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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.

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Program book for November 28 and 29, 1963, most likely printed before November 22

Original program book cover for November 28 and 29, 1963, most likely printed in advance of November 22

Fritz Reiner, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s sixth music director from 1953 until 1962 and musical adviser for the 1962–63 season, died in New York on November 15, 1963.

Jean Martinon had programmed the Thanksgiving week concerts (on Thursday evening and Friday afternoon, November 28 and 29) to include Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Mozart’s Requiem (Margaret Hillis and the Chicago Symphony Chorus had been rehearsing the two works since early September). These were designated as memorials to Reiner, and the program page for the November 21 and 22 concerts included an announcement.

The November 22 CSO matinee concert was scheduled to begin at 2:00 p.m., not even two hours after President John F. Kennedy had been shot while riding in a motorcade in Dallas (Walter Cronkite confirmed the news of Kennedy’s death at 1:38 p.m.). Just before the concert began, an announcement was made from the stage (presumably by general manager Seymour Raven), and there was significant reaction of shock from the audience, including audible gasps, cries, and even screams.

November 28 and 29, 1983, program book cover

November 28 and 29, 1963, program book cover

Moments before, it had been decided to open the concert with the second movement—the funeral march—from Beethoven’s Third Symphony (Eroica), followed by the rest of the program as scheduled: Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto, Henze’s Third Symphony, and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with Byron Janis, all led by Martinon.

The November 28 and 29, 1963, concerts became a memorial not only for Reiner but also for Kennedy. According to Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune, “After the emotional exhaustion of these last black days, neither the austere beauty of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms nor the not-quite Mozart of the Requiem asked more of the listener than he had left to give. It was a quiet, beautifully played, wholly compassionate concert in Orchestra Hall.”

More information regarding the events of November 1963 can be found here and here.

This article also appears here.

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In addition to his twenty-two-year tenure as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1969-1991), Sir Georg Solti held a number of notable posts with other orchestras and opera companies.

At the Bavarian State Opera in Munich in 1952, leading Wagner’s Das Rheingold

His first official post was with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where he served as music director from 1946 until 1952. Subsequently, he was also Generalmusikdirektor and Impresario for the Frankfurt Opera from 1952 until 1961.

Shortly after his guest conducting debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1959, he was invited by Dorothy Chandler—then the chairman of the Philharmonic’s board—to become their music director beginning the following year. He accepted.

Also in 1959, following the tremendous success in a production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, he was invited to become music director by their chairman, the Earl of Drogheda.

In Solti’s words: “To his great surprise, I explained to him that although I was honored by the offer, I did not want the job, and that my refusal had nothing to do with the salary. I had accepted the directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic because I felt that I had spent enough time as an opera conductor and wanted to concentrate on symphonic music, and privately, I was not certain that I would be able to do justice to both Los Angeles and London if I accepted both jobs.”

While in Los Angeles for concerts in January 1960, Solti met with Bruno Walter who insisted he take the offer from Covent Garden. Solti took Walter’s advice and telegrammed his acceptance to David Webster (general manager of the Royal Opera House). They agreed that his residence would start in the fall of 1961, one year after the beginning of his tenure in Los Angeles.

At the same time, twenty-three-year-old Zubin Mehta had been invited to be an assistant conductor in Los Angeles. For the 1961-62 season, Fritz Reiner had been engaged to guest conduct the Philharmonic, but after his heart attack in October 1960, he canceled all engagements. According to Solti: “Without consulting me, Mrs. Chandler decided that Reiner’s concerts should be given to Mehta. In June 1960, while I was in London on Covent Garden business, I received a telegram from Mrs. Chandler, saying, ‘With your kind permission I have engaged Zubin Mehta as chief guest conductor of the Philharmonic.’ I was horrified. I had nothing at all against Mehta, who was an outstandingly talented young conductor, but the fact that the chairman of my new orchestra’s board had engaged a chief guest conductor without asking my opinion was intolerable. . . . I cabled back to say that under these conditions, I was unable to honor my contract in Los Angeles.”

Receiving applause with members of the Frankfurt Opera on tour in Paris in 1959, following a performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro

Solti went on to serve as music director at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from 1961 until 1971. He also served as music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for the 1961-62 season.

During Solti’s one season in Dallas, he was approached by two members of the CSO’s Orchestral Association, Eric Oldberg (chairman of the board) and Seymour Raven (general manager). Fritz Reiner had announced his retirement at the conclusion of the 1962-63 season and they were searching for a possible replacement. Solti was concerned about not being able to honor his commitment to Covent Garden and wasn’t able to accept an offer.

In 1967, new general manager John Edwards, “came to tell me that Jean Martinon, Reiner’s successor, would be leaving the orchestra the following year and to ask whether I would be willing to become music director. I was certainly willing, but I thought that the job might be too much for me, inasmuch as I was still committed to Covent Garden. I suggested sharing responsibilities with [Carlo Maria] Giulini, who had worked often in Chicago and was much liked there.” After some negotiation, it was agreed that Solti would be music director and Giulini would become the CSO’s first principal guest conductor beginning in the fall of 1969.

Solti also served as music director of the Orchestre de Paris from 1972 until 1975 and as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1979 until 1983.

Finally, Sir Georg Solti founded the World Orchestra for Peace in 1995 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations. He only conducted the orchestra’s inaugural concert on July 5, 1995, in Geneva, Switzerland. According to Sir Georg, “I was delighted to be involved in this event, as the UN is an organization in which I firmly believe, although I wish it could have more power and be allowed to function more effectively. Fittingly, the orchestra’s seventy-nine outstanding musicians came from forty-five orchestras in twenty-four countries. We played Rossini’s William Tell Overture as a tribute to Switzerland, our host country; Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death; and the final scene from [Beethoven’s] Fidelio, for its theme of liberation.”

Text excerpted from Memoirs by Sir Georg Solti.

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