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Vladimir Ashkenazy (Wayne J. Shilkret photo)

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family wishes the magnificent pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy a very happy eighty-fifth birthday!

Ashkenazy catapulted onto the world stage in 1955 after winning second prize in the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. He was awarded first prize in both the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels in 1956 and the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1962.

“Pound for pound, he may be the most pyrotechnic pianist in the whole world,” wrote Seymour Raven in the Chicago Tribune, following Ashkenazy’s Orchestra Hall recital debut, presented under the auspices of Allied Arts on October 19, 1958. Seven years later, after his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut in Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, Thomas Willis (also in the Tribune) commented, the “volcanic [pianist], whose two previous recitals here marked him as a man to watch, had everything it takes to get the locomotor going full speed and most of the qualities to sustain momentum. The big tone for melodies framed the structure in iron. The bravura technique took in stride the hammering octaves, scales which sweep the keyboard, and arpeggio lightning which galvanizes the Russian bear intermezzo into a furious climax. . . . This combination of work, soloist, and orchestra could lift you right out of your seat more than once.”

During the first tour to Europe in 1971, Ashkenazy joined the Orchestra on the first leg in Edinburgh on September 5, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 under Georg Solti. In May 1971 and 1972, he recorded Beethoven’s five piano concertos with the CSO, again with Solti conducting. Recording sessions took place at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and for London Records, the recording was produced by David Harvey and Kenneth Wilkinson was the recording engineer. The set of all five concertos won the 1973 Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance—Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (with orchestra).

For nearly fifty years, Vladimir Ashkenazy was a regular visitor to the stage in Orchestra Hall. In January 2020, he announced that he would be retiring from public performance, capping a career that spanned nearly seventy years.

A complete list of his appearances—with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as a piano recitalist, and as a guest conductor with visiting orchestras—is below.

October 28, 29, and 30, 1965, Orchestra Hall
November 1, 1965, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16
Irwin Hoffman, conductor

March 27, 1967, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
30 and 31, 1967, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 37
Jean Martinon, conductor

July 25, 1968, Ravinia Festival
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Alfred Wallenstein, conductor

Ashkenazy, Solti, and David Harvey listening to playbacks of Beethoven’s piano concertos in May 1971 at the Krannert Center (Robert M. Lightfoot III photo)

December 5, 6, and 7, 1968, Orchestra Hall
December 9, 1968, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26
William Steinberg, conductor

October 30, 31, and November 1, 1969, Orchestra Hall
November 3, 1969, Pabst Theater, Milwaukee
MOZART Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466
Eliahu Inbal, conductor

July 16, 1970, Ravinia Festival
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16
István Kertész, conductor

May 7 and 8, 1971, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Georg Solti, conductor

July 20, 1971, Ravinia Festival
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30
István Kertész, conductor

September 5, 1971, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland
MOZART Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466
Georg Solti, conductor

May 20, 1972, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

May 21, 1972, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

March 1, 2, and 3, 1973, Orchestra Hall
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30
Lorin Maazel, conductor

November 7, 8, and 9, 1974, Orchestra Hall
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 5 in G Major, Op. 55
Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor

January 18 and 20, 1980, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

Under the auspices of Allied Arts and Symphony Center Presents, Ashkenazy has appeared as piano recitalist, chamber musician, and guest conductor, as follows (*program book not on file; repertoire culled from advertisements and newspaper clippings).

October 19, 1958

October 19, 1958, Orchestra Hall
BRAHMS Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24
CHOPIN Nocturne in B Major, Op. 9, No. 3
CHOPIN Scherzo No. 4 in E Major, Op. 54
LISZT Mephisto Waltz No. 1
RACHMANINOV Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op. 42
PROKOFIEV Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, Op. 83

*November 18, 1962, Orchestra Hall
MOZART Sonata No. 9 in D Major, K. 311
PROKOFIEV Sonata No. 6 in A Major, Op. 82
CHOPIN Etudes, Op. 25

*May 16, 1971, Orchestra Hall
HAYDN Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI:52
BEETHOVEN Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 (Appassionata)
CHOPIN Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58

March 4, 1973, Orchestra Hall
DOHNÁNYI String Quartet No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 33
SHOSTAKOVICH String Quartet No. 2 in A Major, Op. 68
SCHUMANN Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44
Chicago Symphony String Quartet
Victor Aitay, violin
Edgar Muenzer, violin
Milton Preves, viola
Frank Miller, cello

*February 17, 1974, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 3 in C Major, Op. 2, No. 3
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109
CHOPIN Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49
CHOPIN Impromptu in F-sharp Major, Op. 36
CHOPIN Ballade No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 52
CHOPIN Scherzo in E Major, Op. 54

Vladimir Ashkenazy (Wayne J. Shilkret photo)

*March 20, 1977, Orchestra Hall
SCRIABIN Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19
SCRIABIN Two Poems, Op. 32
SCRIABIN Sonata No. 7, Op. 64 (White Mass)
SCRIABIN Sonata No. 10, Op. 70
SCRIABIN Four Pieces, Op. 56
RACHMANINOV Études-Tableaux, nos. 2 (Allegro in C major), 6 (Allegro con fuoco in E-flat major), 7 (Moderato in G minor), and 3 (Grave in C minor)
RACHMANINOV Selections from Ten Preludes, Op. 23 and Thirteen Preludes, Op. 32

*January 21, 1979, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 16 in G Major, Op. 31, No. 1
SCHUMANN Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6
CHOPIN Fantasy in F Minor, Op. 49
CHOPIN Ballade in A-flat
CHOPIN Nocturne in F-sharp Minor, Op. 48, No. 2
CHOPIN Scherzo in C-sharp Minor

*February 20, 1981, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
CHOPIN Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58
CHOPIN Nocturne in D-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 2

*March 20, 1983, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 28 in A Major, Op. 101
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 30 in E Major, Op. 109
SCHUBERT Klavierstücke No. 1 in E-flat Minor and No. 2 in E-flat Major, D. 946
SCHUBERT Fantasy in C Major, D. 760 (Wanderer)

*April 29, 1984, Orchestra Hall
SCHUBERT Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
SCHUMANN Papillons, Op. 2
SCHUMANN Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

December 9, 1990, Orchestra Hall
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major, Op. 110
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111
BRAHMS Klavierstücke, Op. 119
BRAHMS Variations on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24

Vladimir Ashkenazy (Ben Ealovega photo for Decca)

November 15, 1992, Orchestra Hall
MENDELSSOHN Selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61
BAX Tintagel
SHOSTAKOVICH Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

November 10, 1997, Orchestra Hall
KODÁLY Dances of Galánta
MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
Christian Tetzlaff, violin
BRAHMS Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin

March 31, 2000, Orchestra Hall
JANÁČEK Suite from The Cunning Little Vixen
DVOŘÁK Violin Concerto in A Minor, Op. 53
Kurt Nikkanen, violin
PROKOFIEV Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100
Czech Philharmonic

March 7, 2003, Orchestra Hall
SHOSTAKOVICH/Barshai Chamber Symphony for Strings in C Minor, Op. 110a
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-flat Major, Op. 10
Lukáš Vondráček, piano
DVOŘÁK Symphony No. 7 in D Minor, Op. 70
Czech Philharmonic

Happy, happy birthday!

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In June 2022, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the extraordinary American entertainer, singer, and actress Judy Garland!

Born on June 10, 1922, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, Judy Garland began her career as a vaudeville performer with her two older sisters. By the age of thirteen, she had been signed—without a screen test—to the world’s largest motion-picture studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. While still a teenager, Garland created her most beloved role as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, in which she sang the song that would forever be identified with her, “Over the Rainbow.” Despite constant personal struggles, she continued to create iconic film roles, make hundreds of concert appearances, record best-selling albums, and host her own television series.

Sarah Zelzer and Judy Garland in September 1958 (Allied Arts Records, The Newberry Library, Chicago)

On October 15, 1930, impresario Harry Zelzer (1897–1979) mounted his first presentation—a recital by Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli—at Chicago’s Civic Opera House. By 1948, Zelzer Concert Management Bureau had gradually expanded to become Allied Arts, presenting dozens of performances in multiple venues annually throughout Chicago, including Orchestra Hall. In 1978, Zelzer and his devoted wife and partner Sarah Schectman Zelzer (1909–1998) gave the Allied Arts series to the Orchestral Association (now the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association). Ultimately, the series was renamed Symphony Center Presents in October 1997.

“In July of 1958, Harry got a call from Sidney Luft, Judy’s husband and manager; he wanted Harry to present her in concert at Orchestra Hall during the first week of September,” wrote Sarah Zelzer in her book, Impresario: The Zelzer Era, 1930 to 1990. “Harry had never seen Judy Garland movies and knew very little about her. I, on the other hand, had admired her for years, and I told Harry I thought she would be a terrific draw.” Garland had not yet appeared in Chicago, and despite her reputation for cancellations along with her husband’s rumored untrustworthiness, the Zelzers decided, “it would be worth the gamble.”

Allied Arts program for Garland’s September 4-9, 1958, concerts in Orchestra Hall

Garland and Luft arrived in Chicago on September 3 for a press conference at the Bismarck Hotel, just before the first of seven sold-out shows at Orchestra Hall over the next six days. Comedian Alan King would be the opening act, and Nelson Riddle and his orchestra would provide the accompaniment. Garland’s opening night performance on the evening of September 4 was, according to Zelzer, “a tremendous success. But for the rest of the week, we were on tenterhooks until we saw her walk on the stage.”

“There were cheers and floral tributes for Miss Garland’s singing,” wrote Seymour Raven in the Chicago Tribune. “The singing is spacious and warm and beautiful, whether it is in music to be caressed or belted. Miss Garland, having long experience, covers quite a span of song writing—from ‘When You’re Smiling’ and ‘I Can’t Give You Anything but Love’ through the ‘Trolley Song’ right down to the ‘Purple People Eater.’ Even songs that weren’t written especially for her become hers by right of interpretation. She is an ‘original,’ and thus has the right. At the end of the evening, she recreates her famous tramp number, ‘Couple of Swells,’ with Mr. King in deft partnership. Then, if opening night is any indication, she may sit down over Orchestra Hall’s imaginary footlights and do a softly beautiful ‘Over the Rainbow’ and a bouncing ‘Chicago’ by way of encores.”

Chicago Tribune, September 5, 1958

The following year, she was re-engaged by Allied Arts for a seven-concert, sold-out run that began on June 1, 1959, at the Civic Opera House. Alan King returned, along with John W. Bubbles and Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra. “The indestructible Judy Garland went into another new phase Monday night at the Civic Opera House, where a near capacity audience turned out,” wrote William Leonard in the Chicago Tribune. “Now, a legend . . . Judy is here as a veteran of vaudeville—a virtually vanished form of show business which she causes to breathe again with nostalgia and excitement combined.”

The Zelzers brought Garland back to Chicago for a performance at the Civic Opera House on May 6, 1961. Just two weeks prior, on April 23, 1961, Garland gave a now legendary performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall. According to Variety, “The tones are clear, the phrasing is meaningful, and the vocal passion is catching. In fact, the audience couldn’t resist anything she did.” And in the New York Post, “Last night, the magnetism was circulating from the moment she stepped on stage.” Called by many “the greatest night in show business history,” the concert was recorded, and the two-album set—Judy at Carnegie Hall—was a tremendous bestseller. It remained on the Billboard charts for seventy-three weeks—including thirteen weeks in the number-one spot — and was certified Gold. Garland won two 1961 Grammy awards for the Capitol Records release: Album of the Year—the first woman to win in that top category—and Best Solo Vocal Performance–Female. The recording was also recognized for Best Engineering Contribution–Popular Recording and Best Album Cover–Non-Classical.

Under the auspices of Allied Arts, Garland was back in Chicago on two more occasions—both for performances at the new Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place—on November 7, 1962, and May 7, 1965. “Audiences habitually regard her concerts as love feasts. This was no exception,” wrote Thomas Willis in the Chicago Tribune on November 8, 1962. “Through it all, the high-voltage personality operated full force.”

Chicago Tribune, May 6, 1965

Judy Garland died in London on June 22, 1969, at the age of forty-seven, but her legacy endures. She has been recognized for lifetime achievement from the Recording Academy, and she was the youngest recipient and the first woman to receive the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award, also for lifetime achievement. She received honorary Academy and Tony awards, a Golden Globe, two Grammy awards, two Academy and three Emmy award nominations, and two stars (one for acting, one for recording) on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Six of her records have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the American Film Institute‘s 100 Years . . . 100 Songs listed “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz as the number-one movie song of all time, along with “The Man That Got Away” from A Star is Born (no. 11), “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” from Meet Me in St. Louis (nos. 26 and 76), and “Get Happy” from Summer Stock (no. 61).

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Marian Anderson in 1940 (Carl Van Vechten photo, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

In February 2022, we celebrate the 125th anniversary of the birth of the great American contralto Marian Anderson. She was born in Philadelphia on February 27, 1897, and died in Portland, Oregon, on April 8, 1993, at the age of 96. 

Orchestra Hall, November 18, 1929

On November 18, 1929, Marian Anderson (under the management of Arthur Judson) made her debut in Orchestra Hall under the auspices of the Theta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. That evening, Anderson “reached near perfection in every requirement of vocal art,” wrote Herman Devries in the Chicago Evening American. “The tone was of superb timbre, the phrasing of utmost refinement, the style pure, discreet, musicianly . . . a talent still unripe, but certainly a talent of potential growth.” In attendance were Ray Field and George Arthur, representatives from the Rosenwald Fund, who encouraged her to apply for a fellowship to further her studies in Europe. The following year, she received $1,500 to study in Berlin.

In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused Anderson the opportunity to give a concert for an integrated audience in Washington, D.C.’s Constitution Hall. With the support of President Franklin D. and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she instead performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, to a crowd of 75,000 people and over a million radio listeners. Anderson closed the recital with the spiritual “My soul is anchored in the Lord” in an arrangement by Florence Price

Anderson and Defauw onstage with the CSO at the Stevens Hotel on June 5, 1944 (James Gushiniere, Chicago Tribune)

A few weeks later, on May 20, 1939, Anderson was scheduled to make her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the North Shore Music Festival, in Evanston’s Dyche Stadium (now Ryan Field). The afternoon program was to include arias from Donizetti’s La favorita and Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue, along with spirituals, all under the baton of Frederick Stock. A case of laryngitis, however, prevented her from performing, and soprano Kirsten Flagstad, scheduled for the evening concert, was asked to fill in for the matinee. According to the Chicago Daily News, there was no time for Flagstad to rehearse the extra program with the Orchestra due to “a purely feminine” hesitation: she needed a different dress for the matinee. Festival organizers quickly took her to Marshall Field’s to shop for a second dress, and the concert, featuring several excerpts from Wagner’s operas, was “amply redeemed by the artistry of Mme. Flagstad,” according to Janet Gunn in the Chicago Herald and Examiner.

Her debut performance with the CSO was at a concert opening the 48th Convention of the American Federation of Musicians on June 5, 1944, at the Stevens Hotel (now the Hilton Chicago). Under third music director Désiré Defauw, she sang “O mio Fernando” from Donizetti’s La favorita, “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah, and spirituals.

Anderson broke barriers on January 7, 1955, when she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera—in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera as Ulrica—becoming the first African American to sing with the company. The following year, she opened the Ravinia Festival’s 21st season, along with the CSO under Eugene Ormandy in two programs, performing the following:

Ravinia Festival, June 1956

June 26, 1956
BRAHMS Dein blaues Auge, Op. 59, No. 8
BRAHMS Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, Op. 105, No. 2
BRAHMS Der Schmied, Op. 19, No. 4
BRAHMS Von ewiger Liebe, Op. 43, No. 1
BRAHMS Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (with the Swedish Glee Club; Harry T. Carlson, director)

June 28, 1956
BIZET Agnus Dei
BIZET Ouvre ton coeur
SAINT-SAËNS Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix from Samson and Delilah
TCHAIKOVSKY None but the Lonely Heart, Op. 6, No. 6
TRADITIONAL IRISH Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms
KREISLER The Old Refrain

According to Seymour Raven in the Chicago Tribune, a crowd of more than 4,000 attended the all-Brahms concert that “turned out to be perfect.” Anderson sang “introspectively and with tender regard [and] exceptional craftsmanship and feeling.”

On August 28, 1963, Anderson performed “He’s got the whole world in his hands” at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1964

During the 1964-65 season, Anderson gave a farewell recital tour under the auspices of her longtime presenter, Sol Hurok. Her stop in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on Dec. 6, 1964, was sold out (an additional 225 seats were onstage) and “well-wishers had also provided a red carpet, bouquets of red roses and white carnations by the armload,” according to the Chicago Tribune. “This is probably no time for sentiment,” Anderson commented. “But do let me say I find all of this today very touching.” Her encores included “There’s no hiding place down there” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”

On June 27, 1968, at Ravinia, Anderson made her final appearance with the CSO, as narrator in Copland’s Preamble for a Solemn Occasion. Festival music director Seiji Ozawa conducted. Reading the “stirring segment from the United Nations charter,” wrote Thomas Willis in the Chicago Tribune, Anderson was “radiant in a cherry red velvet cape [contributing] both the presence and conviction, which made her vocal performances such moving experiences.”

Anderson gave a total of 22 recitals in Orchestra Hall, as follows:

Anderson with her frequent recital collaborator, pianist Franz Rupp (Carl Mett, Marian Anderson Collection, University of Pennsylvania)

November 18, 1929
January 26, 1931
October 28, 1945
November 3, 1946
November 23, 1947
October 24, 1948
January 21, 1950
January 29, 1950
January 21, 1951
April 8, 1951
May 3, 1952
January 31, 1953
March 29, 1953
January 30, 1954
December 5, 1954
January 8, 1956
February 23, 1957
April 5, 1959
February 28, 1960
February 19, 1961
May 11, 1963
December 6, 1964

In September 2021, Sony Classical released Marian Anderson: Beyond the Music, a special fifteen-CD set of recordings representing her complete catalog on RCA Victor, from her debut in 1924 through her final LP in 1966. The set received a 2022 Grammy Award nomination for Best Historical Album.

Special thanks to Eva Wilhelm—a music business student at Indiana State University and an intern in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s Rosenthal Archives—for her exceptional research in preparing this article.

This article also appears here.

Marian Anderson, ca. 1968

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.



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.


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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Theodore Thomas

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


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