Shortly before each Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert is set to begin, someone discreetly walks onstage to place a score on the conductor’s music stand, then returns to retrieve it when that first piece is over — a process repeated for each selection on the program.
Those brief, easy-to-ignore trips across the stage are the only times that audiences get a glimpse at the three staff members who work in one of the CSO’s most important if little-known behind-the-scenes departments — its library.
Located one floor below the Orchestra Hall stage, this windowless space serves as a repository for the music the orchestra owns and a work space for three librarians.
They procure the necessary scores and sets of parts for each program, prepare them for the musicians’ use and distribute them three to four weeks in advance of concerts.
“I’m part of a big picture, but I’m not on stage,” said librarian Carole Keller, who got her start as an undergraduate working part-time for the orchestra library at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. “I like being behind the scenes. I like being support. I like knowing what I do makes a difference. I feel like if I do my job to the best of my abilities, it makes what happens on stage go so much better.”
There is no set path to becoming an orchestra librarian, though many are former instrumentalists.
“There’s not really any coursework you can take at a university or anything like that,” Mark Swanson said.
A former professional trombonist and music copyist or preparator, he began working as a part-time CSO librarian in 1984 and became full-time 13 years later.
The current librarians have been together since April 2000, but things are about to change after the 2022-23 season ends in June. Principal librarian Peter Conover is retiring. The process to fill his position is well underway. The search is being handled much the same way the CSO handles player auditions because the librarians are considered members of the orchestra, with union representation and the same pay and benefits.
“It’s a nice feeling,” said Conover, a former freelance bassist who joined the staff in 1998. “It makes us feel more that we are musicians because we are musicians. We just don’t happen to be performing musicians.”
A committee of the two remaining librarians and seven players is overseeing the search, which will include a challenging skills test. The first interviews took place May 8. The CSO hopes to have a successor by the start of the 2023-24 season in September.
The librarians’ work on a new concert season typically begins the previous November — nearly a year in advance — as the artistic staff is putting final touches on the programming. The first step is to see what music for the planned concerts the library already has.
It owns more than 5,000 sets of scores and parts, some dating back a half century or more, with even older ones from the earliest days of the orchestra now kept in the orchestra’s historical archives.
For certain works, the library owns several editions, each slightly different. The decision about which to use lies with the conductor leading the concert, who often will have a firm preference, though conductors sometimes ask Conover for his advice.
“The nice thing about working here,” he said of the conductors, “is that you see a lot of people regularly, and you develop relationships, and people will call you on the phone.”
He has developed a cordial bond with James Conlon, who led the CSO regularly as the Ravinia Festival’s music director from 2005 to 2015 and is a frequent guest conductor.
Before each season, Conover consults with the orchestra’s music director — who conducts the highest percentage of each season’s concerts — about editions and any other issues. He and Riccardo Muti, who has held that post since 2010 and is departing after this season, usually handled such discussions in a single meeting.
Conover first met Muti at the Philadelphia Orchestra, where the maestro was music director from 1980 to 1992. Beginning in 1984, the CSO’s principal librarian apprenticed there and worked part time under Clinton Nieweg, Philadelphia’s respected principal librarian at the time.
When Muti became music director in Chicago, Conover reminded him of that connection.
“He feels he is simpatico with librarians,” the principal librarian said, “because he knows what we can do for him to make his life easier, and he is not afraid to ask for things. It’s a very casual but warm, respectful relationship.”
A portion of the works any season will be new, including ones that the orchestra is premiering, or selections it has never performed before. For those, the CSO has to purchase sets of scores and parts or rent them, often a requirement for modern pieces still under copyright.
Sometimes, the orchestra has to buy a new copy of a work it already owns because existing copies have worn out. Muti, for example, requested a new score for Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, a work to be featured during concerts this month.
When new sets of parts arrive, they are not ready to be played. The librarians check them for mistakes — a key signature that has been left off or some other anomaly — and sometimes have to repaginate or reformat them so the musicians can turn the pages during moments when they are not playing.
Such edits used to be done manually, via cutting and pasting. Now, now the librarians generally use computer graphics programs to do such formatting, sometimes scanning the parts, then adjusting them digitally as needed.
The librarians also have to add markings to the string parts that indicate which bowings are necessary for each passage. The head or principal musician of the orchestra’s string section decides these bowings, and the other musicians in the section follow that lead so everyone is in sync.
Though much of the music arrives in a printed form, sometimes, especially with premieres that are not yet published, it’s sent via an electronic file. The librarians print the parts on a massive copying machine that staples and folds the parts.
A big transformation in how orchestra libraries function could come with the potential switch from paper scores and parts to electronic tablets, often with wireless pedals to turn the pages. Many chamber ensembles and college musicians use such tablets, and a few recent soloists, like artist-in-residence Hilary Hahn, have employed them during appearances with the CSO.
Conover believes the tablets offer more disadvantages than advantages.
“I haven’t had a computer freeze up on my too recently,” he said, “not like they did 10 years ago. But, if I were a player, and I’m playing along, and all of sudden my screen went blank, what do you do? Would you want to take the chance?”
The CSO has no plans to switch to tablets, but Conover said that could change someday.
“It’s probably,” he said, “a question of when and not if.”