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Chicago's Best: The Symphony Orchestra

Updated on January 3, 2017

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra is, as the name suggests, a Chicago, U.S., based orchestral group which, from its earliest days, has consistently been ranked amongst the great orchestral groups on the planet. Founded towards the end of the nineteenth century, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is amongst the oldest of the surviving orchestras in the United States of America with only New York’s Philharmonic Orchestra, which was founded in 1842, St Louis’ Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1880, and Boston’s Symphony Orchestra which started its music in 1881, being the only survivors from those far off times older than the Windy City’s Orchestra.

As a matter of fact, at the time of the Orchestra’s founding Chicago was not yet as wealthy as the United States' great eastern metropolises such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia but, given its strategic location on the Great Lakes of North America, Chicago had already become a major center of finance, shipping and manufacturing and it was called home by a lot of wealthy folk who, no matter what the folks in the east thought, considered themselves to be just as highly cultured as were those folk. In fact, between 1850, just eight years after New York's Philharmonic Orchestra was formed, and 1858, the Windy City boasted of its very own Philharmonic Orchestra; that is, the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra shut down more than a decade before the surviving Symphony Orchestras of St Louis and Boston were formed!

Map of Chicago and surroundings

The Windy City and surroundings.
The Windy City and surroundings. | Source

At all events, as the century was winding down to its conclusion, a number of Chicagoans, determined to raise their city’s profile in the culture stakes, incorporated the Chicago Orchestral Association in 1890 and appointed the German-born Theodore Thomas (1835 – 1905) the United States of America’s first renowned musical conductor, to run the new orchestra. On 16 October 1891 the Chicago Orchestra, as it was then known, had its first outing with a performance at the Auditorium Theater which had then just been completed only a couple of years before in 1889.

Theodore Thomas

From the start it was clear to the discerning that the new orchestra was very likely to become a force to be reckoned with in music and, just a couple of years after that inaugural performance, the opportunity to showcase itself came and it was gladly taken.

In 1893, Chicago played host to a national and international audience during the World Columbian Exposition, more commonly known as the World Fair, and during the several months that the great exhibition lasted, the city’s orchestra came fully into its own with several of the greatest musicians of the age performing with the fledgling orchestra; both Richard Strauss and Antonin Dvorak conducted the orchestra and Ignacy Jan Padrewski gave what, by all contemporary accounts, was a fantastic piano solo performance with the orchestra.

Since then, the story of the orchestra has been on the up and up and the next time, in 1933/1934, the world once again gathered in Chicago to celebrate the Windy City’s centennial, the Orchestra lived up to the reputation that it had acquired four decades before, giving 125 performances in fairgrounds in every part of the Windy City!

One of what is sometimes described as the big five of US orchestras, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been a trailblazing pioneer in many respects. It was, for instance, the first major US symphony orchestra to set up a training orchestra affiliated to itself, to wit, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

Founded in 1919 by Frederic Stock (1872 – 1942), the Civic Orchestra set for itself the goals of the recruiting of pre-professional musicians and providing these aspirants the training that would enable them to perform at the highest levels as orchestral players and, since its foundation, many of the alumni of the Civic Orchestra have gone on to attain success in at the Chicago Orchestra as well as several other places where great orchestral music has a home and the Civic Orchestra has done tremendous work in bringing classical music to the general population through its concerts in the Chicago area which are free of charge to the public.

In 2008, the editors and critics of Gramophone, arguably the premier magazine when it comes to classical music, voted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra the best in the United States and fifth best in the entire world! High praise indeed, but entirely well-deserved; the Chicago Symphony has distinguished itself over the years in a manner that can only be described as superlative.

The Orchestra doing what it does best!

Since its creation, the Symphony Orchestra has been a trailblazer and pace setter. A century ago, in 1916, the Orchestra, under the directorship of Frederic Stock (director 1905-1942) made a recording of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and since then the Orchestra has remained at the forefront of the recording of classical music. In 1925, the Orchestra made its first non-acoustic electrical recording and in 1951, under the directorship of Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996; director 1950-1953) the Orchestra made the first ever hi-fi (high fidelity) recording of a classical piece and, a few years later in 1954, under the directorship of Fritz Reiner (1888-1963; director 1953-1962), the Orchestra made the first ever stereophonic recording of a classical piece: Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and Also sprach Zarathustra. It will come as no surprise then that among the several dozens of Grammies that the orchestra has won, several have been for best engineered classical album. In fact, altogether, by the end of last year (2016) the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had picked up a total of 62 ofthe Grammys awarded by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences!

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has its home at the Symphony Center located in the Loop area of downtown Chicago although in the summer you will find them doing what they do so exceptionally well at the United States of America’s oldest outdoor music festival, the Ravina Festival, at Highland Park.

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    Imonikhe Ahimie 4 months ago from Lagos, Nigeria

    Thank you, Marlene. Sorry it's so late but I haven't been on site for a bit.

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    Marlene Bertrand 7 months ago from Northern California, USA

    I truly enjoy symphony music. Listening to this style of music actually helps me write more creatively. Your well-researched and well-written article gives interesting insight into the background of orchestra music. I enjoyed reading about the history of The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, our most premier company. Thanks! I learned a lot here.