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Theodore Thomas

The opening of the first season of the Chicago Orchestra in October 1891 was a momentous occasion not only for the city whose name the Orchestra bore, but also, as the collections in the Rosenthal Archives show, for towns all over the Midwest. Founder and first music director Theodore Thomas was passionately devoted to bringing music to people of all means, not just those who lived in the metropolitan centers and could afford tickets. This isn’t to say, of course, that Thomas wasn’t interested in the opinions of those same well-off people. Part of the reason for the expansive tour schedule the Orchestra observed that first season was to spread the word that Chicago was no longer a backwards slaughterhouse town, a stereotype the city was actively fighting in the lead up to, and even after having won the privilege of, hosting the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Thomas eagerly, and ambitiously, sought to show off the talents and achievements of his new hometown, while also sharing those accomplishments with smaller cities around the Midwest and the South.

Grand Opera House in Rockford, Illinois, October 19, 1891

Following the inaugural concerts at the Auditorium Theatre on October 16 and 17, Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra traveled to Rockford, Illinois for a concert at the Grand Opera House on October 19, and through end of May 1892, they journeyed to eighteen different cities. While there was significant overlap in the repertoire performed, the Orchestra rarely played the same exact program twice, requiring them to have a large amount of music prepared for performance at all times.

Academy of Music in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, December 22, 1891

Many of these concerts were a mix of “high” and “low” repertoire, with the Orchestra performing standards, like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, along with lighter fare, including Arthur Goring Thomas’s A Summer Night. Neither were these light affairs; one concert in Milwaukee on March 22 featured an extended Wagner-only second half with many of the most difficult pieces in the orchestral repertoire, including overtures to The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin and the infamous Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre. Other common works in the repertoire included Thomas’s orchestral arrangement of the third movement—the slow Marche funèbre or Funeral March—from Chopin’s Piano Sonata no. 2, Mendelssohn’s Overture to The Fair Melusina, and the intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (fresh from its September 1891 U.S. premiere in Philadelphia).

The first known image of the Chicago Orchestra on the steps of the Saint Louis Exposition Hall on March 14, 1892

The Orchestra’s ability to perform such demanding music becomes even more astonishing upon looking at the tour schedule, where players were frequently given only one day off between concert sets, and likely that time was spent traveling by train from city to city. Many of the same musicians regularly were featured as soloists—concertmaster Max Bendix, along with several principals: cello Bruno Steindel, clarinet Joseph Schreurs, and flute Vigo Andersen—sidestepping the issue of finding local talent or soloists willing to travel, while also giving Thomas the chance to showcase the tremendous talents at his disposal.

Chicago Orchestra tour schedule, 1891-92 season

Many of the theaters that welcomed the Orchestra were themselves quite new, many calling themselves “opera houses,” since opera was considered more “respectable” than mere theater. While opera was sometimes performed in these venues, more often than not they welcomed touring music groups like the Chicago Orchestra, as well as vaudeville and minstrel shows. Many of these theaters have since been demolished, but in their day, they were architectural jewels, as many of the surviving photos and drawings can attest. In the first season, it seems that the Orchestra relied on local event organizers to print up programs, leading to occasionally humorous mis-hearings of titles. For example, Delibes’s suite from the ballet Sylvia frequently concluded a program, and its last movement is Les chasseuses or The Huntresses; the name of this movement was subjected to many different spellings, including Les chesseresses, Les chausseures, and even The Shoes.

Temple Theater in Alton, Illinois, March 16, 1892

By the second season (1892-93), many of these rough edges had been smoothed out. Having noticed the inconsistencies in the titles, Chicago Orchestra management began printing the program books, each bearing Thomas’s face on the front cover and with standardized titles. The concerts themselves also became more consistent, with much less variety in programmed music from city to city. However, the Orchestra’s out-of-town trips would soon become far less frequent: from a grand total of fifty-five concerts in the first season, to forty-five in the second, and a mere fifteen in the third season. Deficits that hounded the Orchestra’s early seasons are most likely to blame, as the expense of such frequent tours could no longer be justified; though the exhaustion of the musicians surely had an effect as well.

DuBois Opera House, Elgin, Illinois, November 1, 1892

Thomas’s personal drive to bring music to the masses soon found other outlets. Having been named the the director of the Bureau of Music for the World’s Columbian Exposition, he was ready to become the city’s chief musical ambassador to the millions of people who would visit. Thomas also implemented a series of “workingmen’s concerts,” where ticket prices were significantly reduced in order to allow those who could not otherwise afford to attend the Orchestra’s subscription concerts.

But wait, there’s more . . . stay tuned for part 2 of this dive into the Orchestra’s early touring days, which will focus on female guest soloists!

Jenna Harmon is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Northwestern University and an intern in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s Rosenthal Archives.

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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.

Retired violists gather at the October 19, 1996, CSO Alumni Association reunion: William Schoen (1964–1996), Milton Preves (1934–1939, principal 1939–1986), Phillip Kauffman, Isadore Zverow, and Donald Evans (1948–1988)

Retired violists gather at the October 19, 1996, CSO Alumni Association reunion: William Schoen (1964–1996), Milton Preves (1934–1939, principal 1939–1986), Phillip Kauffman, Isadore Zverow, and Donald Evans (1948–1988) (Jim Steere photo)

Virtually every Chicago Symphony Orchestra musician studied with a great teacher, who studied with great teachers before that—a process that traces back to Bernstein, Brahms, and Bach. Along with our beloved Italian maestro, Riccardo Muti, the members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Alumni Association are a living link to past generations of legendary performers, conductors, and composers, and our artist musicians hail from many different countries who share a common musical heritage.

Lady Valerie Solti is greeted by CSOAA president Tom Hall at the Cliff Dwellers on October 16, 2009

Lady Valerie Solti is greeted by CSOAA president Tom Hall at the Cliff Dwellers on October 16, 2009 (Dan Rest photo)

As we conclude the celebrations surrounding the Orchestra’s festive 125th season, the CSOAA also celebrates an anniversary this year—its twenty-fifth. The CSOAA consists of nearly 130 members—including retired and former musicians, spouses, and children—an astonishing aggregate total of well over a thousand years of service to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra! In 1991, Isadore Zverow (viola, 1945–1988) fostered the idea of the CSOAA, and subsequent presidents have included Sam Denov (percussion, 1954–1985), Phillip Kauffman (violin and viola, 1927–1930 and 1964–1984), Jerry Sabransky (violin, 1949–1997), and currently Tom Hall (violin, 1970–2006).

Victor Aitay (assistant/associate concertmaster 1954–1967, concertmaster 1967–1986, concertmaster emeritus 1986–2003) and his daughter Ava along with Donald Peck (flute 1957–1958, principal 1958–1999) and Edward Druzinsky (seated, principal harp 1957–1997) at the Cliff Dwellers on October 16, 2009

Victor Aitay (assistant/associate concertmaster 1954–1967, concertmaster 1967–1986, concertmaster emeritus 1986–2003) and his daughter Ava along with Donald Peck (flute 1957–1958, principal 1958–1999) and Edward Druzinsky (seated, principal harp 1957–1997) at the Cliff Dwellers on October 16, 2009 (Dan Rest photo)

Having performed for many years together on stages all over the world, alumni continue to interact with each other through the CSOAA; and each season, members receive discounts to concerts and the Symphony Store. The organization enjoys the warm embrace of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, which holds its former musicians close as senior members of the Orchestra’s family. Current CSOA President Jeff Alexander has been most gracious in supporting the retirees, some of whom are well into their nineties. The CSOAA board of directors meets several times a year to plan annual reunion dinners, which are usually held at the historic Cliff Dwellers club. Members also have contributed to the CSOA’s Rosenthal Archives—a treasure trove of history, recordings, music scores, artifacts, and databases of former orchestra members—lovingly curated and managed by our liaison, director Frank Villella.

Arnold (principal tuba 1944–1988) and Gizella Jacobs in Orchestra Hall’s Grainger Ballroom on October 19, 1996

Arnold (principal tuba 1944–1988) and Gizella Jacobs in Orchestra Hall’s Grainger Ballroom on October 19, 1996 (Jim Steere photo)

So the next time you stroll through Symphony Center’s first-floor arcade, try to imagine the many great musicians of earlier generations behind each portrait—beautifully taken by photographer Todd Rosenberg—of the superb musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

This article also appears in the September/October CSO program book.

Donald Moline was a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra cello section from 1967 until 2006, and he currently serves as secretary of the CSOAA.

Edgar (violin 1956–2003) and Nancy Muenzer, Jacques Israelievitch (assistant concertmaster 1972–1978), and Samuel (violin 1958–1966, assistant concertmaster 1966–1972, concertmaster 1972–2007) and Miriam Magad in The Club at Symphony Center on June 3, 2011

Edgar (violin 1956–2003) and Nancy Muenzer, Jacques Israelievitch (assistant concertmaster 1972–1978), and Samuel (violin 1958–1966, assistant concertmaster 1966–1972, concertmaster 1972–2007) and Miriam Magad in The Club at Symphony Center on June 3, 2011 (Dan Rest photo)

Adolph Herseth (principal trumpet 1948–2001, principal trumpet emeritus 2001–2004) and Norman Schweikert (horn 1971–1997) on April 11, 2008, at the Cliff Dwellers

Adolph Herseth (principal trumpet 1948–2001, principal trumpet emeritus 2001–2004) and Norman Schweikert (horn 1971–1997) on April 11, 2008, at the Cliff Dwellers (Dan Rest photo)

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Theodore Thomas

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