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Building on a Legacy of Greatness


Over the last several months, the rich history of Music Hall has been the focus of plenty of attention, given the excitement surrounding the grand renovation. This month, however, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is celebrating its own history as it relates to some of the individuals who helped make Cincinnati a destination for orchestral music. In particular, the concert program on Jan. 6–7 includes an arrangement of Bach’s “Sleepers Wake” by former CSO music director Leopold Stokowski, as well as the second symphony of another former music director, Eugene Goossens. The program demonstrates that, since its founding in 1895, the CSO has developed strong connections to some of the greatest household names in classical music and beyond; the prestigious list of music directors only scratches the surface.

How did the CSO get to a point where making music with legends is standard? According to Judy Martin, a retired violist with the Orchestra, much of it has to do with the leadership from strong music directors who not only were fine conductors but also capitalized on their connections throughoutthe industry to be evangelists for the CSO. She cites particularly the 1966 world tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department as an example of how a music director helped elevate the Orchestra. “I think the world tour put us in the category of ‘world-class’ and helped propel us to become a 52-week orchestra. I think Max Rudolf’s connections led to an inland orchestra being chosen for that event,” she said. “It was a very significant event that was in keeping with how things were already going in our rise to prominence.”

Many famous composers have performed with or conducted the CSO. Béla Bartók performed the American premiere of his Piano Concerto No. 1 with the CSO in 1928. Edward MacDowell performed his own Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Pike Opera House during the CSO’s first season. Sergei Rachmaninoff performed with the CSO in 1910 and 1937, in addition to several recital appearances. George Gershwin performed his Rhapsody in Blue and attended An American in Paris here. Igor Stravinsky conducted the Orchestra on three occasions (1925, 1940, 1965), and Krzysztof Penderecki has led the CSO a number of times, most recently in 2007.

Aaron Copland’s relationship with the CSO could fill a book, but it peaked in 1943, when, during the height of WWII, Goossens commissioned 18 composers to pen fanfare works to improve public morale. One of these commissioned works withstood the test of time and is now a standard and favorite in the orchestral repertoire: Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The CSO also gave the world premiere of his Lincoln Portrait in 1942 and has since recorded it twice. The composer conducted the Orchestra twice, in 1974 and 1976, as well as conducting a performance in 1964 of his Symphony No. 3 (Max Rudolf conducted the other pieces on that concert).

While Fanfare for the Common Man stands out as a star in the history of CSO premieres, the Orchestra has performed countless world and American premieres, including many by some of history’s most revered composers. Mahler’s third and fifth symphonies, as well as works by Ravel, Debussy and Respighi, were all introduced to American audiences by this Orchestra.

Famed composers are not the only ones to grace the Music Hall stage. Every decade of the CSO’s history has been packed with the world’s greatest virtuosos, most of whom returned for several repeat engagements and some even for tours and commercial recordings: Fritz Kreisler, Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Myra Hess, Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin, Claudio Arrau, Isaac Stern, Glenn Gould, Daniel Barenboim, Mstislav Rostropovich, Murray Perahia. And this list doesn’t include the hundreds of other guest artists and collaborators who may not be household names today, but whose talents surely qualify them to be mentioned among these greats.

The tremendous range of conductors who have stood on the podium has also contributed to the Orchestra’s excellence, thus attracting top talent. “Max Rudolf was conductor when I was first hired,” said Ms. Martin. “He was predictable. He would rehearse thoroughly, and what you rehearsed was pretty much what you would do at the performance. There’s something to be said for that. But then you take a person like Thomas Schippers, and the way you played something at the dress rehearsal was not necessarily how you’d play it at the performance, so you couldn’t be complacent.” These varying leadership styles helped keep players sharp over the decades.

It would be amiss not to also look at the robust list of artists of all genres who have collaborated with the Pops. Duke Ellington conducted, performed and recorded with the Pops on several occasions. Other legends who have appeared with the Pops include Ella Fitzgerald, Doc Severinsen, Henry Mancini, Mel Tormé, Cab Calloway, Dave Brubeck, Bernadette Peters, Aretha Franklin, Katharine Hepburn and, of course, Rosemary Clooney.

Many Pops guest artists have never before performed with a full orchestra, so it takes flexibility from the musicians
and conductor to make the collaboration successful. Ms. Martin suggests that Pops Founder Erich Kunzel hada special gift in such scenarios. “Erich was great at working with soloists so that they always felt they were the stars, but were willing to follow him at certain crucial times, so that he could keep us all together,” she said.

Today, this legacy of hosting and cultivating musical stars shows no signs of stopping. In the last decade, high-profile collaborations have included a New York Times-lauded performance of Andrew Norman’s Grawemeyer Award-winning Play, the world premiere performance and recording of Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto No. 2, not to mention performances with legendary composers and artists such as John Adams, Evgeny Kissin, Lang Lang, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Renée Fleming, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Midori, Valery Gergiev and many others.

But the talent isn’t only guest soloists and conductors— they only complement the incredible players found within the ranks of the Orchestra. “I’m so proud to have played with an orchestra and a whole supporting team where everyone is so gifted and accomplished, and wants to make music on the highest level,” said Ms. Martin. “It’s pretty humbling to know what company you’ve been in.” These musicians on stage here are linked to those musicians who performed with Frank van der Stucken, and they continue to build the “Cincinnati sound.”