The Chicago Symphony Turns 100
With its anniversary comes a changing of the guard, and likely a rejuvenation of repertoire
CHICAGO — THE Chicago Symphony germinated in Chicago's fertile arts climate 100 years ago, a modest band of musicians with great expectations. It bloomed into one of the world's finest orchestras, justly famous for its precision performances, its excellent recordings, and its triumphant foreign tours. The CSO has been celebrating its centennial season with a variety of first-class commissions and guest artists and a cultural exchange with the Leningrad Philharmonic. Life with the CSO is fast-paced, rigorous and exhilarating, according to Coconcertmaster Ruben Gonzalez, who nevertheless finds the life deeply fulfilling. "If it weren't so satisfying, I don't know how anyone could do it because the [life] is so demanding and unnerving," he said, relaxing for a moment in an upstairs office at the concert hall. "For someone who likes it as I do, though, even the frantic pace is tremendously rewarding. It is the best thing that could have happened to me. I don't ever want to leave. To be concertmaster of this orchestra is better than any dream I could have had."
The orchestra itself was Theodore Thomas's dream realized. Well known in the 19th century as an important orchestra builder, Mr. Thomas raised a following in Chicago for his own Theodore Thomas Orchestra over a 20-year period of guest appearances. When his orchestra ran into financial trouble and was disbanded in the 1880s, Thomas was asked to come to Chicago and establish a permanent orchestra. He brought as many of his players as he could from New York. Out of 86 musicians only 26 were local talent a t the premi 143&gt;re in 1891.
The Chicago orchestra soon earned a prestigious reputation - at least in the United States. It would take another 80 years to catapult the CSO into the world-class status it now enjoys. The man who focused the world's attention on the Chicago Symphony was, of course, Sir Georg Solti. But between Thomas and Mr. Solti, the distinguished Frederick Stock directed the CSO for 37 years. He worked for musicians' benefits long before it was standard to do so, introduced modern European composers, and scheduled guest appearances by some of the most talented musicians and composers of his time. Under Stock, the orchestra made its first recordings.
The three music directors who followed Stock between 1942 and 1953 met with little success and each left after a few short seasons. Fritz Reiner took the reins in 1953. His reputed despotism may have inspired terror among members of the orchestra, but it also produced a new and rigorous precision. An important orchestra became something more under his fierce tutelage.
After the Reiner decade Jean Martinon served briefly as director. And then there was Solti.
After 22 years as music director, the maestro resigns this centennial year, handing on the baton to Daniel Barenboim, and one of the greatest orchestras in the world with it - "The greatest," says Mr. Gonzalez.
This dramatically satisfying ending to a brilliant tenure attests to Solti's consummate artistry. "He continued a distinguished tradition," explains Gonzalez. "He continued to shore it up, make it appreciated and more supported. He made great, great recordings with the orchestra. He has picked 75 or 80 percent of the musicians. But one of his greatest achievements was bringing the orchestra to Europe."
The image of Chicago abroad was tarnished for a very long time by tales of gangster activities (Al Capone's stomping grounds), Gonzalez says, until the Chicago Symphony's tours helped dispel that reputation. Says executive director Henry Fogel, "Fritz Reiner had refused to tour the orchestra and the orchestra was a little dispirited. Solti revivified it. He forced it on the map. Before Solti only a few music lovers believed it was a great orchestra. Now virtually everyone acknowledges that."
"He is a wonderful man to work with," Gonzalez says of Solti. "He has a reputation among people who don't know him as difficult. He is demanding, and he is sweet. I can show you a photograph of him patting my face."
Mr. Fogel agrees. He did produce a snapshot of the maestro on vacation, laughing and looking, indeed, "sweet." "He's a pussycat," says Fogel.
Maestro Solti may be a pussycat, but he commands a lion's share of respect, and so does the CSO. "Leonard Bernstein was here in 1988," says Fogel, "and he said to me, 'There's something about the commitment of this orchestra that is quite beyond that of other orchestras. Why? What made that happen?' I said, 'I don't know, but there is no question that there is an ethic in the Chicago Symphony that Georg Solti said he didn't create but that he did everything he could to maintain.
THAT commitment manifests itself in a lot of ways," says Fogel. "In most orchestras if you walk into a concert hall 60 minutes before a concert, you would find two or three players at most getting used to the hall and warming up. But you'd find 30 or 40 Chicago Symphony members sitting on that stage an hour before the concert when they are on tour. In their own hall, 30 minutes before the performance (when other orchestras would be just beginning to fill the stage) almost all our musicians are out there ."
In order to ensure a smooth transition from his direction to that of the next director, Solti gave an unheard of five-year notice. He planned for the centennial season to be his last and he wanted the new director to have a significant amount of time with the orchestra before he left. Mr. Barenboim was Solti's first choice.
"Clearly that choice had an impact," says Fogel, "but it was by no means the end of the process."
A long complicated search was undertaken, and finally a list of 15 to 20 names with biographies was developed. The orchestra was consulted and Barenboim was the overwhelming first choice. Fogel explained that the orchestra members wanted the very best music director possible because their professional pride and economic well-being depends upon the director. "We record almost more than any US orchestra. We are still on the radio every week. If [the orchestra doesn't] help to choose the best director the y are not going to stay at the top."
The new director must be more than a great director, Fogel says. "He must have a desire to enter into all aspects of the institution and really look at it as we enter the next century. How should it change, how should it relate better to the community?"
There are so many responsibilities the new director must meet - beyond even shaping the artistry of the orchestra - Fogel explains, that the choice of music director becomes very complicated. The new music director will have to make administrative and personnel decisions, he will have to deal with social issues facing the orchestra. He must be willing to represent the orchestra to the community, and plan the musical programming with the best interests of the orchestra and the community in mind.
Of the changes Barenboim's presence will bring, Gonzalez says "The orchestra will acquire a certain flexibility. [Solti and Barenboim] are very different. But you see a theme painted by Leonardo and by Michelangelo and they both interpret at a very high level with full knowledge and authority." Gonzalez anticipates that the sound of the orchestra will change. "It will become rounder in some areas. There will be a different type of connection and relationship between the sections. Solti favors a certain kind of pace and color, and Barenboim another. Solti favors certain composers, and Barenboim others. Barenboim, for example, is very involved with contemporary music."
Barenboim has been making decisions for some time that will affect the orchestra's future. He's been included in the subscription series, accompanied the CSO to Japan, toured with the orchestra, recorded with it, opened this season and will close it with six subscription weeks. The youngest music director of the five most important American orchestras ascends the podium next season as Sir Georg Solti, a giant by any musical standards, descends it. The transition is complete.