Brief History of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The orchestra moved to its permanent home, Orchestra Hall, in 1904. Now a part of the overall Symphony Center complex located along South Michigan Avenue, the exterior of this edifice was designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham in the Georgian style. Above the ballroom windows that grace an upper floor are inscribed the names of five important composers: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Wagner. Starting in 1995, the building underwent a significant renovation that took three years to complete. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1994.

As with most orchestras, their success is oftentimes best described by noting the accomplishments of the people who led them. Under the musical direction of Frederick Stock, the CSO made its first recording in 1916. He was also responsible for instituting a series of young people’s concerts during the 1919-20 season that remains part of the orchestra’s commitment to the community to the present day. In the period between the two world wars, Artur Rodzinski conducted the orchestra’s first full-scale production of Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner, which starred Kirsten Flagsted. In the 1950s, Fritz Reiner conducted a number of historic recordings on the RCA label, including one of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra that is considered by many aficionados the best example of its era. The orchestra has also attracted a number of high-profile guest conductors down through the years, notably many who were also composers. These have included Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel, Edward Elgar, Leonard Bernstein, and Aaron Copland.

The person who clearly had the greatest impact on turning the Chicago Symphony into a world-class orchestra was Georg Solti. The Hungarian-born conductor served as music director from 1969 until 1991 and led the ensemble in a total of 999 performances. Many of his recordings are listed as among the best examples of each respective work. Under his baton, the CSO undertook its first European tour [1971] and recorded the soundtrack for the feature film Casino.

The current music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is Riccardo Muti, known primarily for his work in opera and as principal conductor for the La Scala Opera House in Milan, Italy. However, he also enjoys a solid reputation as a leader of various symphony orchestras, in particular having served as music director for the Philadelphia Orchestra from 1980 to 1992.

Every summer the Chicago Symphony relocates to the northern suburbs and its summer home at Ravinia, a forest-like setting in nearby Highland Park, Illinois. The annual Ravinia Festival began in 1936, and it offers a wide range of classical music-everything from “pops” to opera, and occasionally a world premiere-in a pastoral setting beneath the stars. Several famous conductors have made their CSO debuts at Ravinia, including James Levine and Seiji Ozawa.

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