The Chicago Symphony Chorus director and conductor retires after 28 seasons

A tribute to Duain Wolfe

Portrait of Duain Wolfe, Chicago Symphony Chorus Conductor and Director from 1994-2022

Todd Rosenberg Photography

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association celebrates Duain Wolfe on the occasion of his retirement from his role as the Chicago Symphony Chorus’ director and conductor. Only the second director of the Chorus since its founding in the 1957-58 season, he has been the tireless standard bearer of an ensemble that represents the best in choral performance.

Wolfe first prepared the Chicago Symphony Chorus as a guest for a Ravinia Festival program of opera choruses in August 1993 and again early the following February for performances downtown of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden. Concluding a three-year search, the CSO’s then music director Daniel Barenboim announced that Wolfe would succeed Margaret Hillis, founder and first director of the Chorus. He officially began on June 1, 1994, and since then has prepared the Chorus for more than 150 programs during his 28-year tenure. Clarity, focus, rhythmic precision, power and transcendent beauty are just a few of the adjectives that have been used to describe the Chorus under his leadership.

Wolfe’s profound knowledge of the operatic and choral canons, appetite for new works and expert musicianship have resulted in a remarkable legacy of memorable performances. Another element to his success has been his tireless work ethic. His attention to detail and standards for excellence for his myriad responsibilities — from meticulous score study to his understanding of the human voice, from leading expertly organized rehearsals to managing rigorous auditions — have been an inspiration to colleagues, conductors, soloists and vocal and instrumental musicians. He has also encouraged generations of young musicians with his conducting and mentorship.

Wolfe has prepared the Chicago Symphony Chorus for performances conducted by three CSO music directors — Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti — as well as CSO titled conductors Claudio Abbado, Pierre Boulez and Bernard Haitink and many distinguished guest conductors. He has worked with CSO Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti on notable performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; landmarks of the Italian vocal literature, including Verdi’s Requiem and four operas — Otello, Macbeth, Falstaff and Aida — as well as Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, the Prologue to Boito’s Mefistofele and many opera choruses; Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, along with many of the classics of the choral literature.

In addition to concerts at Orchestra Hall and the Ravinia Festival, Wolfe has prepared the Chicago Symphony Chorus for performances at the Pritzker Pavilion n Millennium Park, Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonie in Berlin. World premieres with the Orchestra and Chorus include John Harbison’s Four Psalms and Bernard Rands’ apókryphos, both commissioned by the CSO. He also has prepared the Chorus for numerous recordings, including three Grammy Award winners. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, won Best Opera; Verdi’s Requiem received Best Choral Performance and Best Classical Album, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar) won Best Engineered Recording–Classical — both conducted by Riccardo Muti.

During his tenure, Wolfe’s creativity and innovative programming were on full display. The very popular holiday series, Welcome Yule!, was conceived and conducted by Wolfe for 20 years. His formation of the Chicago Symphony Singers, a superb touring chamber chorus, along with his imaginative youth programs, are additional examples of his artistry brought to life. He was also a frequent guest on the Classic Encounter preconcert and Salon series.

Before his retirement, Wolfe prepares the Chorus for four performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Muti from Feb. 24 to 27. Its famous choral finale, the “Ode to Joy,” will mark a symbolic celebration of Wolfe’s career and extraordinary artistic leadership, for which the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association family will be ever grateful.

On Sunday afternoon (Feb. 27, 2022), the audience at Symphony Center together with the musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus celebrated Duain Wolfe, who retires next month after 28 seasons as director and conductor of the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Riccardo Muti and CSOA President Jeff Alexander presented the Theodore Thomas Medallion to Wolfe to honor his years of distinguished service, which culminated in preparing the Chicago Symphony Chorus for last weekend’s monumental and poignant performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with its timely themes of friendship and brotherhood.