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.