With the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, no one has performed Schumann’s Piano Concerto more than Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler.
Born in Austria in 1863, Fannie Blumenfeld and her family immigrated to the United States in 1867 and settled in Chicago. She began piano studies at the age of six and gave her first concert on February 26, 1875. Encouraged by the Russian pianist Anna Essipoff, Blumenfeld returned to Vienna in 1878, where she began studies with Theodor Leschetizky. Shortly after returning to the U.S. in 1883 — and anglicizing her name to Bloomfield — she auditioned for Theodore Thomas, then the music director for the New York Philharmonic as well as his eponymous Theodore Thomas Orchestra. It was too late to hire her for his upcoming seasons, but, inspired by her playing, Thomas provided letters of recommendation to help her secure other engagements.
Bloomfield made her professional debut in Chicago’s Central Music Hall on January 11, 1884, performing the first movement of Adolf von Henselt’s Piano Concerto in F minor under the baton of one of her first teachers, Carl Wolfsohn. In the Chicago Tribune, the reviewer described her performance with “A firm but at the same time delicate touch, a technique which overcomes the greatest difficulties without apparent effort, and an intelligent mastery over the mechanism of her instrument were the characteristics of her playing, which made themselves felt before she had finished a small portion of her task. Every note received its due. . . . It was a great treat, Miss Bloomfield’s playing, and one not soon to be forgotten.”
Bloomfield’s debut in New York occurred the following year, on February 1, 1885, under Frank Van der Stucken and his orchestra, again with Henselt’s Piano Concerto. In October of that year, she married Sigmund Zeisler (who later served on the defense counsel for the anarchists responsible for the onset of the Haymarket Square riot), and the couple had three sons.
Zeisler made her debut with the Chicago Orchestra during the ensemble’s first season, at the Auditorium Theatre on March 25 and 26, 1892. “The solo part in [Chopin’s second] concerto was played by Mrs. Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, a Chicago artist who is heard but too rarely in local concerts,” wrote the reviewer in the Chicago Tribune. “Few piano performances heard in the Auditorium have possessed as high artistic finish and true musicianly qualities as did that accorded Chopin’s concerto last evening by Mrs. Zeisler. There have been performances more brilliant, performances more impressive in their breadth and power, but none have revealed greater refinement of style and clearer, truer conception than did this.”
Later that spring, Zeisler joined Thomas and the Orchestra on tour to perform three concerts in Omaha, two in Louisville and one in Kansas City, Missouri; her repertoire included Chopin’s Second, Rubinstein’s Fourth and Saint-Saëns’s Fourth concertos.
The following season, she appeared with the Orchestra on a pair of subscription concerts in December and on tour on five occasions, including concerts in Pittsburgh and Buffalo in April that included the ensemble’s first performances of Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Soon thereafter, Zeisler was one of only two pianists — along with Ignace Paderewski — chosen by Thomas to perform with the Orchestra at the World’s Columbian Exposition. On June 9, 1893, she appeared in an all-Schumann concert (honoring the composer’s birthday) that included the Manfred Overture, Third Symphony, and the Piano Concerto. “Mme. Zeisler proved herself,” according to the Chicago Tribune, giving “a performance in every respect admirable and satisfying [lending] charm and poetry.”
Over the next thirty years, Zeisler was a frequent and favorite soloist with the Orchestra, performing not only Schumann’s concerto, but also works by Beethoven, Chopin, Grieg, Henselt, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Moszkowski, Mozart, Rubinstein, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky and Weber.
On February 25, 1925, Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler appeared with Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — and before the public — one last time, in a concert celebrating her fiftieth year as a concert artist. The program included Beethoven’s Andante favori, Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, and her eighth performance with the CSO of Schumann’s Piano Concerto. “You might have closed your eyes and been willing to swear that an artist in the first flush of maturity, with intensively cultivated powers and enormous flair for major piano works was playing,” wrote the critic in the Chicago Tribune. “It was the seal on an honorable and highly honored career. Mrs. Zeisler is as sincere an artist as ever appeared before the public. [Her honesty] shone through, every note she played, just as it has always shone whenever she played. And a capacity audience was present to testify to the esteem in which the fine sincerity of a fine artist is held.” She died in Chicago on August 21, 1927.