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Vladimir Horowitz announced he would play a recital at Orchestra Hall on May 12, 1974, with a tiny classified ad in a local newspaper. I was a freshman piano major at Northwestern University. The news of this great and reclusive pianist’s return to Chicago after a 27-year absence spread like wildfire. I collected change from my friends in my college dormitory to come up with the L fare, plus the $5 ticket price, and headed downtown Chicago at 4 a.m. to secure a good place in the ticket line. As I sat there with other hopeful ticket buyers on the cold pavement for hours before the box office opened, I decided I was going to do something so I didn’t have to stand in line for a concert ever again.

Vladimir Horowitz in 1968.

Vladimir Horowitz in 1968.

That recital was my first experience in Orchestra Hall, sitting in the gallery and hearing an amazing performance by the legendary Horowitz. Two years later, I had the opportunity to sit in on a Horowitz press conference, resulting in my first byline in a published article for the magazine Clavier. Many years later, I would meet Horowitz and his wife, Wanda Toscanini Horowitz, at O’Hare on their arrival for subsequent recitals; my job was tending to the infamous requirements in his contract rider, which included sheets made up for his rest at intermission, and his requisite dinner of Dover sole. I witnessed the placement of nails on the old Orchestra Hall stage that marked the exact position of his piano, chosen so that more audience members could have premium seats on the keyboard side of the piano.

As a result of that first experience, I have occupied many seats in Orchestra Hall for some of the most incredible and memorable performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under three music directors and a principal conductor, one former music director, three principal guest conductors, two chorus directors, seven composers-in-residence, one creative consultant, and countless guest conductors and guest soloists. In addition to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performances, I have heard recitals and concerts by visiting artists from Lucia Popp to James Taylor to Wynton Marsalis to Yo-Yo Ma, and visiting orchestras from Berlin, Vienna, London and St. Petersburg.

Beginning with the title assistant to the artistic administrator, and proceeding through four title changes, I have had a tremendous journey. In June 2013, Richard and Mary L. Gray endowed the position of vice president for artistic planning in perpetuity. I was honored and humbled to be the first individual to hold this newly endowed position. It confirmed for me that the chair I have occupied for 35 years is the best seat in the house.

Riccardo Muti, Yo-Yo Ma, Bernard Haitink and the CSO family bid ‘a grateful goodbye’ to Martha Gilmer

While at Northwestern, I started an internship with the CSO, working in the office of General Manager John S. Edwards. In the summers, I would sit on the floor and sift through scores of boxes, filing the correspondence of the previous year.  Reading each and every letter and telex (and yes, I know I am dating myself now) was the best possible textbook on how to run an orchestra. From exchanges with the music director, board chairs, tour presenters, artist managers and guest artists, the entire life of the orchestra was revealed.

On Thursday nights, I would work the switchboard to receive ticket exchanges since the box office was busy with customers. Often audience members would ask for advice on tickets to purchase, and I became adept at recommending the full range of concert offerings. I especially liked to advocate for the concerts that included less familiar repertoire, even then hoping to encourage curiosity in new works for our audiences.

Sir Georg Solti shares a bouquet with Martha Gilmer while on a CSO tour stop in Japan in 1986.

Sir Georg Solti shares a bouquet with Martha Gilmer while on a CSO tour stop in Japan in 1986.

On these Thursday evenings, I would be allowed to come into the concert hall and sit on the gallery steps to hear the concert. It was from this perch, high above the stage, that I heard  Sir Georg Solti conduct Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in May 1976. Later I gained “real seats,” and I recall sitting in the front row for my first opening-night concert in September 1976. The Orchestra Hall stage was festive with flowers, and the National Anthem began the performance, followed by Solti conducting Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (Great) and Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben. It was the old Orchestra Hall configuration, and all you could really see from the front row was Solti, and the musicians’  socks — some of which I noted did not match! I will never forget that night.

In 1979, I had the opportunity to join the full-time staff of the CSO, and the experiences of the next seven years were also amazing. In those days, the CSO would perform two operas in some seasons: Solti conducting Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron, and Claudio Abbado leading staged performances of Berg’s Wozzeck. One year, we even had Solti conducting the Prologue and Act 1 of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, Abbado conducting Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and Erich Leinsdorf leading a concert version of Act 3 of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. 

It was my privilege in this time to work with the legendary Peter Jonas, who went on to have a huge impact on the musical world as managing director of the English National Opera and as general director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Always provocative, he was a beacon to all of us for the evolution, and sometimes revolution, of this art form.

To be in the presence of Sir Georg was like being in the middle of an energy field. You could sense the crackle of electricity at every moment. His characteristic walk to the podium, followed  by the moment before he gave the downbeat, was like a burst of lightning. When I was an intern, I first met Solti at Medinah Temple when I delivered a cardigan sweater that he had left at Orchestra Hall. I knew then, and through the many years that we worked together, that the true power of his personality, on and off the podium, was conveyed through his eyes.

I was occasionally invited to the Mayfair Regent Suite, which was home to him for much of his time in Chicago. I remember sitting on the floor once again, literally at the conductor’s feet, talking with him about his favorite moments in opera: Verdi’s Falstaff, Act 3 of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I was so lucky to hear him conduct all three.

Claudio Abbado

Claudio Abbado

In 1991, I traveled to Salzburg to surprise Solti at the anniversary performance of The Magic Flute, in celebration of his 1937 performance of that piece, for which he played the keyboard glockenspiel under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. At another Sunday night supper, he told me the story of getting on the train to leave his parents in August 1939 and seeing tears in his father’s eyes. As a young man, he thought his father over-sentimental, but he didn’t realize on that day of the train journey he would never see his father again.

For the 1991 Salzburg performance, Solti conducted from the podium until Papageno’s aria, at which time he sat down at the keyboard and played the very same melody that he had performed 54 years before. From my seat in the balcony, I had a perfect view of a precious moment in musical history.

In 1984, John Edwards died, and Peter Jonas announced his departure one year later for the English National Opera. With Henry Fogel’s arrival in 1985 as executive director, I was appointed artistic administrator. I admit I was terrified at the heavy responsibility this carried, and one of the things I worried most about was facing a cancellation. In November 1986, Abbado was conducting Verdi’s Requiem. The casting of the tenor alone took months of back-and-forth conversations, and auditions in the United States and Europe. Needless to say I was relieved when the cast was finally put in place just months before the performance. Then the mezzo-soprano canceled one week before the opening performance, and the tenor on the Monday before the first rehearsal. The soprano did not come to the first orchestra rehearsal (although she did sing all of the performances — the only one to do so of the original cast), and the bass bowed out during the dress rehearsal. The Thursday night performance was the first time that the entire quartet was onstage together. I had worked with Abbado for many years, and he was no stranger to cancellations in the opera house, but it was my trial by fire, and it extinguished my fear of the inevitable last-minute cancellations that are part of the daily life of artistic planning.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s Board of Trustees salutes Martha Gilmer

By now I had sat in Orchestra Hall for hundreds of concerts, but I remember well my first journey out of Chicago to New York with Solti conducting Verdi’s Falstaff at Carnegie Hall in April 1985. My seat in Carnegie Hall was yet another revelation, hearing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus with Solti in that iconic building with a New York audience. Return visits to Carnegie Hall were always exciting, with Solti, Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Bernard Haitink and Riccardo Muti. I wish each and every audience member in Chicago could hear the audiences from New York, and indeed around the world, who show their admiration and love for the orchestra with sustained applause and cheers. Having a seat in a concert hall in New York, Tokyo, London, Rome, Ravenna, Buenos Aires, St. Petersburg, Moscow or Champaign-Urbana makes you so proud to be connected with this orchestra, and reminds us what a great cultural ambassador it is for the city.

Martha Gilmer and Daniel Barenboim pose for a candid shot in 1998.

Martha Gilmer and Daniel Barenboim pose for a candid shot in 1998.

Barenboim began his music directorship with the Mozart/da Ponte operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte) as the centerpiece for a three-week Mozart festival. Suddenly Orchestra Hall was transformed into a fully operational opera house, under the twin-brother directing team of David and Christopher Alden. Over three weeks we worked as one, creating a magical transition of music and characters through the three operas as well as piano concertos, symphonies, chamber music and the Requiem, and showing with every note the genius of Mozart and the influences through each genre of that genius.

The Civic Orchestra was at an exciting level under Barenboim, with a tour and residency in New York in March 2000 as part of Barenboim’s yearlong residency at Carnegie Hall as part of its Perspectives series. Sitting in the rehearsal hall at the New School for a Civic rehearsal and then finally sitting in a box seat in Carnegie Hall, I felt like a proud parent, absorbing the excitement of all of those young musicians at this unbelievable opportunity to play at one of the world’s great halls.

Barenboim also oversaw Wagner’s Ring cycle in Bayreuth from 1984 to 1989, and I traveled to Bayreuth for many incredible weeks over several summers. During these weeks, I sat backstage in the artists’ canteen, in a lighting tower overlooking the stage, in a chair at the back of the famous covered orchestra pit and in a highly valued center seat in the Festspielhaus, designed by Wagner himself for the performances of his operatic dramas. Each of these vantage points made me feel not only the emotional power of the music, but the incredible tradition and history of the music and musicians.

During Haitink’s term as principal conductor, there were many wonderful concerts in Orchestra Hall. I remember both of his performances of Mahler’s Second Symphony, and especially the pianissimo entrance of our incredible Chicago Symphony Chorus as they sang “Aufersteh’n.”  To sit in the concert halls in Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo and Hong Kong as Haitink and the CSO made individual and collective first visits to China as part of an Asian tour was truly to be a part of history.

Woven throughout this history was a relationship that began in 1986 when Pierre Boulez came to Chicago on tour with the contemporary ensemble he founded, the Ensemble Intercontemporain. The tour included stops in Los Angeles and Chicago, and featured multiple programs, one of which was of his work, Répons. It required a large open space, elaborate computers and speakers surrounding the audience and a large chamber orchestra with six soloists. It was as part of this tour that I first met Deborah Rutter, who was coordinating EIC’s Los Angeles performances. Répons took place in Patten Gym at my alma mater, Northwestern University. In those days, there were no laptop computers, and the entire system was of course on European electrical current requiring a separate generator, which had to be outside the hall in a semi-trailer. The truck had to be insulated because the concert was performed in January. Working on this project cemented our relationship, and over the subsequent 27 years, Pierre Boulez has been a mentor, a role model and a friend.

Pierre Boulez and Martha Gilmer celebrate after a 1995 concert.

Pierre Boulez and Martha Gilmer celebrate after a 1995 concert.

With Pierre, I first tested the idea of what is now Beyond the Score. He believed in it from the beginning and encouraged its development. He performed one of the first Beyond the Score performances, featuring Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, and attended two subsequent performances, Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which he intended to conduct, and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, while he was in Chicago.  I have organized celebrations of Pierre’s birthday for his 75th, 80th and 85th birthdays, complete with new commissioned works, a gagaku ensemble from Japan, and a performance of Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron at the Berlin Festtage with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. As we prepare to celebrate his 90th birthday, it is only fitting that we celebrate with a new production of Beyond the Score dedicated to Pierre himself. Gerard McBurney, creative director of Beyond the Score, and I traveled to Baden-Baden last October to see Pierre, and to record video of him speaking of his life and work. To sit in his home where so many works were composed, and so many luminaries of the last half of the 20th century were entertained, was one of the most memorable experiences I will ever have.

Riccardo Muti arrived in 2007 to conduct the orchestra for the first time in 32 years, and the energy backstage before the first rehearsal was palpable. I remember sitting with Deborah Rutter in the dressing room with Maestro Muti before the first rehearsal. As we all know now, it was the beginning of a historic musical partnership, with Muti being named the orchestra’s 10th music director. Of course the experience of hearing the rehearsals and performances here and around the world is a phenomenal luxury and joy: Verdi’s Requiem, Otello and Macbeth; a Schubert symphony cycle; Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, etc. To sit in on a piano rehearsal with Muti and singers in preparation of a Verdi work is to be in the presence of Verdi himself, with Muti’s incredible attention paid to every syllable of every word and every inflection of the music.

It has been an equal honor to sit in the library of the Wheaton/Warrenville detention center for young girls, and hear Muti speak of music and its ability to change one’s life, or to see him playing Schubert’s Warum? (Why?) or performing Mozart arias, which express the emotions of love, loss, anger, hurt. These incarcerated teenage girls know all too well these feelings, and sit with great attention as Muti guides them through the emotional power of music that is so important to him and to us all.

I have enjoyed the best seats in concert halls, opera houses and prisons; on tour buses, trains and planes; in rehearsal rooms, backstage dressing rooms and artists’ homes. In each of these places, the passion and care of all of these musicians doing what they were meant to do have inspired me. All around me are the most incredibly dedicated individuals — musicians, visionary leaders, dedicated administrators, trustees, volunteers and the curious and engaged fellow audience members who sustain us all.

It all started while sitting on the cold pavement on Michigan Avenue, waiting to buy a $5 gallery seat — what an incredible investment that $5 turned out to be.

MAIN PHOTO:  In Vienna, Riccardo Muti and Martha Gilmer share a free moment while on the CSO’s 2011 European tour.  | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2011