Chicago Symphony Orchestra
CHICAGO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
With more than 900 recordings and fifty-eight Grammy Awards, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the best-known, most prolific orchestras in the world. For most of its history, the Chicago Symphony has been considered one of the top five orchestras in the United States. In the closing decades of the twentieth century many critics considered the orchestra's brass section to be unequaled anywhere in the world.
The orchestra was founded in 1891, when Theodore Thomas, then one of America's leading conductors, was invited by a Chicago businessperson to put together an orchestra of "the highest quality." Thomas served as the orchestra's music director for thirteen years, until his death in 1905.
Frederick Stock, who had been a violist in the orchestra, took over as music director and performed that role for thirty-seven years. He helped firmly establish the orchestra at the center of the city's cultural life, and also established a training orchestra and music education program. Other music directors include Desire Defauw (1943–1947), Artur Rodzinski (1947–1948), Rafael Kubelik (1950–1953), Fritz Reiner (1953–1963), Jean Martinon (1963–1968), Sir Georg Solti (1969–1991), and Daniel Barenboim (1991–). Principal guest conductors include Carlo Maria Giulini (1969–1972), Claudio Abbado (1982–1985), and Pierre Boulez (1995–).
The orchestra has recorded since 1916, but it was during the Reiner years of the 1950s and 1960s that some of its most significant recordings were made. Many became prized collector's items and in the twenty-first century are still considered important historical performances.
Solti's twenty-two-year tenure at the head of the orchestra built on Reiner's legacy, and he made more that 100 recordings with the orchestra, selling more than 5 million copies. Solti took the orchestra on its first international tours, beginning in 1971, helping cement an international reputation.
In 1991 pianist/conductor Barenboim took over as music director. Barenboim deepened the orchestra's repertoire and expanded its touring, including the orchestra's first tour of South America. Though the classical music recording industry largely collapsed in the 1990s, the Chicago Symphony often found itself on the classical bestseller charts. It was one of the last major American orchestras to lose its recording contract (in 2001), and in the 1990s the orchestra won eleven Grammy Awards.
A sign of its strength was the range of music for which the orchestra won Grammys in the 1990s: Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 9, Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, Johann Bach's Mass in B Minor, and Dmitry Shostakovich's Symphonies Nos. 1 and 7.
Though it is difficult to declare a "best American orchestra," the Chicago Symphony belongs on any potential list for consideration. With one of the orchestra world's biggest budgets, a loyal audience, and an energetic music director, the Chicago Symphony was one of the most successful orchestras of the 1990s.
Collector's Choice: Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the Twentieth Century (CSO, 2000).