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In 1891, Theodore Thomas founded the Chicago Orchestra and served as its first music director for nearly fourteen years. But in 1864, he also founded an eponymous ensemble—the Theodore Thomas Orchestra—and for nearly three decades, they traveled around the United States, giving concerts from coast to coast.

Schedule for the Theodore Thomas Orchestra’s 1872-73 tour (* indicates concerts with Rubinstein and Wieniawski)

One of Thomas’s orchestra’s most extensive tours—with stops in Connecticut; Illinois; Indiana; Kentucky; Maine; Maryland; Michigan; Missouri; New York; Ohio; Pennsylvania; Rhode Island; Washington, D.C.; and Wisconsin—was given between September 1872 and April 1873, culminating in a series of concerts in New York’s Steinway Hall. And for the last leg of the tour, Thomas was joined by pianist Anton Rubinstein and violinist Henryk Wieniawski.

“These great artists were the leading exponents of their respective instruments,” wrote Rose Fay Thomas in her husband’s Memoirs, “and Thomas knew that the houses would be sold out wherever they played. Consequently, he was able to make the programs without any consideration for the box office, and he was not slow to take advantage of it . . . It was the first time in his life that Thomas had permitted himself to make a series of programs exactly in accordance with his artistic standards . . . and this two weeks of great performance, in association with two of the most renowned executant musicians who ever came to America, was an inspiration to him such as he had never before enjoyed.”

Henryk Wieniawski

Shortly before ending the tour in New York, three concerts were given in Chicago. The programs were as follows:

March 17, 1873, Michigan Avenue Baptist Church
BEETHOVEN Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b
RUBINSTEIN Piano Concerto No. 4 in D Minor, Op. 70
Anton Rubinstein, piano
MENDELSSOHN First Movement from Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
Henryk Wieniawski, violin
LISZT Les préludes
HANDEL Air and Variations from Suite No. 5 in E Major (The Harmonious Blacksmith), MOZART Rondo, BACH Gigue, and SCARLATTI Sonate
Anton Rubinstein, piano
ERNST Fantasie brillante, Op. 11 (Otello)
Henryk Wieniawski, violin
WEBER Overture to Der Freischütz

March 18, 1873, Union Park Congregational Church
CHERUBINI Overture to Les deux journées
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor)
Anton Rubinstein, piano
BERLIOZ Part 2 from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 17
WIENIAWSKI Violin Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 22
Henryk Wieniawski, violin
SCHUMANN Carnaval, Op. 9
Anton Rubinstein, piano
WAGNER Huldigungsmarsch

Anton Rubinstein

“Those who had the good fortune to hear [Rubinstein in the Emperor concerto] will long remember it, not only as one of the grandest of Beethoven’s compositions, but as the most superb musical performance ever heard in this city,” wrote the critic in the Chicago Tribune. “Wieniawski created a perfect furore by his masterly playing of his own violin concerto, which culminated in a very emphatic encore, to which replied with Paganini’s Carnival of Venice, which was such a marvel of technique that it called out even the loudest applause of the orchestra itself. . . . As a whole, the concert was the best ever given in this city.”

March 19, 1873, Aiken’s Theatre
SCHUMANN Overture to Genoveva, Op. 81
LISZT Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major
Anton Rubinstein, piano
MENDELSSOHN Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64
Henryk Wieniawski, violin
BEETHOVEN Finale from The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43
WAGNER Overture to Rienzi
MENDELSSOHN Songs Without Words and CHOPIN Nocturne and Ballad
Anton Rubinstein, piano
WIENIAWSKI Legende, Op. 17 and Airs russes, Op. 6
Henryk Wieniawski, violin
LISZT Hungarian March

In a letter to William Steinway of Steinway & Sons (who had sponsored the tour), Wieniawski wrote, “I shall take away with me from America one unexpected reminiscence. Little did I dream to find here the greatest and finest orchestra in the wide world. I have been in Munich, Brussels, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and all the great European art centers, but never in my life have I found an orchestra and a conductor so in sympathy with one anther, or who followed me as the most gifted accompanist can follow a singer on the piano.”

Portions of this article previously appeared here.

Ray Chen is soloist in Wieniawski’s First Violin Concerto on December 5, 6, 7, and 10, 2019. John Storgårds conducts.

March 31, April 1, 2, and 3, 1873, concerts at Steinway Hall in New York

March 31 and April 1, 1873

April 2 and 3, 1873

You never know what might arrive in the mail.

A few days ago, we received a package from our friends at the New York Philharmonic Archives, and it contained a number of early Theodore Thomas programs, pre-dating his founding of the Chicago Orchestra. A few of these fantastic items are described below.

October 23 and 24, 1871

October 18-24, 1871

In early October 1871, Thomas was on tour with his orchestra—the Theodore Thomas Orchestra—on its way to Chicago. According to Memoirs of Theodore Thomas, completed in 1911 by his widow Rose Fay: “At the close of the summer season, Thomas and the orchestra started westward on their customary fall tour over the ‘highway.’ The Chicago engagement on this trip was to have been an unusually long and important one, for the Crosby Opera House there had been handsomely renovated and Thomas was to open it with a two-weeks’ series of orchestral concerts.

“As the train, bearing the orchestra, neared the city on the morning of October 9, 1871, Thomas was paralyzed by the announcement that Chicago was burning, and the Opera House already in ashes! In short, they had arrived just in time to witness the terrible conflagration which so nearly wiped Chicago off the map altogether, and, of course, the concerts which Thomas had expected to give there for two years to come, were canceled. . . . he and the orchestra stayed [in Joliet] until it was time for the next engagement in Saint Louis.”

In addition to the five concerts originally scheduled at DeBar’s Opera House in Saint Louis—not even two weeks after the Great Chicago Fire—a “grand extra concert” was added on Monday, October 23, “for the benefit of the Chicago sufferers, for which occasion all the members of Mr. Thomas’ troupe have volunteered their services.”

March 31–April 3, 1873

April 2 and 3, 1873

Thomas and his orchestra were later in New York in the spring of 1873 for a series of concerts at Steinway Hall. These concerts were billed as “the greatest concert combination on record” and the “last joint appearance” of Thomas; composer, pianist, and conductor Anton Rubinstein; and violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski. Rubinstein’s 1872-74 tour was his first and only visit to the United States, and he later communicated to William Steinway of Steinway & Sons (who had sponsored his journey): “I shall take away with me from America one unexpected reminiscence. Little did I dream to find here the greatest and finest orchestra in the wide world . . . never in my life have I found an orchestra and a conductor so in sympathy with one another, or who followed me as the most gifted accompanist can follow a singer on the piano.”

Wagner’s Centennial March cover

In addition to several other concert programs, the donation also included a piano version of Richard Wagner’s Centennial March, arranged by Thomas. The work had been commissioned by Thomas for the 1876 Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia, for which he served as music director. According to Chicago Symphony Orchestra program annotator Phillip Huscher, “The premiere took place in Philadelphia as part of the exposition opening ceremonies, before President [Ulysses S.] Grant, members of Congress, and justices of the Supreme Court. The New York Tribune called Wagner’s Centennial March a masterpiece and the Herald critic found it noble and grand. But the New York Times concluded that it was ‘altogether devoid of pomp and circumstance,’ and that its impressive orchestral writing did not make up for its ‘lack of thought.’ Wagner later confided to his friends that the best thing about the piece was his [$5,000] fee.” Huscher’s complete note from the Orchestra’s October 2010 performances is here.

Wagner’s Centennial March first page

Wagner’s Centennial March title page

To our friends and colleagues in New York . . . thank you for these amazing additions to our Theodore Thomas collection!

 

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Maud Powell

Born in Peru, Illinois, Maud Powell first played for Theodore Thomas in 1885 at the age of seventeen in New York’s Steinway Hall, auditioning with Bruch’s First Violin Concerto. Thomas immediately booked her with his orchestra, and she performed the concerto on July 30 that year in a Summer Night Concert in Chicago. According to Karen A. Shaffer and Neva Garner Greenwood’s book Maud Powell: Pioneer American Violinist, Thomas “glowed over her success: ‘At the close of that concert—my debut in America—Mr. Thomas came to me with his two hands full of greenbacks. He handed them to me, saying, “I want the honor of paying you the first fee you have earned as an artist.” ’ Theodore Thomas christened the young American his ‘musical grandchild’ and engaged her as soloist for the New York Philharmonic’s first concert of the 1885–86 season in November.”

July 18, 1893

July 18, 1893

For her Chicago Orchestra debut, Powell again performed Bruch’s First Violin Concerto on July 18, 1893, with Thomas at the World’s Columbian Exposition. According to Shaffer and Greenwood, “Maud Powell took her place among some of the world’s greatest musicians at the exposition. She was the only woman violinist to appear in these concerts and served as the representative American violinist.” In the Musical Courier, the reviewer raved, “It is hard to know where to begin to praise Miss Powell, for nearly every tone she played was full of meaning. She has improved beyond what was supposed to be the limit of her powers; her tone is pure and noble, her bowing grace itself, and her conception of the concerto was equal to that of any of the great violinists whom I have heard.”

Powell appeared with the Orchestra on several more occasions with both Thomas and Frederick Stock. Her final appearances were in March 1916, performing Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto and Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo capriccioso with Stock conducting. In 2014, she was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

This article also appears here and portions previously appeared here.

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