The triumphant final chords of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto brought a storm of applause from the audience, assembled for the first public rehearsal and concert by Chicago's new orchestra. But the sense of triumph that pervaded the Chicago Auditorium on this autumn afternoon was as much a triumph of Chicago-style perseverance as it was of music. At last, the nation's second-largest city would not have to rely on touring orchestras for concerts of symphonic music.
As a heavily industrial city, the audience for such music in Chicago was disproportionately small. But it was growing, and among its number was Charles Norman Fay, a wealthy utilities executive who felt that a resident orchestra could help banish the city's hog-butcher reputation. As Fay saw it, only one man was worthy of leading such an ensemble, and that was Theodore Thomas, already firmly established as an orchestra builder.Thomas' mandate was to maintain the highest standards of excellence. His orchestra of 86 players--26 of them Chicagoans, the remaining 60 from New York--included some of the finest instrumentalists of the time. They performed two concerts weekly during an eight-month season. Reviewing the first "official" concert by the Chicago Orchestra under Thomas' baton on Oct. 17, the Tribune extolled "an orchestra which will enable Chicago to take rank in the music world commensurate with her standing as one of the great cities of the country."
Thomas served 13 seasons in Chicago. He died on Jan. 4, 1905--21 days after leading the dedicatory concert of Orchestra Hall, designed by architect Daniel Burnham to supplant the cavernous Auditorium as the ensemble's home. From 1906 the ensemble was called the Theodore Thomas Orchestra; in 1912 it was renamed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Thomas was succeeded by his assistant conductor, Frederick Stock, whose long tenure (to 1942) solidified the orchestra's reputation as one of the country's finest. Its artistic fortunes then rose and fell until the arrival in 1953 of the tyrannical Fritz Reiner, who transformed the orchestra into an extraordinary precision instrument. Georg Solti's tenure as music director, which began in 1969, secured the orchestra's international reputation with extensive recordings and tours.
By the time Daniel Barenboim became the orchestra's conductor in 1991--a century after Thomas raised his baton at the first concert--the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was unarguably a leading source of civic pride for a city that had gone without an orchestra for so many years.