For thirty years, the Concerto for Orchestra periodically appeared in the repertoire of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It was first played in 1962, repeated two years later, and performed again in 1992, with the composer conducting. The CSO recorded it twice onto disc: with Seiji Orawa (1971) and Daniel Barenboim (1992).
Yet the work most associated with this ensemble is the Third Symphony. Its history dates back to the spring of 1974, when Lutosławski travelled to Chicago to accept the honorary title of Doctor of Fine Arts awarded to him by Northwestern University Evanston. The CSO management took the opportunity to propose that the composer write a symphonic work for the orchestra. Lutosławski accepted the commission, but without a binding deadline, as if sensing that the composition would take more than ten years to complete. After a couple of aborted attempts at composing the work, it was finally ready in March 1982. The contract, for the sum of 25,000 dollars, ensured the Chicago orchestra of the right to its first performance anywhere in the world and its first performance in New York, as well as the privilege of making its first recording for disc. However, when Daniel Barenboim finally recorded the work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1992, that was not its first recording.
The first performance was to be conducted by Georg Solti. When preparing the new score, he happened to be in London, and so he had to discuss details of performance with the composer, in Warsaw, by telephone. They only met in person just before the first rehearsals, in Chicago. ‘Solti was already there. We were staying in the same hotel, and he asked me to come to his room. He opened the score and again began asking questions, starting with the first page, although there weren’t as many as before. I, however, couldn’t correct the mistakes that I had obviously found in the meantime – since I always find plenty of them – because the score was marked with a thick pen. I couldn’t find the notes that needed correcting. Consequently, I left him a list of mistakes and he made the corrections himself’.
The new symphony was performed in the opening concert of the CSO’s 108th season, broadcast to most countries of Western Europe. It aroused exceptional interest, and not only for artistic reasons. Poland was under martial law at the time, and many listeners interpreted it as an expression of the composer’s opposition to the political situation in his native land.