A Dressing Disaster and More: The CSO at Princeton

Solti 2

When on tour, great orchestras like the Chicago Symphony are expected to “show their stuff.” But, at Jadwin Gymnasium, Princeton University on December 4, 1972, a bit too much of “their stuff” was showing. It was a time before orchestra contracts guaranteed proper dressing facilities, nice hotel rooms, and the kinds of auditoriums that made the ensemble shine. And the Princeton event was the type of calamity that led to some of those guarantees.

The program included Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” (Fingal’s Cave) Overture and Mahler’s Symphony #5. The latter had already put the CSO and Solti on the cover of Time Magazine. European and American audiences were floored by an orchestra that could, in the words of NY Times critic James Oestereich, “grasp those huge, complex works whole and, with remarkably sustained virtuosity and power, render them as gleaming monolithic unities, seemingly perfect in every detail and cumulatively overwhelming.” Such was the power and precision of the CSO’s Mahler, something it retains to this day.

But Jadwin gym was no Carnegie Hall. Indeed, it was no concert hall at all, but rather an athletic facility with risers for seats. If you sat in the first several rows of those risers and came early, you saw the empty musicians’ chairs and screens or partitions just behind them, presumably to help reflect the sound forward to the listeners. But if you sat high up on the risers, you saw something extra: Tom Hall, then a CSO violinist, told me the story in a 2006 interview:

We arrived to discover that “Jadwin Auditorium” was actually Jadwin Gymnasium. The audience was seated in bleachers… the top of the bleachers of which were high enough so that people who came early could see over the screens that had been placed behind the orchestra… And the orchestra’s wardrobe trunks were there and we had to change (into our concert attire) back there and some of the changing was visible to the audience…!

And, yes, the program included the Mahler 5th and not long after (it began) the climate system kicked-in, the fans made a substantial noise… and the conductor and orchestra carried on. The fans (eventually) shut down. And the fans not long thereafter started up again and we kept going; and I think the third time (in the third movement) Mr. Solti had had enough. (At the end of the movement) he stopped and put down his baton and walked off. There was some applause (actually). I suppose some people thought that was the end of the piece!

Solti had good reason to stop. The gym sounded like an airplane hangar with all the engines and propellers going full-blast. The sheer volume of the CSO at full-tilt — augmented brass, percussion, and all — could not defeat the air conditioners. I know. I was there.

(Anyway) Solti went over and talked to some of the powers-that-be in the CSO management and the engineers or the presenters of the concert; and there was much pointing to the fans located in the ceiling and Solti was obviously saying, “I’m not going to continue, turn these off!” And the matter was resolved and he came back and played and there was no further interruption.

My suggestion to the (CSO’s) Marketing Department was that they report the concert as “Roaring Fans Greet Orchestra at Princeton,” but they didn’t touch that one.

While Tom Hall’s description and my own differ in a small number of particulars, the essentials of our stories are the same. It was a time when the CSO would get more cheers simply by walking on stage before a concert (especially in Carnegie Hall) than most orchestra’s received after the music stopped. But, so far as I know, this is the only time ever that the CSO was greeted by “Roaring Fans.” At least the inadvertent “dressing room” peep-show didn’t cause them to be called “The Orchestra With Nothing to Hide.”

The top photo is Sir Georg Solti.

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