues in Hillis’s tradition, maintaining the Chorus’s extraordinarily high standards of excellence.

*Due to scheduling conflicts, Reiner was unable to get the soloists—primarily Zinka Milanov and Jussi Björling—he wanted to record Verdi’s Requiem in Chicago. He, along with Leontyne Price, Rosalind Elias, Björling (in his last commercial recording), and Giorgio Tozzi, recorded it in Vienna in June 1960 with the Vienna Singverein and Philharmonic for RCA.

This article also appears in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s March 2018 program book and here.

Wishing a very happy eightieth birthday to John Corigliano!

The recipient of numerous honors—including a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, the Grawemeyer Award, and multiple Grammy awards—Corigliano served as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first composer-in-residence from 1987 until 1990.

The Orchestra first performed Corigliano’s Concerto for Piano in February 1969, with Sheldon Shkolnik as soloist and acting music director Irwin Hoffman on the podium. Under the baton of Sir Georg Solti, the Orchestra performed the Concerto for Clarinet with Larry Combs, as well as the Tournaments Overture on concerts in Orchestra Hall and during the 1985 tour to Europe, performing the work in Hamburg, Madrid, Paris, and London.

On March 15, 1990, music director designate Daniel Barenboim led the world premiere of Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1, jointly commissioned for the Orchestra’s centennial by the Chicago Symphony and the Meet-the-Composer Orchestra Residencies Program.

“During the past decade I have lost many friends and colleagues to the AIDS epidemic, and the cumulative effect of those losses has, naturally, deeply affected me. My First Symphony was generated by feelings of loss, anger, and frustration,” wrote Corigliano in the program note for the premiere. “A few years ago, I was extremely moved when I first saw ‘The Quilt,’ an ambitious interweaving of several thousand fabric panels, each memorializing a person who had died of AIDS, and, most importantly, each designed and constructed by his or her loved ones. This made me want to memorialize in music those I have lost, and reflect on those I am losing.”

The live recording—Barenboim and the Orchestra’s first on the Erato label—featured principal cello John Sharp and, offstage, pianist Stephen Hough. The recording was recognized with two 1991 Grammy awards for Best Orchestral Performance and Best Contemporary Composition. Barenboim programmed the symphony again in 1992, also taking it on tour to Carnegie Hall, Madrid, and London.

Corigliano’s First Symphony also has been performed at the Ravinia Festival under the batons of Christoph Eschenbach in 1996 and Marin Alsop in 2003; Eschenbach also led performances in Orchestra Hall in 1998.

With the Orchestra, Neeme Järvi conducted the Pied Piper Fantasy with Sir James Galway; Eschenbach led The Red Violin: Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra with Joshua BellWilliam Eddins conducted Phantasmagoria on The Ghosts of Versailles; and Leonard Slatkin has led Three Hallucinations, Fantasia on an Ostinato, and The Mannheim Rocket.

To celebrate Sir Georg Solti’s seventy-fifth birthday in 1987, associate conductor Kenneth Jean led the Orchestra in the world premiere of Corigliano’s Campane di RavelloWritten while on vacation in Ravello, Italy, the composer remarked, “On Sundays, the multitude of churches in Ravello and the surrounding towns play their bells, each in a different key and rhythm. The cacophony is gorgeous, and uniquely festive. My tribute to Sir Georg attempts to make the sections of the symphony orchestra sound like pealing bells: that tolling, filigreed with birdcalls in the woodwinds, provides the backdrop for a theme that grows more and more familiar as it is clarified. At the end, it is clear and joyous—a tribute to a great man.”

Jean also led the work on the Centennial Gala concert on October 6, 1990, and current music director Riccardo Muti conducted it on September 19, 2015, on the Symphony Ball concert launching the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 125th season.

Corigliano and Stephanie Jeong at the Harris Theater on October 2, 2017 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

MusicNOW, the Orchestra’s contemporary music series, kicked off its twentieth season on October 2, 2017, at the Harris Theater with a concert celebrating past composers-in-residence. Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek honored their predecessors by programming works by Anna Clyne, Osvaldo Golijov, and Mark-Anthony Turnage, along with—in attendance—Mason Bates, Shulamit Ran, Augusta Read Thomas, and Corigliano.

CSO violins Yuan-Qing Yu and Hermine Gagné, viola Danny Lai, and cello Kenneth Olsen performed Corigliano’s A Black November Turkey (in the composer’s string quartet arrangement), and violin Stephenie Jeong soloed in the Red Violin Caprices. The Chicago Classical Review’s Lawrence A. Johnson observed, “Jeong delivered a powerful tour de force performance, sensitively serving the pages of introspective melancholy and throwing off Corigliano’s artful retake on nineteenth-century Paganini-esque fiddle fireworks with blazing virtuosity and panache. It was wonderful to see the veteran composer join the CSO’s young associate concertmaster for a double curtain call.”

And next season, in January 2019, Thomas Hampson will perform the song “One Sweet Morning” from Corigliano’s song cycle One Sweet Morning, commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Bramwell Tovey will conduct.

Happy, happy birthday!

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins our friends at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in mourning the passing of beloved Chicago actor John Mahoney. He died in Chicago on February 4, at the age of 77.

John Mahoney in rehearsal at the Steppenwolf Theatre in 2008 (Chris Walker photo for the Chicago Tribune)

John Mahoney appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on three occasions, once at the Ravinia Festival and twice in Orchestra Hall, as follows:

July 14, 2001 (Ravinia Festival)
MENDELSSOHN A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
John de Lancie, Narrator/Puck and director
John Mahoney, Bottom
Janet Zarish, Titania
Timothy Gregory, Oberon
Stacey Tappan, soprano
Lauren McNeese, mezzo-soprano
Chicago Children’s Choir
Josephine Lee, director

In the Chicago Sun-Times, Wynne Delacoma set the stage. “It was a dream of a midsummer’s night at the Ravinia Festival Saturday, the kind of warm, clear evening just made for picnicking and listening to music outdoors. The music offered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andrew Davis provided a perfect match. After intermission, the pavilion light dimmed and sprites with glowing wands flitted through the night as the orchestra, singers and actors including John Mahoney . . . as the bumptious Bottom [he was] an endearing monster.”

April 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21, 2002 (Orchestra Hall)
STRAVINSKY The Soldier’s Tale
William Eddins, conductor
Pinchas Zukerman, violin
John Mahoney, Narrator
Paul Adelstein, Soldier
Hollis Resnik, Devil
Tina Cannon, dancer
John Bruce Yeh, clarinet
David McGill, bassoon
Craig Morris, trumpet
Jay Friedman, trombone
Joseph Guastafeste, bass
Edward Atkatz, percussion
Peter Amster, director and choreographer
Rafael Viñoly, stage designer

“Seizing the opportunity to do something different, the CSO teamed with Steppenwolf Theatre to stage The Soldier’s Tale, which Stravinsky wrote in 1918 as a theater piece,” wrote Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Mahoney was the dispassionate Narrator and Hollis Resnik a fashionable Devil in a generally lively staging by Peter Amster. Zukerman and six CSO musicians, conducted by William Eddins, perched on a tall, black platform centerstage, while Mahoney, Resnik, Paul Adelstein as the Soldier and dancer Tina Cannon spilled around the set of raised platforms and a few props devised by Rafael Viñoly. . . . Amster and his colleagues created a compelling drama. . . . Relaxed, making no judgments as he chronicled the Soldier’s victories and defeats, [Mahoney] was a sympathetic guide to Stravinsky’s morality tale.”

November 17, 18, 20, and 23, 2004 (Orchestra Hall)
BEETHOVEN Egmont
Mikko Franck, conductor
John Mahoney, narrator
Erin Wall, soprano

Again, Delacoma in the Chicago Sun-Times described the event. “Mahoney returned to Symphony Center Thursday night to narrate a rare performance of Beethoven’s complete incidental music to Goethe’s Egmont. Goethe’s play about a former loyalist fighting Spanish colonialism in the 16th century Netherlands was quickly forgotten, but Beethoven’s Egmont Overture has long been a concert hall staple. It was fascinating to hear it in its complete context, especially with the young Finnish conductor Mikko Franck honing in on the music’s noble bearing and expansive reach. . . . In the minimal staging devised by director Sheldon Patinkin, [Mahoney] managed to turn the obscure Egmont into a flesh-and-blood presence. With his straightforward delivery and Beethoven’s evocative music reinforcing each scene, he brought us glimpses of a brave soldier and king’s loyal administrator destroyed by political intrigue and despotism. The thirst for liberty is a recurring motif in Beethoven’s life and much of his music. Hearing the entire Egmont, the movie music of its day, was a reminder of how strongly Beethoven believed in that ideal.”

Numerous tribute have been posted online, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, The New York Timesand CNN, among others.

 

Alan Stout in 1971

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family notes with sorrow the passing of Alan Stout, composer and longtime composition and theory professor at Northwestern University. Stout died yesterday, February 1, 2018, at the age of 85.

Stout’s music was first performed by the Orchestra on two concerts given at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium on May 29 and 31, 1967, when Esther Glazer was soloist in Movements for Violin and Orchestra with Henry Lewis conducting. Soon thereafter, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented four world premieres by Stout, under the batons of Seiji Ozawa, Sir Georg Solti, and Margaret Hillis, at the Ravinia Festival and in Orchestra Hall.

On August 4, 1968, Ozawa led the world premiere of Stout’s Symphony no. 2 at Ravinia. The work was commissioned by the Ravinia Festival Association through a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, and the performance was made possible by a Composer Assistance Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

World premiere of Stout’s Second Symphony at the Ravinia Festival on August 4, 1968

The symphony was “vivid [and] multi-dimensional . . . a collection of musical rituals,” according to Thomas Willis in the Chicago Tribune. “The work is a marvelous tapestry of textures, combining a superior craftsmanship, a remarkable ear, and encyclopedic knowledge of the inventions of his colleagues, [including] Messiaen, Penderecki, Elliott Carter, and Pierre Boulez . . .”

The composer’s Symphony no. 4 was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in celebration of its eightieth season and dedicated to Georg Solti, who led the world premiere performances on April 15, 16, and 17, 1971. The score calls for a small chorus, and members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus were prepared by assistant director Ronald Schweitzer.

The following year, Solti also led the world premiere of Stout’s George Lieder (Poems from Das neue Reich) on December 14, 15, and 16, 1972, with baritone Benjamin Luxon as soloist.

Composer and conductor review the score of the George Lieder in December 1972 (Terry’s photo)

Stout’s large-scale Passion for Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra was commissioned by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts and was dedicated to Margaret Hillis and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Hillis led the world premiere performances on April 15, 16, and 17, 1976. Soloists included Mary Sauer on organ, Elizabeth Buccheri on piano, along with soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, tenors Frank Little and John McCollum, baritones Leslie Guinn and LeRoy Lehr, and bass Monroe Olson.

The premiere of Stout’s Passion, on which the composer worked for over twenty years, was a “monumental undertaking [and] provided the most difficult music the Chorus has undertaken since Fritz Reiner brought Margaret Hillis here in 1957 to found the now internationally known ensemble,” wrote Willis in the Chicago Tribune. “Stout fashions his church Latin text into curtains and tapestries of sound. Like a sonic aurora borealis, they expand and contract as needed, supplying intimate but still objective commentary on an emotional-laden event, creating towering climaxing as the peak points of the action, or providing canopies of tightly woven, often contrapuntal sheets of sound against which other portions of the action can take place.”

Detail from the first section of Stout’s Passion, with markings by Margaret Hillis

 

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Theodore Thomas

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