Riccardo Muti leads the applause for Hungarian sculptor Katalin Gerő, designer of the Fritz Reiner bust. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2016

Anniversaries are by nature times to reflect on the past.

For Riccardo Muti, the 10th music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the 125th season presented a chance not only to revisit music identified with the CSO, but also to draw attention to the brilliant yet often overlooked conductor, Fritz Reiner, the CSO’s music director from 1953 until 1962. In June, when Muti unveiled the new bust of Reiner that he commissioned as a tribute to his great predecessor, he ensured that Reiner will have a presence in Orchestra Hall far into the future.

Reiner, who was 64 years old when he began his tenure as music director, was at the peak of his powers during his Chicago years. He left the Metropolitan Opera, where he had been principal conductor since 1949, to take the Chicago job. Reiner had already appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to great acclaim at the Ravinia Festival in 1937, 1948 and 1949 and downtown in Orchestra Hall in 1950, before he was named music director. “The orchestra could scarcely have made a wiser choice,” the Chicago Tribune’s powerful critic Claudia Cassidy wrote when the appointment was announced.

Fritz Reiner

Fritz Reiner

Reiner came to Chicago to start his new position in September 1953, straight from Naples, Italy, which is coincidentally Muti’s birthplace. “The view of Naples itself from my window was simply indescribable in its beauty,” he told a Tribune reporter, but he was stunned at how congested the city had become. “From the window of my apartment in Chicago I can look over beautiful Lake Michigan,” he said. “And it won’t be half as noisy as Naples.”

Reiner’s music-making with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was remarkably successful from the start — “Fritz Reiner stepped on the stage of Orchestra Hall last night, and Chicago got its orchestra back,” Cassidy wrote after the opening concert. The first week of the season, Reiner told a Chicago reporter that a performance must have three elements: precision, transparency and vitality. “The third follows from the first two,” he added.

Those were in fact hallmarks of the Chicago-Reiner partnership, documented in an extraordinary run of recordings made during the next decade. Writing in the New Yorker in 2012, critic David Denby singled out Reiner’s very first CSO recording — Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, made in March 1954 — as one of 10 “perfect” orchestral recordings, and declared that with this disc, “the Chicago Symphony was born as the modern American super-orchestra.”

Over the next 10 years, the CSO made its first recordings of many important works under Reiner, including Beethoven’s Eroica and Pastoral symphonies, Brahms’ two piano concertos, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, and several of Strauss’ tone poems. Reiner was the first music director to record Mahler with this orchestra (the Fourth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde) — repertoire that would later become standard CSO territory. The first Grammy Award for a Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording was given to Reiner’s interpretation of Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta in 1961.

The records Reiner made with his Chicago orchestra remain best sellers to this day, more than a half-century after they were released. RCA recently issued a 63-CD set of the complete Chicago-Reiner discography, and for today’s musical public — most of which never experienced the Chicago-Reiner partnership in person — they remain the best evidence of its brilliance.

“When I was a young student in the 1950s, in the conservatory in Naples, we spoke about the great artists in the world, dreaming about what they were doing artistically,” Riccardo Muti recalled in June, “and one of the names that we always mentioned was Fritz Reiner, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We listened to many recordings by Fritz Reiner, and we were astonished by the perfection of the performances. We couldn’t believe that an orchestra could play at such a level of refinement, perfection, sensitivity — it was as if were listening to something from another world.” Although the level of orchestral playing around the world has risen since then, Muti believes the Chicago-Reiner era still represents a historic peak.

When Muti arrived in Chicago in 2010, he immediately noticed that there was no tribute to Reiner anywhere in Orchestra Hall. “Where is Fritz Reiner?” he asked in amazement, noting that although music director Georg Solti’s first European tours with the CSO in the 1970s brought the CSO sweeping international fame, “the legend of the Chicago Symphony was made by Fritz Reiner.” And so he began a personal campaign to commission a bust of Reiner, as a way of reminding the Chicago public of his pivotal role with this orchestra.

Today few links with “Reiner’s orchestra” remain: the only current CSO members who played under him are Jay Friedman, principal trombone; Lynne Turner, harp, and Mary Sauer, principal keyboard. (Muti and Reiner never met — their only personal connection came about in October 1960, when Antonino Votto, Muti’s teacher, made his CSO debut by stepping in for an ailing Reiner, who listened to the radio broadcast with great admiration from his hospital room.)

In June, at the end of the Chicago Symphony’s 125th season, Muti unveiled the new bust of Reiner that now stands in the foyer of Orchestra Hall. The sculpture is the work of Katalin Gerő, known for her work depicting composers and musicians. Gerő, who lives in Budapest, where Reiner studied with Béla Bartók at the Liszt Academy, came to Chicago for the unveiling. CSOA president Jeff Alexander joined Muti in pulling the drape from Gerő’s sculpture, which manages to capture something of both the stern appearance and the dazzling magnetism of the great Hungarian maestro.

Muti was plainly thrilled at the lifelike presence that will now greet all visitors to Orchestra Hall. “You know,” Muti said, eyeing Reiner’s powerful profile, “it looks like he wants to speak.”

Phillip Huscher has been the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1987.

TOP: Riccardo Muti leads the applause for Katalin Gerő, sculptor of the Reiner bust, during the work’s unveiling in June. | Todd Rosenberg Photography