Monday, December 14, 2015

Symphony Center in Chicago Dedicated -- December 14, 1904

Theodore Thomas Orchestra Hall (JWB Photo)
Two thousand two hundred members of Chicago society came together on this evening, December 13, of 1904 to attend the dedication of the new home for the Chicago symphony orchestra on Michigan Avenue.  Three-quarters of a million dollars made up of voluntary contributions from over 8,000 different people had made it possible to get the place built.

After 14 years with the orchestra its conductor, Theodore Thomas, finally had a home for his musicians who had up to this point played in the cavernous Auditorium building just down Michigan Avenue.  The Apollo and Mendelssohn music clubs joined with the members of the Chicago symphony for five numbers, beginning with Tannhäuser’s “Hail, Bright Abode.”

Attorney and former United States congressman George E. Adams dedicated the new hall with a short speech, saying to the audience members who had helped fund the project, “We hope and believe that this building will outlive every one of you and every one of us.  We hope and believe that it will stand for generations to come.  But if it stands for centuries it will not outlast the beneficent influence which you have bestowed upon the higher life of the American people.”

Unfortunately, when the first reviews of the new hall emerged, it became clear that the impassioned desire for it to stand for generations needed to be tempered somewhat.  The critic for The Tribune, W. L. Hubbard, wrote, “It would be an act both graceful and joyous to state that the concert last evening convinced that Orchestra hall was all that could be desired – that it was a concert room virtually faultless . . . But the facts so far as personal observation and attention could establish them last evening, make such a statement now impossible.  And the disappointment felt because of this is only the more keen because the contrary had been so earnestly desired.”  [Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1904]

The brass instruments “swallowed up” the orchestra in louder sections.  The quality of the strings “when heard” was “hard.”  A violin solo was “small and colorless.”  The kettledrums were “hollow” and “tubby.”

Most devastatingly, in the critic’s words, “For the first time since the Chicago orchestra has been heard it sounded common . . . for last evening it seemed that instead of having the Chicago orchestra given to us permanently, it had been taken away from us and an inferior unfinished organization substituted.”

A tone deaf Chicago would find a way to get along with Hubbard’s assessment for 91 years until a major overhaul of what is now Symphony Center would begin, a project that consumed the better part of two years from 1995 to 1997 and markedly improved the space.

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