Where Does Greatness Come From? A CSO Story


Organizations have a culture even when they aren’t cultural. The ethic can be noble and good, bottom-line oriented, or a great many other things. But the question for me as a psychologist has been, how do they get that way?

Indeed, I’ve wondered how some of them become dedicated to a higher purpose, where the individuals believe that there is something more important than themselves at least some of the time. Well, I think I have the answer with respect to at least one such institution: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO).

Not all orchestras behave well. The mid-20th century version of the New York Philharmonic was described by William R. Trotter in Priest of Music: The Life of Dimitri Mitropoulos, as having “an attitude comprising, in more or less equal parts, paranoia, economic insecurity, pride, touchiness, and tough-guy, chip-on-the-shoulder arrogance.” It took many years before conductors looked at an invitation to lead “the Dead End Kids” as something better than entering the lion’s den.

Not that seeing the conductor as an enemy has ever been the sole property of Manhattan musicians. Cellist John Sant’Ambrogio, in his memoir The Day I Almost Destroyed the Boston Symphony and Other Stories, relates the following joke:

Question: If you find yourself in an elevator with a conductor and a rattlesnake, and you only have two bullets, which one do you shoot first?

Answer: You shoot the conductor twice, because you can never be too sure you got him the first time!

The CSO was known to be different. Whatever the private opinions about the person on the podium, there was a level of respect and an orchestral standard to maintain: the best possible performance, whatever the circumstances.

Some years ago I asked the late Ed Druzinsky, the CSO’s principal harpist from 1957-1997, what he could tell me about this. His answer referred to the two orchestral posts that preceded his time in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Detroit:

As a harpist I have to get (to the hall) early. I do my warming up. I don’t carry my instrument with me like the others do. They can practice at home and warm up and just come down and play… And I always like to get there early anyway. In Pittsburgh I used to have to wait until the janitors would come to unlock the doors. Then I went to Detroit and, following my same practice, there were one or two other guys also there (early). I came to Chicago, I was part of a crowd. That surprised me at first.

Is there some way in which this is enforced? Ed continued:

Say someone comes into the Chicago Symphony and he is not that conscientious. He is surrounded by people who come early and practice. And they look down at him, and they say “What’s the matter, get with it.” And he adapts. But it was like that with Stock. These are traditions that pass from one generation to another as people come and go in the orchestra.


Frederick Stock, the CSO’s Music Director from 1905 until his death in 1942, had been with the ensemble from 1895 as a violist under its founder, Theodore Thomas; and succeeded Thomas when he died. Might this conscientiousness go back that far, as Ed suggested?

I asked Milton Preves shortly before his death in 2000. Preves had joined the CSO under Stock in 1934 and became its viola principal from 1939 until his retirement in 1986. Preves recalled that Stock would come through the hall early — “for a ten o’clock rehearsal he would come at nine, or little after” — to see who was on stage practicing.

Ed Druzinsky said that before George Solti, Music Director from 1969-1991, the CSO was “the world’s greatest unknown orchestra.” Under Frederick Stock the CSO toured little, even domestically. And in those days of railroad travel, Chicago was a long way from the cultural centers of the East, where reputations were made and lost.

While Stock would be pleased that the professionalism he instilled remains intact, it is doubtful that he would recognize today’s CSO as his own. In Stock’s time it was an almost all-male, all-white enclave with Central European roots. Now it is approximately 40% female and 20% Asian or Asian-American, with a woman as president; as well as including openly gay and lesbian players. Auditions are performed on carpeted floors, behind screens that prevent the listeners from letting externals get in the way of judging musical qualities alone.

Much as some aspects of the CSO’s corporate culture needed to change, Stock’s hard-won work-ethic survives. Although Solti and his band made the CSO famous, we should remember that musicians like Stock and the self-disciplined players in his wake prepared the way. Even now, over 70 years since Stock last gave a downbeat, he is, in some sense, still on stage in Orchestra Hall, Chicago.

The reproduction of the CSO’s announcement of its 1936/37 season comes courtesy of the orchestra and its Archivist, Frank Villella.

21 thoughts on “Where Does Greatness Come From? A CSO Story

  1. Informative history lesson. Makes me value our CSO even more. Thanks.


  2. drgeraldstein

    You are welcome, Lois.


  3. As a guest conductor at the Ravinia Festival some years back I was immediately impressed by the orchestra members – not the CSO but an ad hoc group – arriving early, looking over the music and being tuned and ready to start promptly on time. I’m not used to this attitude having worked in South Africa for so long. Perhaps the attitude of the CSO is carried by other members of the profession in that excellent city – one wonders if some of the musicians playing for me were former pupils of CSO players ? It was a thoroughly memorable and enjoyable experience both musically and socially.


  4. I’m a flutist and a counselor. Interesting perspective here. Too many classical musicians have a “what about me?” mentality that plays out in how they interact with other musicians and conductors. Maybe the concept of belonging to something greater than the self is the crux of the matter??


    • drgeraldstein

      Thanks for your comment. I think you are on to something important. Many of those I’ve talked to feel a tremendous responsibility to the orchestra. Some, even to the point of retiring before they come to feel that they are “letting the band down.”


  5. […] shares an article written by Gerald Stein regarding greatness and the Chicago Symphony […]


  6. I am writing a memoir in which The Philadlephia Orchestra figures prominently, and would love to speak with Dr. Stein. Please advise on your willingness to speak, and if so, the best method of communication. Thank you!


  7. Julius Moshinsky

    Even though Claudia Cassidy didn’t like them, Rafael Kubelik and Fritz Reiner were perhaps the greatest conductors who ever helmed the CSO. O tempora, o Mores (as music critics used to say). And we have recordings to prove it.


    • drgeraldstein

      I heard Kubelik during his post-Music Director days, but unfortunately missed Reiner. Many agree with you, especially about the latter. Thanks for commenting.


  8. Very interested in the culture of an organisation & where it comes from, as it seems that despite the changes in leadership (musical as well as administrative) over many years the culture & work ethic in an orchestra can remain the same. How does one change it?


    • drgeraldstein

      A terrific question! I am not an organizational consultant and therefore cannot claim to be an expert in that area. I will say, however, that based on a non-scientific observation of how organizations work, there are at least two ways. One is to replace those people who do not fit the desired organizational culture that you want to have. The second is to allow those people who don’t fit to “age out” of the business, only replacing them after they have retired. I suppose another might be to hire a charismatic leader who could persuade people to go along with his vision of what the culture should be. Thanks for your most interesting question!


  9. Carter s. Pawlus

    Such joy when attending CSO’s concerts in Milwaukee so long ago and Solti’s extraordinary moulding of a great orchestra in everything they performed to exceptional beauty of sound never to be forgotten.


  10. Ramon Khalona

    I have been a CSO concertgoer for many years, from my university student days in Chicago in the 80s till now, even though I have moved away from the city. One of the things that has always impressed me about the ensemble is its collective professionalism, and I think this little history lesson addresses it well, but we ask ourselves: where has this professionalism gone in other fields?
    There obviously has to be a sense of pride and a sense of self-satisfaction that you have done your part to give the best posible performance night in and night out. Last April I atended two performances under Muti: Bach’s Mass in B-minor (a piece not normally associated with Muti) and a second concert with a Vivaldi concerto, Mozart’s “Prague” symphony and Beethoven’s Fourth. I am happy to report that the pride of making good music at every performance remains intact in Chicago. Such professionalism is not something we should take for granted theses days, when excuses for falling short abound.


    • drgeraldstein

      Nothing to add, Ramon. You’ve put it perfectly.


    • Carter S. Pawlus

      Agreed! Coming from a professional engineering background of State of the Art workmanship with zero error rubs sorely against the careless and indifferent mediocrity of today.

      Meanwhile the CSO on the other hand along with a few others does maintain the highest quality of musicianship and even a dissonant work sounded great when tackled by the pure sound of the CSO.


  11. […] shares an article written by Gerald Stein from last year regarding greatness and the Chicago Symphony […]


  12. Reblogged this on Adam L. Stanley and commented:
    Great piece on leadership, culture, and professionalism.


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