Trustee John Schmidt carries on family’s legacy of brass commissions

CSOA Life Trustee John Schmidt waves to the audience at the 2021 CSO Brass concert, where it was announced that the Edward F. Schmidt Family Fund would permanently endow that annual concert.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

John Schmidt, a life trustee of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, comes from a family with longstanding connections to the Orchestra. The Edward F. Schmidt Family Commissioning Fund — established by his mother in honor of his father — has supported many CSO commissions, with a focus on works that highlight members of the brass section. 

More recently, he generously contributed to SEMPRE ALWAYS: The Campaign for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with a gift that will permanently endow the annual CSO Brass concert. In this interview, he shares his family’s history with the CSO and discusses their affinity for new music and the CSO brass section. 

What inspires your love of music?

Music was part of my family’s life. My mother played piano and would sometimes sit down and play hymns or other familiar songs, and we all sang. My father learned to play the French horn at Senn High School (free instrumental lessons in Chicago Public Schools back then!) and then played trumpet in the University of Illinois band under the great A.A. Harding, friend of John Philip Sousa and of Respighi. They played Harding’s own transcription of The Pines of Rome just a few years after its premiere!

My brothers and I all took piano lessons, and when it came time to study instruments in the Evanston schools, I took up trombone, my brother Bill the French horn and Bob the trumpet. My dad then got a baritone so we could play brass quartets together. We had an annual Christmas sing-along for friends, and we all played. My dad also played WFMT morning and night, from speakers in all rooms of the house!

What initially drew you to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

My parents took us to Chicago Symphony concerts from an early age — Ravinia in the summer; I remember seeing Stravinsky conduct Petrushka. My dad also sent in for tickets to the WGN-TV Sunday night concerts, which were done live from the studio next to the Tribune Tower. We saw Thomas Beecham, who was genial, and Fritz Reiner, who was not!

When I came home from law school, my parents had become CSO subscribers, and I joined them, together with my wife Janet after we met. That continued for as long as both were alive and then with my mother after my father died. And it has continued ever since with Janet and my brother Bob and on occasions other family members. The CSO and my family are, for me, completely intertwined.

As I got older, I heard other orchestras, but they were never quite as good. (No one else’s trombones, for example, are as good as ours.) Under Solti/Giulini/Barenboim/Haitink/Muti, I think the Chicago Symphony has been a musical experience unsurpassed, and probably unmatched, anywhere in the world. It is a wonderful thing for the world that such music exists and a wonderful thing for the city and those of us living here that we have it in Chicago!

For many years, you have supported new CSO commissions through the Edward F. Schmidt Family Commissioning Fund. Why do you consider it important to support new music?

The Edward Schmidt Family Fund was established by my mother after my father died. We wanted a way to honor him, and focusing on the CSO, particularly the CSO brass, was a natural choice. Commissioning new works for premiere by the CSO players seemed a way to give them even more prominence and a way to emphasize and reinforce the CSO as the global center of the brass world.

And there was an added personal benefit that particularly appealed to my mother: the premieres would be occasions for the family to get together. That has, in fact, happened — early on with just my brothers and me and our wives; then we began to add our children, and at the most recent premieres, we have had the next generation, my dad’s great-grandchildren, listening to new works commissioned in his honor!

Are there any CSO commissions from previous seasons that are especially memorable for you?

We started with a work featuring the whole brass section, Donald Erb’s Concerto for Brass and Orchestra, a marvelous showpiece that Leonard Slatkin premiered with the CSO and then recorded with the St. Louis Symphony.

We moved on to a commission for each of the great brass principals. Karel Husa wrote a trumpet concerto for Bud Herseth — the only new work he premiered in his incredible career — and Solti took it on his next CSO tour, to Australia. Then Ellen Taaffe Zwilich wrote two terrific trombone concertos, one for Jay Friedman and one for bass trombone for Charlie Vernon. The first was later recorded by Christian Lindberg on an album of “Great American Concertos” and the latter by Charlie himself with the Michigan State orchestra; it is so difficult there may be no one else who can play it! John Stevens wrote a tuba concerto for Gene Pokorny that is so good it has become, with piano accompaniment, a regular tuba competition piece. And to complete the initial cycle, John Williams wrote a horn concerto for Dale Clevenger that Williams has said is a favorite of all his concert works and is unquestionably the most widely performed horn concerto by a living composer.

That was just the first round. This is a permanent endowment and has moved on to support other wonderful works, including a superb trombone concerto for Michael Mulcahy by the Australian composer Carl Vine and a remarkable concerto by Jennifer Higdon for the entire lower brass section that Muti took on CSO tours to Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and Florida.

There is an added plus to playing works featuring the CSO brass: the audience always loves them!

Our family fund has also been used to support some magnificent new works that don’t feature brass. The premiere of Pierre Boulez’s Notations 7 — which he added to the previously written 1-4 — was a highlight of Barenboim’s tenure. And we have supported two exceptional pieces by Bernard Rands. In both of those cases, an added benefit was the opportunity to get to know two of the great composers of our time.

This season, the fund is supporting a commission for the CSO Brass concert in honor of the late Dale Clevenger, longtime principal horn of the CSO. What are you looking forward to about this commission? You’ve also made a generous gift to the SEMPRE ALWAYS Campaign to endow the annual CSO Brass concert. Why did you choose to direct your support toward this program?

I wanted to make a contribution to the current CSO endowment campaign, led by Helen Zell, and I suggested doing that by contributing to our family fund and giving it an added role as a permanent endowment for the annual CSO Brass concert. Helen and Jeff Alexander enthusiastically agreed. Anyone who has never gone to that annual concert should make a point of getting there. The CSO brass onstage by themselves show what brass music can be. And the concert has, for years, attracted a sellout crowd that conveys its enthusiasm — a lot of brass players with strong lungs — with an energy that is more like a rock concert than most Symphony Center events!

I suggested to Michael Mulcahy, who leads the annual concert, that we combine our family fund’s purposes with a new commission for the entire brass section. He came up with the ideal composer, Tim Higgins, principal trombone in the San Francisco Symphony, whose arrangements have been played previously by the CSO brass and who recently premiered his own trombone concerto to great acclaim in San Francisco. We will see what he comes up with — unpredictability is always part of the appeal of new music — but my guess is it will show off the CSO brass at their musical best.

Dedicating the new work to Dale Clevenger brings together strands of our family and commissioning history. Dale’s great predecessor as principal CSO horn, Philip Farkas, was my brother Bill’s teacher. And Dale’s premiere of the John Williams horn concerto was a great night in CSO history. Williams had never before conducted the CSO downtown, just once at Ravinia, but he has since come back often. At the reception after the concert, he said to me, “This is the best orchestra in the world for my music.” I said the London Symphony, which had famously done the Star Wars soundtracks, has some great brass players. He said, “Yes, but the sections don’t have your depth!”

Do you have any favorite memories of the CSO or anything else you’d like to share?

It is hard for me to talk about the CSO without remembering my friend Andrew Patner, the Chicago Sun-Times’ longtime music critic, who I first got to know from talking together at CSO intermissions. That led to thousands of email and Facebook exchanges over the years, about many things but above all about CSO concerts. The memory of those concerts and our friendship led me to compile and edit Andrew’s CSO reviews and WFMT interviews with CSO conductors into a book that was published, with a commentary by Doug Shadle, a leading musicologist, and an introduction by Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, by the University of Chicago Press as A Portrait in Four Movements: The Chicago Symphony Under Barenboim, Boulez, Haitink and Muti.

One review of Andrew’s has stayed in my mind because it describes well my own experience that night and on others when the CSO played the greatest music. It was a review of a Haitink performance of a Beethoven symphony, part of the great Beethoven cycle he led at the end of his tenure. After talking about the music itself, Haitink’s command of its structure and every detail and the orchestra’s extraordinary responsiveness, Andrew ends by saying, “When these master musicians turn their full attention to one another and to Beethoven in such a concentrated way, you are reminded of why you are here — here in this hall and even here on this earth.”

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