When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs Nov. 15-16 at New York’s Carnegie Hall, the concerts will hardly occur in isolation. Indeed, the performances will be taking place against an extraordinary historical backdrop of not only the orchestra’s own century-long chronicle of visits to the storied hall but also appearances there by other famous orchestras past and present.
“For me, it was always a special event when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was coming into town,” said Gino Francesconi, director of Carnegie Hall’s Archives and Rose Museum. “It was something that I really looked forward to, because, for me, they were one of the greatest orchestras we have on the planet.”
Carnegie Hall, which many regard as the nation’s greatest venue for live music, especially classical, has hosted some of the most famous concerts in American musical history, and an appearance there has come to serve as one of the ultimate marks of success for any artist or ensemble.
The histories of Carnegie Hall and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have been tightly intertwined since 1891, the year when both were established. The CSO first appeared there in March 1898 as part of a monthlong tour under founding music director Theodore Thomas. The all-French program featured the U.S. premieres of César Franck’s Variations symphoniques and Camille Saint-Saëns’ Fifth Piano Concerto, both with Raoul Pugno as soloist. The reviews were largely favorable with the New York Times commenting: “The Orchestra was heard to great advantage in Saint-Saëns’ symphonic poem, which was played with consummate finish.”
In all, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has performed 138 times at Carnegie Hall, ranking it among the top five most frequently booked visiting orchestras at the venue, said Synneve Carlino, the venue’s chief communications officer. This history includes concerts led by Sir Georg Solti and such other music directors as Frederick Stock, Rafael Kubelík, Fritz Reiner, Jean Martinon, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti, as well as principal conductor Bernard Haitink. Also featured on the CSO podium have been principal guest conductors Carlo Maria Giulini, Claudio Abbado and Pierre Boulez, chorus director-conductor Margaret Hillis and associate conductor Henry Mazer.
One of the Chicago Symphony’s most significant concerts at Carnegie Hall came Oct. 31, 1977, when Margaret Hillis, founder and longtime director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, substituted for Solti on just two days’ notice. After concerts Thursday and Friday at Orchestra Hall, the maestro tripped while exiting an elevator and sprained his right wrist. Orchestra management asked Hillis to conduct a third Orchestra Hall performance set for Saturday night; she declined, forcing the concert’s cancellation. But she did agree to lead the CSO’s cross-country performance Monday evening in Carnegie Hall.
“That was extraordinary, because it was Mahler’s Eighth Symphony,” said Francesconi, who started as a Carnegie usher in 1974. “This was the Chicago Symphony and Chicago Symphony Chorus, and the expectations were very high. I remember tickets being scalped out on the street. And here was Margaret Hillis being asked to step in for Solti.”
She met with Solti and studied the score Sunday evening and on the plane ride to New York, but had no chance to rehearse the orchestra. Francesconi was serving as an artist attendant backstage at the time, and he was by Hillis’ side the night of the concert as she waited to take the stage. She was visibly nervous. But just as the house lights went out, concertmaster Victor Aitay his hand on the conductor’s shoulder and said, “We’re with you.” “That’s a very powerful thing to witness,” Francesconi said.
The concert was a huge success, with Hillis’ substitution making the front page of the New York Times. “Miss Hillis built her performance carefully, but she built it well,” wrote critic Donal Henahan. “What her Mahler Eighth sometimes lacked in ‘Soltian’ fire and tension, it made up for in poise, clarity and ethereal detail. By the last ecstatic pages, she had her forces working for her and Mahler with a burning enthusiasm that radiated a fine glow over the Faustian finale.”
More recent CSO concerts at Carnegie Hall that stand out in Francesconi’s memory include Barenboim leading the orchestra in Variation IX, Nimrod, from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, following the Sept. 5, 1997, death of Solti. “And it was one of the more glorious performances of that work that I’ve heard,” he said. “It was stunning.” He also praised performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello and Requiem under Muti.
Carnegie Hall does not have exact figures on how many orchestras have appeared there, but Carlino said it has been hundreds of ensembles led by thousands of conductors. The Boston Symphony Orchestra first appeared in 1893, with the CSO following five years later. Other major debuts came in 1902 with the Philadelphia Orchestra and 1912 with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Muti, who will be on the podium for the CSO’s upcoming concerts, has his own distinguished history at Carnegie Hall. He made his debut there in 1975, leading the Philadelphia Orchestra as its music director at the time. In all, he has appeared more than 70 times there, including many visits with the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as concerts with the Vienna Philharmonic, London’s Philharmonia Orchestra and Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro alla Scala of Milan. He made his first Carnegie Hall appearance with the CSO in 2011, and he and the CSO opened the venue’s 2012-13 season.
Nearly 700 performances occur on Carnegie Hall’s three stages each season, with about 170 presented by the venue itself. These venue-sponsored events, which include the Chicago Symphony’s performances, cover offerings from jazz and popular music to family programming and citywide festivals. The lineup is developed by Carnegie Hall’s six-person artistic planning team led by Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director since 2005.
Carnegie Hall’s 2019-20 season features 17 orchestras, including ensembles like the CSO with significant histories there and others appearing for the first time. In the latter category is the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, which is making a stop as part of its inaugural U.S. tour with music director Yannick Nézet-Seguin. (It also will perform Nov. 19 in Chicago as part of the Symphony Center Presents Orchestra Series.)
Discussions about programming typically begin three to four years before an orchestra’s Carnegie Hall appearance. Orchestras and their conductors suggest repertoire that that they would like to present, and together with the venue’s artistic planning team, concert line-ups are jointly developed. The goal is programs that appropriately showcase the ensembles but also allow for a rich, varied mix of works across the venue’s seasonlong orchestral offerings.
For the Chicago Symphony’s complete Carnegie Hall performance history, please click here.
For Maestro Muti’s Carnegie Hall performance history, please click here.
TOP: A view of the main entrance of Carnegie Hall at night. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography