By Joseph Cunniff

Universally recognized as one of the world’s greatest orchestras, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is marking its 129th season.

The CSO played their first concert in 1891, under German-born conductor Theodore Thomas. The orchestra had so many German-speakers in those days that the rehearsals were actually conducted in German. Thomas took the orchestra by train out West when the West really was wild—so much so that, as Thomas wrote, he packed a gun!

Thomas led the CSO until 1905, when he was succeeded by Frederick Stock, from the viola section, who then led the orchestra longer than anyone else: 37 years, until 1942.

During the war years, from 1943 till 1947, the Music Director was Belgian-born Desire DeFauw. Among their recording is a rare and thrilling performance of “The Accursed Huntsman” by DeFauw’s fellow Belgian Cesar Franck. (Many Catholics may be familiar with Franck from his song “Panis Angelicus” (“Bread of Angels”)).

Each of the CSO’s Music Directors over the years lent the orchestra things from their distinguished backgrounds. The Polish conductor Artur Rodzinski did not lead the orchestra for long (‘47-‘48), but he conducted legendary performances of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”

Rafael Kubelik (‘51-‘53) was famed for his recordings of Czech music, and

Jean Martinon (‘63-‘68) recorded exquisite performances of French classics.

Two of the CSO’s most renowned Music Directors were born in Hungary: Fritz Reiner (‘53-‘63) did much to build the superstar orchestra; founded the Chicago Symphony Chorus with Margaret Hillis; and left ultra-high standards and landmark recordings.

Sir Georg Solti led the CSO from ’69 to ’91, and returned as a guest though ’97. He led astounding performances, won a record number of Grammys, made the cover of “Time” magazine, and led wildly cheered international tours.

Daniel Barenboim, born in Argentina, performed remarkable concerts as both pianist and conductor, led no less than 21 international tours, and appointed 40 new members of the orchestra between ’91 and 2006.

The esteemed Dutch-born maestro Bernard Haitink memorably served as Principal Conductor from 2006 to 2010, before the famous Italian conductor Riccardo Muti took over from 2010 until the present.

Formidable history indeed, but what does such a great orchestra do during the pandemic? Here are some things: An all-new digital Fall 2020 season includes CSOtv, a new video portal for free and on-demand videos. There are CSO for Kids educational videos and archival videos. Audio programs include two different weekly broadcast series.

Chamber music is considered some of the most refined of all music. CSO Sessions is a new digital series of on-demand, high-definition video recordings of CSO musicians playing chamber music.

“InterMISSION” at the CSO Podcast is a new free podcast featuring CSO musicians in behind-the scenes conversations about what it takes to make the CSO one of the world’s greatest orchestras.

Throughout the fall, concert programs from the Rosenthal Archives will be available for free on CSOtv. Some of these are newly digitized episodes from the “Great Music in Chicago” series originally broadcast by WGN in the ‘50s and ‘60s. (In one of these, you can actually see Fritz Reiner crack a smile, a far departure from his usual countenance).

CSOradio offers listeners around the world an opportunity to hear full-length broadcasts of CSO concerts. They are aired locally on WFMT, 98.7 FM and wfmt.com each Sunday from 8-10 p.m.

As we eagerly await a post-pandemic return to Symphony Center, we are grateful to catch the CSO in whatever ways we can. Its good to know that you can’t keep a great orchestra down.

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