As WGN TV celebrates 75 years, we’re looking back with a series of stories on the history and the memories
CHICAGO — The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has been a civic jewel since its founding in 1891. The stage at Orchestra Hall on Michigan Avenue showcases one of the finest ensembles in the world, renowned for its precision and teamwork.
John Hagstrom has been a member of the CSO trumpet section since 1996.
“It’s part of what makes the CSO different from other orchestras: the teamwork and sort of seamless collaboration, that really builds impact and connection with listeners,” he said.
But behind the music, there is another story of Chicago teamwork.
From 1959 to 1963 WGN-TV collaborated with the CSO and its legendary music director Fritz Reiner to produce the series “Great Music from Chicago.”
“It was an hour-long television program,” Frank Villella, the director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s Rosenthal Archives said. “It featured our music director Fritz Reiner and a parade of guest conductors, and soloists. It ran for four seasons, and it gave patrons the opportunity to not only hear the orchestra, but to see the orchestra in the comfort of their own home.”
The program was filmed on location at Orchestra Hall, the Edgewater Beach Hotel, Ravina Festival and inside of the WGN studios. The series brought high art to a mass audience.
“It really expanded the breadth of not only the repertoire we were performing, but also the reach of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, not only to the Chicago community, but beyond,” Villella said.
“It was a way for the orchestra to become even more prominent at a time when technology was having the ability to disseminate energy and higher-mindedness in the early days of television,” said Hagstrom who serves as the CSO’s second trumpet and unofficial historian.
Hagstrom’s connection to “Great Music from, Chicago” is deep. He learned from legendary CSO member Adolph “Bud” Herseth, who is widely considered one of the most influential trumpeters of his time. Herseth was a featured player on the television program.
Bill Butler, who became a Hollywood legend as the cinematographer for “The Conversation,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Jaws,” was “Great Music from Chicago’s” original director of photography. In an interview he said he developed a precise method to showcase the music.
“The challenge was can we put the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the air with live cameras without a rehearsal,” Butler said. “We could invent a shooting scheme that would allow every camera to know what instrument to be on – and when – without ever having a rehearsal. At no time did anyone on any camera have to know what piece was being played by the orchestra. It was entirely mathematical.”
For the audience at home, the experience was like nothing they’d ever seen – even in person.
The cameras allowed a closer view than a front row seat in Orchestra Hall, fostering a greater appreciation for the intensity, precision, urgency, and commitment of the musicians.
“The way that this program was directed, it wasn’t just a wide shot of the orchestra as like, a moving photo,” Hagstrom said. “This was directed. So, the creativity of the producers decided, ‘well, we’re going to pick out the important moments and as they’re happening. Who’s got the melody, who’s got the soul?’ You’re going to see the person right then, so it helps direct the listeners attention to what’s musically most prioritized in the mind of the composer, in the mind of the conductor, and so to see that it helps you follow the thread of the musical narrative, but it also connects you even closer to the energy and the sort of anxiety and the sense of imperative that each player has as they prepare to play, play this thing they’ve just got one chance to get it right and they play it beautifully and you can share kind of humanity, the sort of risk that they’re all taking.”
The show was syndicated internationally and celebrated by audiences and critics alike. It won the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award, whose judges declared “this distinguished series, a prestige program, presented live and in color, with many of the world’s outstanding conductors taking turns on the podium, represents an unmatched effort to bring the best in music to the public, and contributes vastly toward improving the image of television.”
The idea was replicated around the country. “The Chicago Symphony Orchestra on television was one of the first orchestras to have a regular series, a syndicated series on television,” Villella said. “It pre-dates Evening at Pops, which started in 1970 of course, and is contemporary with Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts.”
In 1962, the show went international with a special broadcast from Paris.
“Great Music from Chicago” had a second life. During the pandemic – as all live performances and stages across the country were shuttered, the CSO went into the archives and found previously unreleased footage from the program and posted it on YouTube, giving the classic program a modern audience. (Move videos on YouTube can be seen here and here)
“These television programs didn’t earn a million dollars for WGN,” Hagstrom said. “They did it out of a sense of public trust. Civic duty and it enhanced the quality of the city, and that’s why the CSO was created to begin with. To show us not just an economic force of Chicago, but we can do something higher, and that’s what we need to preserve, that’s what civic leaders do, they’re not elected, but they invest their efforts to steer the hearts and the sort of maturity of our people together and that’s exactly what WGN accomplished in those years.”