This autumn’s eagerly awaited CSO Resound release of music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, with Riccardo Muti leading the Chicago Symphony, recalls the CSO’s strong ties to one of the 20th century’s musical giants.
The Chicago Symphony’s relationship with Prokofiev goes back nearly a century, to the earliest years of the composer’s career. In the summer of 1917, Chicago businessman Cyrus McCormick Jr., the farm machine magnate, met the 26-year-old Prokofiev while on a business trip to Russia. Prokofiev was unknown to McCormick, but the composer recognized the distinguished American’s name at once, because the estate his father had managed owned several impressive International Harvester machines.
McCormick expressed an interest in the composer’s new music, and he eventually agreed to pay for the printing of his unpublished Scythian Suite. He also encouraged Prokofiev to come to the United States, and asked him to send some of his scores to Chicago Symphony music director Frederick Stock. McCormick wrote to Stock at once, saying that Prokofiev “would be glad to come to Chicago and bring some of his symphonies if his expenses were paid. But not knowing myself the value of his music, I did not feel justified in taking the risk of bringing him here.”
After Stock received Prokofiev’s scores, he replied to McCormick: “There is no question in my mind as to the talent of young Serge.” Although Stock at first doubted that it was feasible to bring the Russian composer to the United States right away, Prokofiev made his debut with the CSO the following season, playing his First Piano Concerto and conducting the orchestra in his Scythian Suite in December 1918, both U.S. premieres.
Prokofiev returned to Chicago to perform with the CSO four more times. In 1921, he oversaw the world premieres of his Piano Concerto No. 3, which he played in Orchestra Hall on Dec. 16, and his opera The Love for Three Oranges, which was staged on Dec. 30 by the Chicago Opera at the Auditorium Theatre. During Prokofiev’s last trip to Chicago, in January 1937, he led the CSO in selections from his new, still-unstaged ballet, Romeo and Juliet.
Shortly after he arrived in town, he sat down with a Tribune reporter and talked freely while eating apple pie at a downtown luncheonette. He was staying in the same hotel room where he had lived for several months during his Chicago visit in 1921. He told the Tribune that his Romeo and Juliet featured the kind of “new melodic line” that he thought would prove to be the salvation of modern music — one, he said, that would have immediate appeal, yet sound like nothing written before. “Of all the moderns,” the Herald Examiner critic wrote after hearing Romeo and Juliet later in the week, “this tall and boyish Russian has the most definite gift of melody, the most authentic contrapuntal technic [sic], and displays the subtlest and most imaginative use of dissonance.”
Prokofiev made two orchestral suites from the complete ballet score, and it was the first of these that he conducted in Chicago. On the CSO’s new recording, Riccardo Muti conducts selections from both suites. This disc is the latest in a long line of CSO recordings of Prokofiev’s music, beginning in 1945 — eight years before the composer’s death — with then-music director Désiré Defauw in the Scythian Suite. There have since been several distinguished CSO Prokofiev recordings, including those led by the legendary Fritz Reiner: Lieutenant Kijé in 1957 and Alexander Nevsky in 1959 — the first recording the CSO made with the newly founded Chicago Symphony Chorus. (Muti will conduct Alexander Nevsky here and at Carnegie Hall in February.)
Romeo and Juliet is the CSO’s fourth recording led by Muti, following Verdi’s Requiem Mass, released in 2010; Otello, released last year, and the digital-only release of music by CSO Mead Composers-in-Residence Anna Clyne and Mason Bates. This new CSO Resound release is available in the Symphony Store, and will be available for purchase in stores and through digital services on Oct. 14.
PHOTO: While on the CSO’s 2014 Winter Tour, Riccardo Muti conducts a suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2014