Classical mania

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Listen magazine’s summer 2011 issue.

The concert hall was packed with thousands of young women. As they heard the music rising from the stage, they seemed to sigh in unison. Some of their faces turned pale. Some blushed, as if overcome with emotion. Their mouths twitched and their eyes sparkled. They swayed back and forth. Some of them sobbed. They called out at the musician commanding their attention, a young man with a floppy mop of curly blond hair. “Divine!” they exclaimed. “Adorable!” And as the concert ended, they leapt to their feet, applauding and shouting hysterically, demanding one encore after another.

It was the 1890s, and the object of all this adoration was the virtuoso Polish pianist-composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski. This was decades before pop stars like the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra whipped audiences into a similar frenzy. It was more than a century before teen and pre-teen audiences went wild for far less innovative or talented performers like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. Back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the stars who inspired this sort of mania were classical musicians and opera singers.

The phenomenon of crazed concertgoers goes back at least as far as the Italian violinist-composer Niccolo Paganini, who began playing solo concerts in 1809 and amazed audiences with his speedy fingering. “The Italians … applaud him like mad, and when he leaves the theatre, three hundred people follow him to his hotel,” one writer of the time observed. Some believed Paganini had to be in league with the devil to play so well. According to biographer John Sugden, “Paganini’s audiences in these early years were for the most part uneducated in the purer forms of musical taste, uninhibited in their response to performers, and eager to indulge a new star; the symptoms are familiar to us in the age of modern ‘pop’ music.”

In 1832, Franz Liszt attended a concert by Paganini and decided he would strive to become just as virtuosic on the piano as Paganini was on the violin. By 1842, Europe was caught up in a fever called “Lisztomania.” The pianist-composer seemed to put his audiences into a sort of trance. His public concerts were “packed, noisy, at times almost riotous affairs,” writes historian and pianist Kenneth Hamilton in After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (Oxford University Press, 2008).

“In Liszt’s day, outbursts weren’t just allowed, but expected,” Hamilton writes from the University of Birmingham in England, where he is a music professor. “You would shout ‘bravo’ at any passage you liked the sound of, and might even request that it be repeated!” Of course, no recordings exist of Liszt, but written accounts suggest that he was pretty phenomenal. Liszt himself later acknowledged that he’d pandered to audiences in his early years by playing virtuosic runs of notes that would impress people — even if that meant making up passages that weren’t in the original compositions. “In my arrogance I even went so far as to add a host of rapid runs and cadenzas, which, by securing ignorant applause for me, sent me off in the wrong direction,” Liszt wrote.

Women at Liszt concerts grabbed his silk handkerchiefs and velvet gloves as souvenirs — clearly, his appeal was not just musical. “Liszt seemed to have had the ultimate in personal magnetism,” Hamilton says. “Even those who hated his music were captivated by his appearance and personality. When you add together Liszt’s astonishing keyboard mastery with his looks and love of performing, you end up with the ideal pop star.”

Not long after Lisztomania, Europe and America were swept by Lindomania — also known as the Jenny Lind Craze. A Scandinavian native known as “The Swedish Nightingale,” Lind won a feverish following with her concerts in London in 1847. The soprano’s voice was so striking that The Illustrated London News declared: “It is as though we now learned, for the first time, what singing really is.”

The legendary showman P.T. Barnum organized and promoted Lind’s 1850-52 tour of the United States, building hype with a relentless promotional campaign. At a time when people had no way of hearing music other than having it played in person — and photographs were still a rare sight — the American public got swept up in the excitement manufactured by Barnum.

When Lind’s ship arrived in New York, the piers and nearby streets were filled with people eager to catch a glimpse of her. A crowd of twenty thousand camped all night in the street outside her hotel. After she performed at New York’s Castle Garden, a newspaper reported, “The audience were thrown into a frenzy of excitement, and cheered with a vehemence such as we have never witnessed at a concert. The orchestra stood aghast, the ladies waved their handkerchiefs, and the gentlemen their hats, convulsively.” After an encore, “women turned pale with intense excitement, and men started to their feet in the most frantic manner, while others might be heard exclaiming, ‘Oh, God!’”

Known for her wholesome image, Lind won acclaim for donating money to charities. Still, Jenny Lind merchandise — including bonnets, shawls, pianos, cigars and cocktails — capitalized on her popularity as she toured America. It was said that her voice was bright and penetrating, but some critics felt she lacked emotional depth. A congressman from Indiana described her as “nothing more than a very modest, tolerable good looking woman.” But she projected a quality of youthful innocence when she sang. As a minister observed, “It is hard to describe her. She looked as if she had just stepped down out of a poem.”

Some four decades after America fell in love with Lind, the country — or at least, its women — came down with a bad case of Paddymania. Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s concerts in the United States were virtually filled with women and girls. One critic who attended one of these performances — a man — said, “There I was, simply girled in! A huge and dominant gynarchy seethed around me.”

A New York World reporter who went to several Paderewski concerts in 1895 sensed “a mysterious current” in the room — “as though an invisible force had united Paderewski and his feminine adorers.” According to the World, one young woman remarked: “Do you know how the lost soul must feel? I do. … When I feel the sensuous throb of Paderewski’s heart, my nature so responds that I feel distance does not separate us. I feel my heart beating in rhythm with his. I feel all control is gone, that I rejoice in the abandonment. I feel that I am absolutely and wholly his. It is awful, but it is a grand sensation.” The World quoted another woman as saying, “He makes my heart stand still, my blood to flow from my heart as he wills it; he sets me on fire; he chills me. He is my master.”

It’s not clear from press reports how much noise these crowds made while Paderewski was actually playing. At a 1901 concert in Poughkeepsie, New York, the audience apparently stayed quiet long enough to hear most of the master’s performance at the piano, until one excited Vassar student screamed loudly just as Paderewski reached the climax of a Liszt composition.

In the face of such adoration, Paderewksi showed signs of strain. He was seen nervously pacing his hotel room. Paderewski’s manager said the pianist was bored by hysterical audiences. Or as one headline put it: “ADULATION MAKES PADEREWSKI SICK.” According to another report, Paderewski’s concert experiences had left him with a phobia of women. Paderewski once told a reporter about the “unpleasant feeling” he got from “annoyances” at concert halls. “These were the result, I suppose, of a peculiar mental state which all musicians know affects women of excitable temperament when they hear music,” he said.

Critics praised Paderewski’s virtuosity, but newspapers were appalled and mystified by the female adoration he inspired. He is “not exactly an Apollo,” the World observed.

“To the eye there is nothing about him to make the pulse beat quicker,” the Chicago Daily Tribune noted, “yet women are spellbound in his presence, go mad in rapture over him, become hysterical and sigh, sob, and clinch their hands in nervous emotion. There seems to be no limit, no measure, to this feminine delirium.” Some newspapers suggested that Paderewski must have a hypnotic power.

His music was at least part of the reason audiences went wild, of course. The World’s reporter believed that Paderewski’s music was causing hysteria because so many of his audience members were “devoid of musical tastes, perceptions and training.” In that reporter’s view, people without musical training were incapable of appreciating “melodious harmonies,” but they did feel music’s emotional effect in the vibrations of their nerves. “Certain notes upon string instruments will so work upon the nerves of brute creatures that they will utter peculiar cries and yelps.”

The Tribune speculated that the women at Paderewski concerts imagined they were looking at “the ideal man” when they gazed upon this pianist. “Paderewski’s adorers … surrender themselves absolutely to the music and revel in all the emotions and sensations that their over-stimulated imagination urges upon them,” the newspaper editorialized.

In his 1982 biography Paderewski, Adam Zamokysi writes: “The sexual element in Paderewski’s success was, of course, exploited to the hilt. From the start there had been, as with Liszt and Paganini, serious over-reaction on the part of women to his playing, and it was reported with glee.”

And what of today’s classical musicians? Do any of them inspire reactions anything like the scenes at a Paderewski concert in the 1890s? “Such responses now seem mainly to be the reserve of pop music,” says Hamilton. Part of the reason for that, he says, is the change in concert etiquette. While outbursts were acceptable at a piano concert in Liszt’s time, they would be considered the height of rude behavior at a classical concert today.

But that doesn’t mean classical audiences can’t respond with tremendous enthusiasm after the final note sounds. Many performers, including Vladimir Horowitz and Van Cliburn, prompted tumultuous applause in the twentieth century, even if they didn’t have girls screaming in the middle of their performances. Media coverage and publicity campaigns rarely catapult today’s classical musicians to the same levels of recognition as they do pop singers or movie stars, but Chinese pianist Lang Lang seems to be maintaining a rock-star appeal.

Some have criticized Lang for being too showy, but his performance style is clearly part of why audiences respond so enthusiastically. Lang’s breakthrough came in 1999 at the age of sixteen, when he was a last-minute substitute for Andre Watts at the Ravinia Festival near Chicago. In his memoir, Lang recalls what happened after he finished Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto: “When I struck the last note, there was a silence, then an explosion. A jolt. ‘An electrical charge,’ one of the critics called it. And suddenly thirty thousand people leaped to their feet. From the stage, it felt to me as if all thirty thousand people were shouting ‘Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!’ It was the moment of a lifetime.”

Welz Kauffman, president and CEO of Ravinia, says another performance stands out in his memory for the way it electrified the audience. In 2008, the Siberian-born pianist Denis Matsuev played music by Rachmaninoff and others at Ravinia’s Martin Theatre. “People leapt to their feet,” Kauffman recalls. “They were applauding as he hit the last note. And they were exclaiming — not just bravos, but gasps and even a little bit of laughter, recognizing that what they’d just witnessed was so pyrotechnically thrilling. They’d never seen anything like it before and they may never see it again. It was one of those moments. I get shivers thinking about it. … I’ve been fortunate to hear many great pianists. This was just something else.”

Robert J. Zatorre, a professor at the Montreal Neurological Institute who studies the effects of music on the brain, says these manias may not have all that much to do with music. Liszt, Lind and Paderewski “all had some kind of interesting charisma, and perhaps music was their vehicle,” Zatorre says. “But there are plenty of nonmusical examples of people with amazing charisma able to make people behave in all manner of strange ways. … Think of football hooligans, political rallies and so forth.”

But Hamilton insists music must be part of the success of Lisztomania, Lindomania, Paddymania, Beatlemania and similar crazes. “Performing isn’t just about playing a piece of music,” he says. “It’s about communication between human beings. … There’s no doubt that a lot of the hysteria, once started, fed upon itself, like the crazy reaction to the Beatles in the early 1960s. Human capacity for self-delusion is almost infinite. But even with their charismatic appearances, Liszt and Paderewski couldn’t have had such an impact if their playing hadn’t been something special.”


Classical music in Chicago

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Listen magazine’s September-October 2009 issue.

When poet Carl Sandburg called Chicago “Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,” he easily could have added “Music Maker” to that list. The City of the Big Shoulders forged so many of the sounds that became popular American genres. This urban melting pot was one of the places where blues, jazz, gospel and even country music began to take shape. Today, its nightclubs and concert halls are alive with all those sounds — plus rock, folk, R&B, hip-hop, electronic and ethnic music. And despite its reputation as a “stormy, husky, brawling” town (to borrow another phrase from Sandburg), Chicago is also a sort of a paradise for classical-music aficionados.

The earliest evidence of music being performed in Chicago comes from the 1830s, when the place was just a frontier outpost. The owner of the Sauganash Hotel, Mark Beaubien, played a fiddle to entertain his guests. “He played it in such a way as to set every heel and toe in the room in active motion,” an early settler recalled. “He would lift the sluggard from his seat and set him whirling over the floor like mad!” Beaubien himself joked that his musicianship was not exactly divine. “I plays de fiddle like de debble, and I keeps hotel like hell,” the Frenchman reportedly remarked.

Chicagoans got a taste of more highbrow music in 1850, with the formation of the city’s first classical group, the Chicago Philharmonic Society, and the first local performance of an opera. Opera did not get off to a promising start in Chicago, however — the theater burned down in the middle of the second performance.

It wasn’t until 1891 that Chicago got serious about becoming a world-class musical city. That was the year a local group hired America’s most famous conductor, Theodore Thomas, to start the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At the time, Thomas was frustrated with his post at the New York Philharmonic because of its short schedule. Asked if he would come to Chicago, Thomas quipped, “I would go to hell if they gave me a permanent orchestra.”

Thomas insisted that his new orchestra should play only what he considered the best symphonic music, even if it was music that few people understood. “Mr. Thomas is here to establish a great art work,” explained his wife, Rose Fay Thomas, “and to make Chicago one of the musical centers of the world — not to provide a series of cheap musical entertainments for the riff-raff of the public.” The “riff-raff” may not have appreciated everything that the CSO played, but the orchestra persisted, and by the middle of the twentieth century, it had earned a reputation as one of the world’s best.

Several legendary maestros have led the orchestra, including Fritz Reiner, Sir Georg Solti and Daniel Barenboim. When Barenboim stepped down as music director in 2006, critics commented on how he’d reshaped the CSO’s sound during his fifteen-year tenure. “Although it will forever be associated with Sir Georg Solti, whose memory is still cherished by Chicagoans, the orchestra that Barenboim has molded is a different beast altogether,” Michael Henderson wrote in London’s Daily Telegraph. “Whereas the brass section remains stupendous, capable of blowing down the walls of Jericho, there is a breadth, balance and color (bloom, if you like) that one did not always associate with Solti.”

Few people questioned Barenboim’s brilliance, but he sometimes seemed arrogant. As he departed Chicago, he complained about Americans treating classical music as background noise. “I can’t stand being in Chicago anymore and hearing the Brahms Violin Concerto in the elevator,” he said, “because that shows me that when they come to the concert hall they listen to it in the same way.”

After a four-year search for a replacement, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made a stunning announcement in 2008: Acclaimed Italian conductor Riccardo Muti would be taking over as the CSO’s music director in 2010. Muti had turned down at least one job offer from the New York Philharmonic, but Chicago won him over where New York had failed.

Tempests have followed the uncompromising Muti throughout his career. In 2005, Muti ended his nineteen-year run as the music director of Milan’s La Scala after feuding with other officials at the opera house. Accused by critics of behaving like a dictator and megalomaniac, Muti quit after a no-confidence vote from La Scala employees. At the time, Muti’s wife said she doubted he would ever make music in public again. Asked later about the dispute, Muti told the Chicago Tribune, “Sometimes when the music director is very strong in demanding quality, mediocre people do not want to accept quality.”

So far, the relationship between Muti and the CSO’s musicians looks like a love affair. The raven-haired Italian adored the music that the orchestra made under his baton when he was a guest conductor in 2007. He called the CSO “a perfect machine.” That experience that persuaded Muti to sign a five-year contract as music director.

“This is one of the great musicians of our day, at the pinnacle of his artistic vision, coming together with one of the great orchestras of all time at the peak of their playing,” says Martha Gilmer, the CSO’s vice president of artistic planning and audience development. “It was incredible to experience. It truly was love at first sight.”

Explaining his decision to conduct in Chicago, Muti told The New York Times: “I have found a situation, how can I say, that has made more sweet my dry heart.”

Carl Grapentine, a longtime host on Chicago’s classical music radio station, WFMT 98.7 FM, says he can’t wait to hear what Muti will do at the helm of the CSO: “I think he’s a great combination of a stickler for precision, having a great stick technique, but also a very romantic musician.”

Muti will take over as music director a year from now, but he comes to Chicago this October to conduct eight concerts, including Brahms’ A German Requiem and symphonies by Mozart and Bruckner. Muti will be just one of three main maestros presiding at the CSO during this transitional year. Amsterdam native Bernard Haitink is finishing up his four years as principal conductor, while French composer Pierre Boulez, the CSO’s conductor emeritus, celebrates his eighty-fifth birthday in January with a month of concerts.

The CSO performs at Orchestra Hall, an auditorium designed in 1904 by Daniel H. Burnham, which received an acoustic makeover in 1997, becoming part of a larger complex known as Symphony Center. The venue also hosts jazz concerts, including Dianne Reeves, Sonny Rollins and Wynton Marsalis this season, and an eclectic series called “Symphony Center Presents,” which ranges from Emanuel Ax to Pat Metheny and Los Lobos.

The CSO is the city’s symphonic titan, but it’s just one of numerous groups playing classical music in hundreds of concerts all year round. Another giant on the scene is the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which performs at the Civic Opera House. Viewed from its west side along the Chicago River, the building looks like a huge chair — hence, its nickname, “Insull’s Throne.” Electricity baron Samuel Insull built the venue for his Chicago Civic Opera, opening the hall just a few days after the stock market crash of 1929. Like other local opera companies of the early twentieth century, Insull’s group did not last. The Lyric took over the space in 1954, when Maria Callas made her American debut in Bellini’s Norma. “She sang … like a goddess of the moon briefly descended,” Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy raved. And Chicago Sun-Times critic Felix Borowsky declared: “The city has raised an operatic voice which deserves to be heard around the world.”

Borowsky’s words proved prophetic — although keeping an opera up and running was no easy task. The Lyric’s legendary publicist, the late Danny Newman, once recalled how hard it was to persuade wealthy capitalists to donate money to the opera in its early days. “Some testy tycoons said we should either become more efficient (sell more tickets) or quietly go out of business,” Newman said. “Often they seemed morally offended when told that our product cost more to produce than we could sell it for.”

These days, the Lyric Opera boasts that its budget has been in the black for 21 of the past 22 years, including the most recent season. “First and foremost, we don’t spend more than we have,” explains William Mason, the Lyric’s general director. “And we put on a good product.”

That’s putting it mildly. Like the CSO, the Lyric Opera has been acclaimed around the world for the high caliber of its work. Does the Lyric present too much modern opera or not enough? “They have been more conservative than I would have liked,” says Wynne Delacoma, a longtime critic for the Sun-Times. “I tend to like things more adventuresome. But you realize now, they’re not facing millions of dollars in debt. So you have to say, well, it wasn’t a bad thing.” Mason says the Lyric tries to keep a good balance between popular “barn-burners” such as Tosca and modern operas — the “spikier stuff,” as he puts it. “In these challenging economic times, you’ve got to consider what you can sell.”

Another landmark of the Chicago classical world is the Ravinia Festival, in north suburban Highland Park, the summer home for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1936. With James Conlon serving as music director and frequently conducting the CSO, Ravinia also features touring classical acts such as the Kronos Quartet and a long roster of jazz, dance, world-music and mainstream pop musicians, ranging from Tony Bennett to Elvis Costello.

Ravinia’s focal point is a pavilion with three thousand two hundred reserved seats, and the grounds also include two smaller, enclosed venues where chamber groups and cabaret singers perform. But many concertgoers prefer to sit on the lawn with blankets, picnic baskets and bottles of wines. They can’t see the stage, but they do hear symphonic sounds or pop tunes coming over the speakers.

When it opened as an amusement park in 1904, Ravinia was billed as “a place of entertainment for people of culture and refinement.” In 1929, a critic for The Chicagoan magazine wrote: “The casual visitor at the huge park … cannot fail to come under the sway of the specific magic of the place. When there is a moon it seems to do its best for Ravinia. Even the passing trains of the Northwestern hoot pianissimo.” Those same words are true today. “It’s just a little bit of heaven,” says Dorothy Andries, a critic for suburban Pioneer Press (and sister of Sun-Times critic Delacoma).

Chicago’s other great outdoor musical tradition began at the height of the Great Depression, when American Federation of Musicians president James C. Petrillo was seeking work for unemployed musicians. He persuaded the Chicago Park District to present free concerts in Grant Park in downtown Chicago. The Grant Park Music Festival was born, beginning with an ambitious series of sixty-five symphonic concerts in 1935. People of all classes and backgrounds flocked to the shows.

The Grant Park Music Festival has had many memorable moments over its seventy-five years, including a 1958 concert by Van Cliburn that marked his first American appearance after making headlines for winning the first Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow. But Delacoma says the Petrillo Bandshell, where the Grant Park Orchestra played after 1972, left a lot to be desired. “It sounded tinny,” she says. “It sounded like it was background music from a bad radio.”

The orchestra finally got the home it deserved when Millennium Park opened at the Grant Park’s north end in 2004, unveiling the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, designed by architect Frank Gehry. Shiny metal surfaces twist and curl above the stage, and a trellis extends out over the lawn, with overhead speakers above the audience. The new book Sounds of Chicago’s Lakefront: A Celebration of the Grant Park Music Festival quotes Gehry discussing his design for the pavilion. “I pushed very hard to include the trellis to hang the speakers from so that it could create a sense of enclosure for the people on the lawn,” Gehry says. “Thanks to the trellis, people on the lawn really have a sense of a coherent space.”

The sound is wonderful, and concertgoers also get a breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline. The Grant Park Orchestra, led by principal conductor Carlos Kalmar, is flourishing in the new space, playing music that tends to be a little more daring than the summer fare at Ravinia. “The orchestra was ready to have its profile raised,” Delacoma says. “It’s been absolutely stunning.” The concerts are still free, although Grant Park Orchestra subscribers get first priority on the seats nearest the stage. The Pritzker Pavilion also hosts world music, indie-rock and a chamber music series called “Dusk Variations.”

Arguably as important as the Pritzker, another venue opened just to the north in 2003 — the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. With fifteen hundred twenty-five seats, this nonprofit theater is the right size to host concerts by groups that don’t have as big of a following as the CSO or the Lyric Opera. It’s now the regular home for Chicago Opera Theater, Music of the Baroque, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and local avant-garde ensemble eighth blackbird. The 2009-10 season also includes Mikhail Baryshnikov, Lang Lang and a Q&A with Stephen Sondheim. And the Harris hosts the CSO’s MusicNOW contemporary series — more of that “spiky stuff” that probably wouldn’t fill enough seats over at Orchestra Hall.

Chicago’s classical music scene has burgeoned in recent decades, with a growing number of small and medium-size organizations. Other notable examples are the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Newberry Consort and Bella Voce. Orchestras are also based in several suburbs, including Elgin, Lake Forest, Evanston, Northbrook, Elmhurst, Oak Park-River Forest, Skokie and Highland Park, just to name a few. And Chicago is home of the Joffrey Ballet, which performs at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. “There are just so many groups in town,” WFMT’s Grapentine says. “Not enough time to hear them all.”

And Chicago has many venues. Northwestern University in Evanston, the University of Chicago, Dominican University and other colleges present top-notch concerts featuring both local and touring musicians. The Music Institute of Chicago has a superb venue in Evanston. The Museum of Contemporary Art hosts concerts on the avant-garde end of the spectrum, including upcoming appearances by Philip Glass and International Contemporary Ensemble. The Chicago Cultural Center also presents concerts, including showcases for young musicians.

On top of all that, classical and avant-garde influences are seeping into many of the rock and jazz shows at clubs like the Empty Bottle, Schubas and the Hideout, where it’s common to see cellos, violins and trumpets mixing with electric guitars.

Critic Dorothy Andries says Chicago has classical music for all tastes. “You can look around and you can find what you want,” she says. “I really believe in Chicago.”