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Chicago Symphony Orchestra: 5 Facts You Didn’t Know

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is known for its characteristic brass sound. But there are other things that make the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a unique orchestra. I present five of them to you in this blog post.

1) The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was founded by a North German who emigrated to America at the age of 10.

Theodore Thomas founded the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891 with the support of Chicago’s most influential businessmen. He had emigrated to America from northern Germany as a child and made a career as a conductor. For Theodore Thomas, the path from his small hometown of Esens to Chicago was challenging.

2) A conductor of Hungarian origin turned the Chicago Symphony Orchestra into a top orchestra.

Fritz Reiner took up his position as music director in 1953. The Budapest-born conductor is still considered one of the most influential music directors of all time. Fritz Reiner was obsessed with precision and was feared among orchestra musicians. It is undisputed, however, that he established the orchestra’s worldwide fame.

Fritz Reiner
The Budapest-born conductor Fritz Reiner, who turned the orchestra into a top orchestra.

3) The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has an ambivalent relationship with its concert hall.

Chicago Orchestra Hall was built during the tenure of Theodore Thomas, the orchestra’s founder. When it opened in 1904, it was considered a very good concert hall with pleasant acoustics and a rounding effect on the orchestra’s sound. These qualities were lost in 1966 when the concert hall was rebuilt. The acoustics deteriorated to such an extent that the orchestra even had to move to other concert halls for sound recordings.

Another remodeling in 1997 was intended to correct the acoustic problems, but was only a partial success: while the orchestral sound was improved, the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra now complained that they could no longer hear each other on stage.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Orchestra Hall
Chicago Orchestra Hall, which elicits mixed feelings from orchestral musicians and conductors.
© I'm nonpartisan via wikimedia

Even subsequent improvements never completely eliminated the difficulties, but only partially improved them. Acoustically better concert halls are located in Boston and Dallas, for example.

4) One world star after another is music director in Chicago

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra magically attracts the world’s top conductors. The first music director Theodore Thomas was already a world star of his time, as was the aforementioned Fritz Reiner in the 1950s. The policy of bringing the world’s leading conductors to Chicago continued thereafter with Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim, Bernard Haitink, Pierre Boulez and Riccardo Muti.

5) The best brass players in the world are from Chicago

The brass players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are considered the best in the world. This is evidenced by the numerous horn players, trumpet players, trombone players and tuba players who are considered masters of their instruments and who shaped or still shape the famous Chicago brass sound. Important Chicago brass players included Dale Clevenger, Adolph Herseth, and Arnold Jacobs.

Can I give you an example? Adolph Herseth plays the opening solo of Gustav Mahler’s 5th Symphony, feared among trumpeters, under Georg Solti (Tokyo 1986):

Now you’ve gotten to know the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a little better. Want to learn more about the rocky early history of today’s world-class orchestra? It begins with 10-year-old Theodore playing his violin….

Jonathan Stark – Conductor
Jonathan Stark – Conductor

Hello! I'm Jonathan Stark. As a conductor, it is important to me that visits to concerts and operas leave a lasting impression on the audience. Background knowledge helps to achieve this. That's why I blog here about key works of classical music, about composers, about opera and much more that happens in the exciting world of music.

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