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Tiny CSO Model Connects California Family's History with Chicago's

By Lizzie Schiffman Tufano | January 8, 2013 5:58am | Updated on January 8, 2013 6:43am

SOUTH LOOP — A retired bookkeeper in San Diego researching her family history never expected to end up at a small museum in Chicago, staring at a two-inch model of her grandfather.

But Pam deDomenico, 61, and her husband and cousins are flying in to attend a dinner and lecture at the Glessner House Museum in the South Loop Jan. 16 celebrating the 100th anniversary of a miniature model of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

The model includes a tiny Harry Weisbach, concertmaster from 1912 to 1921 and deDomenico's paternal grandfather.

DeDomenico contacted the museum last April to ask about the diorama after finding a newspaper clipping mentioning the artifact, handcrafted in 1912 by Frances Glessner Lee, daughter of Frances and John Glessner, wealthy Chicagoans who helped fund the founding of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

"It talked about this diorama with all these little two-inch figures that you can tell who the people were just by looking at them. I thought that would be cool, to see something like that," deDomenico said. "So I called the museum to see whether or not they still had it, and that's when [they] told us about the 100th anniversary."

Frances Glessner Lee presented the model to her mother on her birthday, Jan. 1, 1913, during a dinner party for prominent Chicagoans and orchestra members. The Glessners and several other wealthy families helped cover the CSO's operational costs for years before it became profitable, Glessner House Museum Executive Director and Curator William Tyre said.

"Chicago in the late 19th, early 20th century was growing very quickly and a group of citizens, of which the Glessners were part, was really interested in making Chicago a cultural city," Tyre said.

"Mr. Glessner was one of the original guarantors — men who got together when the symphony was founded and said that they would cover all the expenses they couldn't cover with ticket sales. For the first few years, the symphony operated in the red, and they made up the difference," Tyre said.

To commemorate the model's anniversary and celebrate the era when Chicagoans were actively engaged in "making Chicago a cultural counterpart to some of its eastern cities," the museum is recreating the model's unveiling with a sold-out dinner in the historic home at 1800 S. Prairie Ave., Tyre said.

The closed event will be followed by a public lecture led by Tyre about the Glessner family and their role in the orchestra's founding.

The model now belongs to the CSO, though the Glessner House Museum has borrowed it for exhibition several times, most recently in 2005. This year's event marks the first recreation of the original 1913 dinner, with the model displayed on a reconstruction of the original stage.

For most attendees, the event offers a chance to reconnect with the founders of Chicago's greatest cultural institutions.

For deDomenico, who's a special guest at the event along with Linda Stock Wolfe, the great-granddaughter of conductor Frederick Stock, it represents a chance for her to connect with her grandfather's world beyond family photos and old programs.

According to one online history of the CSO, Harry Weisbach was born in Russia in 1886.  His family emigrated to New York City in 1891, where, at the age of 13, he joined the Volpe Orchestra of New York. 

After studying violin in Europe, Weisbach had made his Carnegie Hall debut at age 18. Weisbach joined the CSO as a violinist for the 1909-1910 season and was appointed concertmaster for the 1912-1913 season. He continued for nine years before returning to the CSO violin section.

He died on February 23, 1946.

After the dinner, his granddaughter will attend the CSO presentation.

"We figured we'd at least sit there and imagine what it used to be like when [my grandfather] was here,"  deDomenico said.

The lecture begins at 7 p.m. Jan. 16 and costs $10 per person. Attendees are encouraged to R.S.V.P. to (312) 326-1480.