By: Stephen Lester, CSO string bassist since 1978
As I am sure most everybody is aware, after months of difficult negotiations, and playing without a contract for the first two weeks of the season, the Musicians of the Orchestra, through their Negotiating Committee and Union, came to an agreement with the CSOA on a new contract. Despite that neither negotiating team was happy with the results, everyone sighed a deep sigh of relief!
It became apparent towards the end of negotiations that what was at stake was not just the incredibly small amounts of money separating the two sides at the end, but rather a simple fact: in the current climate of uneasy donors, management upheavals, and the relentless propaganda about the demise of “classical music,” a strike would have been devastating to the organization and the Orchestra. Compromise is never easy; but when faced with the alternative, compromise is often essential. We applaud our employer for recognizing this.
We could spend a good deal of time in an effort to dissect the results, trace the causes, and try to analyze the motivations. But at the end of the day, the fact of agreement is enough (for now).
Curiously, the major impetus for compromise came from two sources, one outside the process and one inside. Though not involved in a material way with the negotiations, our Music Director, Riccardo Muti, played a crucial role. He advocates as no one can for the value and integrity of what the orchestra does. His comments from the stage, in the press, and to the musicians, show deep passion for our profession and art, and form an impressive argument that effectively counters negative portrayals of American orchestras. We are extremely grateful for his help.
The other impetus for compromise came from the Federal Mediator assigned to our negotiations, Javier Ramirez, who proved to be a tremendous help. Javier readily sensed how the small numbers the parties were dealing with masked a deep philosophical schism – not just between employer and employee, but in what an art form is and how to nurture and sustain it. That showed remarkable sensitivity and intelligence. As an example of our tax dollars at work, we say Bravo!
The Orchestra members showed incredible strength and unity in this process, and as is often the case, a silver lining appeared during this difficult process. Our members have become much more self aware as an Orchestra. As you are enjoying this newsletter, and hopefully our website and Facebook page, we hope you can see how we want to communicate with everyone directly. We want you to know us as musicians and as members of the Chicago community. We want to introduce you to our lives, both professionally and, to a certain degree, personally. We hope that in the months and years to come, you will see and hear more of us, as an orchestra and as people. So please, as Maestro Muti says, “stay close to your orchestra!”
By: David Sanders, CSO cellist since 1974
Something that members of a world-class symphony orchestra are used to hearing, especially around contract negotiations time, is that “those musicians only work twenty hours a week” (four rehearsals and four concerts). What is missing from that statement? Let’s see.
Most members of a great orchestra began working at their chosen instrument from the time they were young children, maybe as young as four or five years old. I was a late starter; I started cello lessons at age 14. But it’s not just a matter of taking lessons over a long period of time. Generally speaking, the successful instrumentalists practice on average anywhere from three to six hours a day, every day. Think about that. What have most people been doing from the time they were five years old for three hours a day, or six hours a day. There are very few courses of study or careers that take that kind of dedication, attention to detail, concentration, and a general fanaticism over the course of ten, fifteen, twenty or twenty-five years. And that is before you get a job. A violinist who starts the instrument at five years of age will very likely study and practice that instrument for twenty years or more before getting a job in a great orchestra. That’s over forty thousand hours of practice.
Okay, so you’ve been practicing for 40,000 hours, and you apply for an audition for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. So do 149 other violinists. And your audition lasts somewhere between two (not a good sign) and fifteen minutes (a very, very good sign). You’re called back to the finals, along with two or three others, and low and behold, you win the job. Thank God, you can stop practicing. WRONG!!!!
When I was the lucky one on April 23, 1974 and got my job in the CSO, of course I knew that I was joining possibly the best Orchestra in the world. A year earlier Time Magazine had had a cover article featuring Sir Georg Solti, who was to be my music director, and called him “the fastest baton in the west.” The article also rated U. S. orchestras, and for the CSO it simply said “sine qua non.” I was excited. I was practicing. I wanted to earn my keep, so to speak. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened when I sat down in that great cello section in that great Orchestra. All around me, everywhere I looked and listened, there was such greatness coming from so many instruments. And they were doing it with such naturalness and ease, yet with an incredible intensity. I had the intensity at that time, but I didn’t feel as if I had the naturalness and ease, so I started practicing even harder.
You cannot rest on your laurels in the Chicago Symphony, or in any world-class orchestra. You never want to let your colleagues down, yourself down, or, maybe more importantly, the music down. Now in my 42nd year, I still don’t want to let my colleagues, myself or the music down. It is a never-ending struggle to continually try to master a musical instrument, to keep improving, be it string, wind, brass, or percussion. And believe me when I say, twenty hours a week is just the beginning.
By: Max Raimi, CSO violist since 1984
When I first joined the CSO, I sought out role models among the veteran musicians. I had never played in a major orchestra and I needed to learn how to fit in. One man I found myself gravitating towards was a fellow violist, Don Evans. Don had joined the orchestra in 1948. Don’s father Clarence had been Principal Viola back in the 1920s and 30s, and his wife Margie was in the cello section. Don and Margie had been childhood sweethearts and they lived in the Winnetka house where Margie had grown up.
I was drawn to Don by his combination of professionalism, calm, and a marvelous dry-as-dust sense of humor. It must be said, though, that I fell a bit short of my model from time to time. Early on, I said or did something that struck Don as a bit out of line. I can’t recall my infraction, but there is no denying that I was something of a young punk back then. Don looked at me in his serene, cool, affectionate way and told me, “You’re lucky I like you so much or else I would tell you what I think of you.”
We had one other significant bond—baseball. I was born in Detroit and am still a passionate fan of the Detroit Tigers. Don’s ties to the Chicago Cubs were at least as deep. He had grown up near Wrigley Field and spent innumerable afternoons there throughout his life. His father had taken him to the third game of the 1932 World Series, when, legend has it, Babe Ruth pointed his bat at the center field bleachers and, on the next pitch, hit his famous “called shot” home run there, an iconic moment in baseball history.
A few years later, Don attended another World Series game, another debacle for the Cubs. It was 1935, and the Cubs were up against my Detroit Tigers. It was fated to be the first Series the Tigers ever won. Don attended the third game, a typically heartbreaking Cubs loss—they succumbed in the 11th inning on an error by their third baseman. Like any real fan, Don bought a scorecard and kept score, notating how every batter fared over the course of the game. More than half a century later, shortly before leaving the orchestra, he gave this scorecard to me.
I cherish it to this day. The now 80-year-old document is a fascinating time capsule, featuring the old four-color printing technique depicting Wrigley Field at the time. There was no ivy and no left field stands, but trees lined the perimeter beyond the outfield. Several pages show photos of the players on both teams, and it is remarkable to see how much older these young athletes looked at the height of the Depression than men of the same age today. I love the notices for items like Prima Pilsner, Green River, and Edelweiss Orange Soda “For Sale in this Park”.
Most of all, I pore over Don’s penciled notations, batter by batter, right up to the 11th inning denouement. Yet as much as I treasure this relic, it is by no means the most important thing Don gave me. I may not live up to my mentor, but I strive to be as good a colleague as I can, and hope that I may in some small way offer something for my younger colleagues to emulate.
Scorecard from 1935 World Series Game between Chicago Cubs and Detroit Tigers
Margaret and Don Evans
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Rosenthal Archives
By: Stephen Lester, CSO string bassist since 1978
It was a chance encounter in a grocery store, a former colleague who had been in our bass section for all of my then twenty-five years in the orchestra and who had retired a couple of years ago. We greeted each other with enthusiasm, I had always liked him. Wayne Balmer was always ready with a witty quip, and after a typical exchange of pleasantries and talk about life in retirement (the history class he was taking, staying fit) he said to me, “ but I have to tell you, the most important thing about retirement is the pension! That security is everything to me, it would have been impossible without it.”
I was struck by his honesty, this was no quip. Clearly, for a single man without a family, this benefit was not just dollars and cents, it gave him the security that retirees are finding ever elusive. At that point in my life I was nowhere near retirement, but Wayne made me realize how important that benefit is. He was able to live in the same house he had when he was working, able to keep a car, go to the health club, maintain his independence. He could plan for his future, even in retirement. Though I had always understood our pension benefit, now I realized the other side of it, how it enhanced a person’s life.
When Wayne retired, his pension was almost sixty per cent of his final year’s wages. He had Social Security and some savings, but they only supplemented what was the bedrock of his security: the pension from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, where he had played for 37 years. That pension benefit, a defined benefit plan, was negotiated over the years between the Association and the musicians’ union. The Plan requires the Association to contribute to a fund that then pays out that benefit to retirees until they die. It may seem that the retiree hasn’t paid into the fund; however, as a result of those negotiations, money that would have been paid as wages was set aside for the pension fund instead. So, Wayne did, in fact, contribute to his retirement, albeit indirectly.
The pension is a promise, made by the Association, to use previously designated funds to help our Members when they retire. Let’s be frank, musicians are not money managers, we do not even have access to the type of financial investments that pension funds use. We cannot provide that level of security on our own. So the promise, to shepherd those funds and make them available when needed, is not just dollars and cents, but an opportunity to have a secure retirement. Wayne made that so clear in that one short statement; a meaningful pension made all the difference to him.
Over the next dozen years, my wife and I shared many good dinners with Wayne at a favorite restaurant in Evanston. He lived to be almost ninety, all but the last few months still in his own house.
Our Pension Trust Fund has been in existence for over forty years. It is one of the proudest accomplishments of our Orchestra and has made a huge difference to many musicians. It helps attract and retain our Members, and it keeps the quality of our retirees’ lives at a level of dignity and security that is commensurate with the lives they have led.
My Percussion Instruments
by: Roger Cline, CSO string bassist since 1973
Out at Ravinia a number of years ago, Jim Ross, one of the CSO percussionists who knew that I did a lot of wood work, asked me if I could help him cut some pieces of wood to make a slapstick (an instrument consisting of two long pieces of wood that makes a sound like a whip). I was intrigued, so I set about making a replacement for the slapstick they had that was broken. I developed a new type of design that proved very effective and have since provided these slapsticks to many percussionists in orchestras throughout the U.S.
The next project I worked on was a Hammerschlag Box that, along with a very large mallet to strike it, is used for the “Hammer Stroke” in such works as the Mahler Sixth Symphony. Besides producing a very loud sound, I came up with a new design of the instrument that doesn’t break when hit. It is one of the few pieces of furniture I know of that is designed to be hit by what amounts to a sledge hammer.
Hammerschlag Box and Hammer
The picture of me standing beside a replica of a Ford Model “T” was my next project, a ratchet for our former composer-in-residence Mason Bates’ work “Alternative Energy.” In the movement of the work titled “In Fords Garden” a number of car parts are struck and a ratchet part is needed, which was incorporated by having the starter crank in the front radiator part of a Model “T” be the operating crank for a very loud ratchet. It was fun making a replica of a Model “T” that looked like it actually came from the car itself and fulfilled the need for a very powerful ratchet that was a thematic part of the work.
Roger standing along side the Model "T" ratchet
The next instrument, a ratchet that can change loudness while being played was originally needed for a work by Varese, “Ameriques”. I came up with the design in a couple of days and it was fun to hear the results in the Varese work when we played it on tour in Carnegie Hall. The current ratchet is the result of a number of years of design change which has improved the sound characteristics and dynamic range possibilities.
The Crescendo Ratchet, the only ratchet that has control over dynamics
The final instrument pictured that I have designed and made is a “wind machine”, which I made at the request of CSO principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh, for the performance of Maurice Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges” this past May, and was also used in our performance of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” this month at the Ravinia Festival. This instrument produces a sound like wind by rotating a number of specially designed wooden slats past some very heavy cotton duck material by a cranked circular barrel type construction. Similar wind machines have been used since the baroque musical era for sound effects in baroque operas,
One would think that a better sound could be had in modern times by simply recording wind sounds, but the resulting recording would have to be played over an amplified sound system with loudspeakers which would not have the sonic impact that the analog, mechanical device like a wind machine has. Many other sound effects similar in concept are still used in motion pictures and are called “Foley Effects” after the person who first invented them.
I am always thrilled every time the CSO performs a work that uses one of my percussion instruments. Even so many times around Christmas when one of my slapsticks is used for the famous Leroy Anderson work “Sleigh Ride” it still makes me think that I am lucky enough to be able to design and make an instrument that can be used by my colleagues in the great CSO percussion section.
On August 5th we celebrate the Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut of Fritz Reiner, at the Ravinia Festival, in 1937. The Rosenthal Archives has this about the great Maestro.
Fritz Reiner studied at the music academy in Budapest. His conducting debut was sudden-when the staff conductor at the Budapest Opera was taken ill, Reiner (then its young rehearsal coach) was thrust onto podium to direct that evening’s performance of Bizet’s Carmen. His full command of the situation subsequently led to his appointment as first conductor at the Laibach (now Ljubljana) National Opera.
From 1911 to 1914, Reiner was conductor of the People’s Opera in Budapest and went on to head the renowned Dresden Opera. He achieved great success conducting the music of Richard Strauss and premiered many of the composer’s works at Dresden.
Reiner came to the United States in 1922 and became conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, where he remained until 1931; during this time he also was a frequent guest orchestral and operatic conductor
in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago. In the 1934-35 season, Reiner organized the Philadelphia Opera Association and became its chief conductor. In 1938 he accepted the post of music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, where he would remain for ten seasons until becoming principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera.
Read more about Fritz Reiner at the Rosenthal Archives.
On August 3rd we celebrate the Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut of Georg Solti, at the Ravinia Festival, in 1954. The Rosenthal Archives, in the Solti 100 series, had this article about his debut.
“My long-delayed debut with the Chicago Symphony took place at Ravinia in August 1954, two years [sic] later than originally planned. In one of the concerts, the violinist Ruggiero Ricci and the cellist Paul Tortelierplayed the Brahms Double Concerto, but as a result of the intense humidity in the park, Tortelier’s bow slipped during the cello’s opening cadenza. He stopped, shook his head, and kept on repeating, ‘No good, no good,’ until we started again.
“These performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Ravinia were an absolute joy. I still remember the performance of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony during our first concert—the most wonderful musical experience of my professional life up to that time. The orchestra’s music director was another Hungarian, Fritz Reiner, who, along with George Szell in Cleveland, Antal Dorati in Dallas, and Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia, was one of the Hungarian conductors who helped build the excellence of today’s modern American orchestras. Even more than the much-feared Szell, Reiner was infamous among orchestra musicians for his dictatorial behavior. But he did marvelous things for the Chicago Symphony. Despite the imperfect acoustical environment of Ravinia at that time, I had no doubt that this was the finest ensemble I had ever conducted.”*
Read the entire article at csoarchives.wordpress.com
Sir Georg Solti conducting the CSO, early 1970s. (photo courtesy of Gary Stucka)
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!