I’m thinking about the recent Father’s Day. I’m thinking about our two children and how consistently happy I am to be their father. And I’m thinking about my own dad.
I am my father’s son in so many ways. I’ve just completed 36 years as a percussionist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. My father, too, was a member of the Orchestra, also in the percussion section, and also named Jim.
Let me tell you a little bit about my dad. He was born and raised in Boston and had a “Bostonian” accent until the day he died (Pahk the car in Hahvad Yahd). As a very young man, he moved to New York City and started freelancing as a musician, including playing in the pit at the famous Roxy Theater.
His symphony orchestra career began when he was invited by Pierre Monteax to play with the San Francisco Symphony. After moving to the Cincinnati Symphony at the invitation of Fritz Reiner, he met my mother and that’s where I was born, the first of three children. Dr. Reiner then moved to Pittsburgh to become the music director of that orchestra and he asked my dad to be the Principal Percussionist there. These were the days when formal, structured auditions didn’t really exist. If the music director of a symphony orchestra wanted to hire someone he knew or knew of, he simply hired them. That’s a much different world from today’s rigorous audition procedures, but that’s an article for another day. When I was six years old we moved once more, again at the request of Dr. Reiner. This time it was to Chicago.
My father spent a relatively short time in the CSO: 13 years, from his arrival in1954 until his retirement in 1967. Hard for me to believe that I’m close to tripling that! It is also hard for me to express how fortunate I feel to do something I’ve loved so much for so long.
I didn’t directly succeed my dad into this job. I was still in high school when he retired. His opening was won by a wonderful person and musician named Jim Lane (another Jim!) James Lane tragically died at the young age of 37 from cancer. When the audition for his position was held, I succeeded in getting the job and was hired by Sir Georg Solti. That was in 1979!
To this day, as almost a weekly occurrence, I read off of music parts from the CSO library that have my father’s name scribbled at the top in his own hand. It just reminds me of how we are all caretakers of positions in this great institution. Positions that have been nurtured by great musicians in the past and that will be cared for by many great musicians in the future. And I know--in the not too distant future--one of those musicians will be a percussionist reading parts that already have the markings of two different Rosses...both named Jim.
I am my father’s son.
Left to right: George Gershwin, Fritz Reiner, Jim Ross, with the tuned taxi horns that Gershwin wrote for in An American in Paris, and tenor Richard Crooks.
The photo is from 1929, one year after American in Paris was written.
By: Alex Hanna, CSO Principal Bass since 2012
This summer I had the wonderful opportunity to perform as concerto soloist with the Bellingham Festival of Music (BFM). The Festival Orchestra is made up of many of the country’s finest orchestral musicians.
When the BFM first invited me to play as concerto soloist, the Festival’s Music Director, Michael Palmer and I settled on the concerto in D Major by Johann Baptist Vanhal. We chose the piece for its wonderful musicality. However, it presents many unique challenges as the piece was composed for a completely different tuning system than what is commonly in use today.
Almost all bassists in the world today play in standard fourths tuning, where the strings are tuned to E-A-D-G. The Vanhal concerto was composed for the “Viennese tuning,” where the strings are instead tuned to A-D-F#-A. Despite this, many bassists choose to play the concerto in fourths making a few changes to accommodate the fourths tuning. However, for my performance I chose to learn Viennese tuning so that I could play the piece as the composer originally intended. It was extremely confusing at first—kind of like driving a car where the pedals, gears and instruments are all in different places, but in the end it was the right choice. The concerto sounds much more resonant and natural in Viennese tuning, although there are many obstacles. For example, playing in this tuning required me to obtain a special extended low A string which was made especially for my bass by Pirastro Strings in Germany. Also, there is no sheet music available for this tuning so I had to re-learn the entire concerto by ear. Throughout this past season, I would play CSO concerts in standard fourths, and then practice Vanhal at home in Viennese. The entire process was very challenging!
If the new tuning wasn’t demanding enough, managing the logistics of traveling across the country with a bass can be a real headache. Back in the old days, many bassists used to take commercial flights, buy an extra seat for the bass and take it into the cabin. Now the rules have changed and the only option is to fly with one of the few airlines that allow musical instruments in the luggage hold. The risk of damage to the instrument is very high, so I avoid it at all costs. I now ship my bass air cargo when I have to fly. This last trip to Bellingham cost $600 round trip--more than the airfare for myself!
The bass flies in a special hard case measuring about 7 feet tall and weighing over 100 pounds. The case costs around $4,000. It needs to be shipped the day before I fly myself so that it will be ready for pick-up at my destination. This means a lot of trips to the airport, especially since the bass needs to fly out of Midway, while I usually fly from O’Hare. Upon arrival, I rent a large SUV and put the back seats down flat. The bass flight trunk is so large that it takes up most of the car with the top resting on the dashboard between the driver and passenger. It’s expensive and time consuming, but the safety and reliability is worth it.
As if that weren’t hard enough, the stools on which bassists perch are also an essential part of our setup. The height, material and angle all have to be carefully calculated. My custom bass stool is made by Concert Design in Canada and I don’t play without it. I shipped a very large box containing my bass stool via UPS the week before my arrival in Bellingham. After all of this, packing my own suitcase and getting on the plane was a piece of cake!
All of this preparation, time, money and work was a huge undertaking. It’s crazy to think that we musicians make such efforts, all to play a piece of music that only lasts seventeen minutes. And yet, I look forward very much to performing the Vanhal concerto at home with the CSO this coming season December 17th, 18th and 19th!
By: Wendy Meir, CSO Violinist since 2003
The CSO has won multiple Grammy Awards and performed successful international tours to sold-out audiences, but those things are only a part of what makes the CSO one of the top orchestras in the world. A really great orchestra plays like a chamber music ensemble, even though there are 100+ musicians in the orchestra. The CSO musicians play like a fine string quartet and react appropriately and instantaneously to each other. We know who to listen to and who to follow in each piece. Every section of the orchestra can play the melody or the accompaniment with equal ability. In football, this is similar to being the quarterback and a defensive end on the same team.
You need to have superb technique to play in the CSO, but this is not enough. You must be able to listen to and blend with your colleagues. The extraordinary ensemble playing of the CSO is a long-standing tradition, nurtured by legendary conductors from Frederick Stock through Riccardo Muti. Older musicians pass down these traditions to new members and the tradition is carried forward. It is imperative that all members, even the principal players, fit in with the flow of the ensemble. The CSO is filled with amazing musicians, and they all know how to play with and enhance the playing of their colleagues. That is why the CSO is so special.
For a guest conductor, his or her first rehearsal with the CSO can be quite intimidating. The problems of rehearsing with an average orchestra simply aren’t there. Normally, a conductor has to spend most of his or her rehearsal time just getting the musicians to play together, as a cohesive ensemble. But, because of the efficiency and preparedness of the CSO, conductors have the opportunity to make music immediately. The notes on the page have no meaning until they are played by the musicians. They are just dots and lines. Conductors are able to take their interpretations of the music, and together with the musicians, create something unique and memorable. That’s when the magic happens. With our Music Director, Maestro Muti, CSO concerts are magical.
Congratulations to Music Director Riccardo Muti on the occasion of his 74th birthday on July 28, 2015.
Since his first concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in 1973, to the present day starting his sixth season as Music Director, working with Maestro Muti continues to be a incredible musical adventure. We are extremely grateful that Maestro has chosen to spend his precious time in Chicago. During that time, the CSO has entered a Golden Age of musicianship and international acclaim.
The cultural life of the city of Chicago has grown under Maestro Muti's brilliant leadership. From annual free community concerts all across the city, to making music with the young people in juvenile detention centers, Maestro Muti and musicians from the CSO are bringing great music to the people of Chicago. When the CSO travels internationally with the Maestro, the City of Chicago earns respect and admiration from music-lovers all over the world.
All who know the Maestro envy his energy and stamina. In fact, no one will be surprised to learn that Maestro Muti will be traveling to Orviedo, Spain on his birthday to conduct a concert there. We wish he would tell us where he discovered the Fountain of Youth!
Happy Birthday, Maestro!
With admiration and affection from the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Congratulations to Maestro Muti on the 42nd Anniversary of his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
On July 25th we celebrate the 42nd anniversary of our Maestro Muti's debut with the Chicago Symphony, at the Ravinia Festival, July 25, 1973.
His first program was:
ROSSINI Overture to Semiramide
SCHUMANN Piano Concerto with Christoph Eschenbach, piano
MUSSORGSKY/Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition
The following is published in the CSO's Rosenthal Archives Blog:
Maestro Muti made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in the summer of 1973, conducting a series of three concerts that also included three up-and-coming pianists: thirty-three-year-old Christoph Eschenbach (in his Ravinia Festival debut), twenty-seven-year-old Misha Dichter, and twenty-eight-year-old Jean-Bernard Pommier (in his CSO and Ravinia Festival debuts).
Muti’s biography in the Ravinia program book that week:
Permanent conductor of the Florence Maggio Musicale Orchestra since 1969, Riccardo Muti was born in Naples in 1941. He graduated with honors from the Conservatorio San Pietro a Maiella, where he studied piano, and then completed his studies at Milan’s Conservatorio Giuseppe Verdi, graduating with honors in composition and conducting. In 1967, Riccardo Muti became the first Italian candidate to win the Guido Cantelli International Conducting Competition. In June 1968, he conducted the Maggio Musicale Orchestra and the same night was asked to become permanent conductor.
Thomas Willis’s review of the first concert in the July 26 Chicago Tribune certainly sets the stage:
“It is easy to see why Riccardo Muti was the first Italian to win the Guido Cantelli Conducting Competition. The Neapolitan firebrand, still in his early thirties, can galvanize both audiences and an orchestra with the kinetic energy of his beat. In his Midwest debut at Ravinia last night, he asserted command at the first notes of Rossini’s Overture to Semiramide and sustained it until the last of the procession had marched through the Great Gate of Kiev in the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition. Whether one responds or not to the tense muscularity of his approach, there is no gainsaying its power and effectiveness . . . With the sensitivity to melody of an already seasoned opera conductor, he sets off each tune with a breath, combines short phrases into longer ones, and underlines each high point. Above all, his music is perfectly clear.”
Click here to read the entire article from the Rosenthal Archives
Herbert von Karajan, so goes the story, was hailing a taxi in Vienna. "Where to?" asked the driver. "Doesn't matter," replied the feared and foibled Austrian maestro. "They want me everywhere."
Replace Karajan's name with Riccardo Muti's and you get something of how sought-after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's music director is in today's classical music world.
Both La Scala and Vienna, two of the world's preeminent opera companies, have standing invitations out to Muti, even though his days of suffering the slings and arrows of willful stage directors are over, he declares.
Plenty of major orchestras would love to engage him as well. But, as the Italian baton supremo approaches his 74th birthday in July, he is almost entirely restricting his conducting to the three orchestras he considers the finest in the world – the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic and, of course, the CSO, where his contract runs through August 2020. By then he will have served 10 years in the post.
Click to continue reading the article on ChicagoTribune.com