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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins the classical music community in mourning Montserrat Caballé, the legendary Spanish soprano, who died on Saturday, October 6. She was 85.

Caballé appeared with the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall on one occasion, on April 28 and 29, 1966, performing Strauss’s Four Last Songs and Weber’s scene and aria, “Ozean! Du Ungeheuer,” from Oberon under the baton of associate conductor Irwin Hoffman.

In the Chicago American, Roger Dettmer noted, “One of the largest Thursday audiences in recent Orchestra Hall history assembled for the first local appearance last evening of Montserrat Caballé, the Spanish soprano who has taken Milan, Vienna, Munich, Mexico City, Dallas, and Manhattan by storm. When she had finished singing music of Richard Strauss and Weber, accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Irwin Hoffman’s deferential direction, there was a roar of acclaim. . . . She is always a delicate and intelligent singer, in strict command of her resources. As important and admirable, she is a painstaking, persuasive musician, who has the measure of Strauss’s twilight songs—their intimacy, ecstasy, and inner peace—as well as the thrust for ‘Ozean!'”

“The consummate artistry of Montserrat Caballé gave Orchestra Hall one of the great moments in its history last night,” wrote Thomas Willis in the Chicago Tribune. “The Spanish soprano who has been attracitng maximum attention elsewhere does not have the big voice with a cutting edge associated with the luminaries of the German opera. . . . With the intuition which all of the great ones seem to have, she gave you a sample of the power and volume once or twice before setting in to spin the most gleaming of pianissimos heard since the glittering years of top flight [Elisabeth] Schwarzkopf . . . a pliant and carefully balanced phrase whose give and take adjusted to the words as well as the tonal requirements of the vocal line.”

Countless tributes have been posted online, including the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, BBC News, and Opera News, among several others.

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.




On July 10, 1962, Aaron Copland conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in a program that began with Haydn’s Symphony no. 95, Stravinsky’s Ode for Orchestra, and Chávez’s Sinfonia india. After intermission, the composer returned to lead his Orchestral Variations and Old American Songs with bass William Warfield.

Copland’s appearance drew “the largest Tuesday crowd in many a Ravinia summer [and] everything added up to the best program given summer audiences here in a decade of concerts,” wrote Roger Dettmer in the Chicago American. “The strongest music was Mr. Copland’s Variations, tense and unrelenting, splendorously scored, and in design, memorable.”

July 10, 1962

July 10, 1962

William Warfield—who had given the premiere of the orchestral arrangement of the first set of songs as well as the first performance of the original version of the second set with the composer at the piano—was soloist for the occasion. Robert C. Marsh in the Chicago Sun-Times commented, “In the two sets of American songs, William Warfield showed us that the acoustically revamped pavilion is now a fit place for a vocal soloist, for his big, warm baritone came to us as no singer had before.”

Copland had made his debut with the Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival on July 21, 1956, in a concert that had attracted over 5,000 people, despite a late-afternoon hailstorm. He led a program of his own works: An Outdoor Overture, suites from Our Town and Billy the Kid, the first two movements from the Third Symphony, and Lincoln Portrait with Claude Rains as narrator. For his debut at Orchestra Hall, the composer was soloist in his Piano Concerto on December 5, 1964, led by assistant conductor Irwin Hoffman.

This article also appears here.



Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

On October 28 and 29, 1954, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf made her American and Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts in Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs and the closing scene from his final opera, Capriccio. Fritz Reiner conducted.

Schwarzkopf “is both a soprano with a historically beautiful voice of its kind and a musician of transcendent intelligence. She knows most intimately what her texts are about, feels them deeply, and possesses the extraordinary vocal capacity to color with each word, each mood, each musical phrase,” raved Roger Dettmer in the Chicago American. “Here was artistry of the utmost fulfillment of an exquisite and cherished kind heard rarely in a lifetime of listening.”

“It has seemed to me that it took Miss Schwarzkopf a long time to come here,” commented Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “But exactly the right time, too. For it brought her here when Reiner, a kind of Straussian magician, had restored to the Orchestra its old, deep layered glow, and had added an immaculate polish strictly his own. Good things go together, and it is worthwhile to wait.”

October 28 and 29, 1954

October 28 and 29, 1954

The capacity crowd on October 28 included another legendary soprano—Maria Callas—also preparing to make her American debut, in town for the title role in Bellini’s Norma during Lyric Theatre of Chicago’s first season.*

*The company’s name was changed to Lyric Opera of Chicago for the 1955–56 season.

This article also appears here.



August 3, 5, 7, and 8, 1954

August 3, 5, 7, and 8, 1954

Georg Solti was scheduled to make his U.S. debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival on July 14, 1953. However, his visa was denied only a few days before, pending clarification of charges that his name was on the membership roster of the Soviet Friendship Association, affiliated with the Communist Party. On July 13, he appeared in Munich to sort out the details (the information that had been obtained was not a list of members of the Communist Party but simply a mailing list of people in cultural life) and his visa was granted. However, there was not time enough to travel to the United States for his Ravinia engagement. He made his U.S. debut a few months later at the San Francisco Opera on September 25, 1953, leading Strauss’s Elektra.

Solti made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the following summer at the Ravinia Festival, leading four concerts on August 3, 5, 7, and 8, 1954. The first concert consisted of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, C.P.E. Bach’s Cello Concerto in A major with Paul Tortelier, and Beethoven’s Third Symphony. “Mr. Solti finally has arrived, and last evening led a concert worth anyone’s patience and everyone’s presence,” wrote Roger Dettmer in the Chicago American. “[Solti] led far and away the finest concert heard here in two summer seasons—a thrilling concert in actual fact.”

Ravinia Festival program book cover for June 29 through August 15, 1954

Ravinia Festival program book cover for June 29 through August 15, 1954

“These performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Ravinia were an absolute joy. I still remember the performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony during our first concert—the most wonderful musical experience of my professional life up to that time,” wrote Solti in his Memoirs. “I had no doubt that this was the finest ensemble I had ever conducted.”

On August 5, Solti conducted Rossini’s Overture to La gazza ladra, Hindemith’s Symphony in E-flat, Paganini’s First Violin Concerto with Ruggiero Ricci, and Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. The August 7 program began with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture followed by Brahms’s Concerto for Violin and Cello with Ricci and Tortelier, and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. For the final concert on August 8, Solti led Mozart’s Symphony no. 40, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with Jacob Lateiner (replacing an indisposed Alexander Uninsky), Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, and Strauss’s Don Juan.

This article also appears here and previously appeared here.

Jon Vickers

The extraordinary Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on only one occasion, died on Friday, July 10, 2015, in Ontario. He was 88.

For the opening subscription concerts of the sixty-eighth season on October 23 and 24, 1958, music director Fritz Reiner led the Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Chorus—in its second season and prepared by its founder Margaret Hillis—and soloists Adele Addison, Regina Resnik, Vickers, and Jerome Hines in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The concert opened with the composer’s Leonore Overture no. 3.

In the Chicago American, Roger Dettmer described Vickers as “a Canadian tenor on his vocal way to Valhalla.” And in the Chicago Tribune, Claudia Cassidy wrote that “Jon Vickers’ tenor was stronger than I remembered, as if Bayreuth had invigorated it” (he had made his debut at Wagner’s annual festival only a few months before, as Siegmund in Die Walküre).

October 23 & 24, 1958

October 23 & 24, 1958

Cassidy continued, praising that Reiner delivered, “a Beethoven Ninth Symphony so magnificent that it ranks high in the company of great performances, and may be the finest thing Mr. Reiner has done in and for Chicago. . . . That Mr. Reiner is a master conductor goes without saying, though it is a pleasure to say it. That he can be a great interpreter of essentially spiritual music is not so commonly understood. But no one who heard this Ninth could deny it, for there it was, fully known, fully projected, fully shared. He had what he has made a superb orchestra and what he has insisted on having to match it, a chorus of such quality its newness is hard to remember. Like the orchestra, that chorus can attack like the blow of a fist.

“Out of all this came a Ninth full of mesmeric detail, yet all of one thrusting design soaring to the great finale. The strangely fascinating cacophony of the first movement was crystalline in style, through full of moods and shadows in sound. The scherzo, never capricious, but volatile as ether, held the ear taut and, oddly, the heart. The slow movement sang in layers of floating sound, austere for all its tenderness. The ‘Ode to Joy’ burst out with the jubilation of the freed spirit. When it was over the audience burst into a roar—the kind of roar that means hundreds of people have been, quite without knowing it, holding their breath in pure excitement.”

October 1958 program biography for Jon Vickers

October 1958 program biography for Jon Vickers

Numerous obituaries have been posted online, including in the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Opera News, and The Guardian.

the vault

Theodore Thomas


The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

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