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New York Philharmonic Biography

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New York Philharmonic In-depth Biography

The oldest and most famous of all major American orchestras, the New York Philharmonic} is the definitive international-level orchestra in America, compared on occasion with the Berlin Philharmonic}. For much of this century, it has been the most prestigious of American orchestras, if not universally praised at all times. The orchestra's chief conductors, music advisors, and music directors since the 1920s is a list of musical legends, the presence of any one of which in the history of other orchestras would be a more than sufficient honor: Gustav Mahler}, Willem Mengelberg}, Arturo Toscanini}, Sir John Barbirolli}, Bruno Walter}, Dimitri Mitropoulos}, Leonard Bernstein}, Pierre Boulez}, and, currently, Kurt Masur}. And its recordings, beginning in the 1920s under Mengelberg}, were among the most honored of their era, while those from the 1960s during the tenure of Bernstein} as music director, are also among the best selling classical records ever made in America.

The New York Philharmonic} as we know it today is actually the result of the union of two major orchestras founded during the 19th century which, in turn, absorbed the best elements of other New York orchestras that didn't survive. Their combined history goes back over 150 years.

There were amateur orchestras in New York in the 18th century, and these began to multiply in profusion in the beginning of the 19th century. In 1824, there appeared in New York the Philharmonic Society}, comprised of members of the city's theater orchestras, which gave concerts for several years -- their debut featured the first New York performance of the final movement of Beethoven's} Symphony No. 2}; and in 1825 an unidentified ensemble performed the New York premieres of Beethoven's} The Creatures of Prometheus} and Egmont} overture.

In 1842, the Philharmonic Symphony Society of New York} was founded by a small group of talented and dedicated musicians. Their first concert, featuring an orchestra of 63 musicians conducted by U.C. Hill} and a program that included Beethoven's} Symphony No. 5} (which had first been played in America only two years earlier), took place in December of 1842. The orchestra's first official season, in 1843, included three concerts, the second of which was highlighted by the first American performance of Beethoven's} Symphony No. 3}. Three years later, the orchestra also gave the American premiere of Beethoven's} Symphony No. 9} before an audience of 2000 people.

For the next 16 years, the Philharmonic Symphony Society} gave four concerts annually. In 1859 they expanded their season to five performances, and then, in 1869, to six concerts. Members of the orchestra usually served as conductors during the early years, until 1852 when Theodore Eisfeld} was elected director, a post he held for 15 years. By 1867, the number of players had expanded to 100.

The orchestra's membership and repertory were heavily steeped in mainstream European repertory which, in those days, included much Beethoven} and Brahms}, Wagner}, Johann Strauss II}, and Franz Liszt}, and relatively little (by today's standards) Bach} and Mozart}, and very little of American origin. The standard of playing was very high for the era, and the Philharmonic Society} was the most respected of serious orchestras. There were rivals during the second half of the 19th century, however, including a Brooklyn Philharmonic} that was founded in 1857 (Brooklyn was then a separate city, incidentally); an orchestra organized by conductor Louis Jullien} that performed lighter programs that included works by American composers, which proved very popular; and Theodore Thomas} led a New York-based orchestra from the 1860s to the 1890s that was not only popular in the city but toured the country, doing programs that included Bach}, Saint-Saens}, Mozart}, and Mendelssohn}.

The most significant competitor to the Philharmonic Society}, however, was the New York Symphony}, founded in 1878 by Leopold Damrosch}, who was also the orchestra's conductor until his death in 1885, after which his son Walter} took over at the podium and as president. In those days, the city was in an absolute musical ferment that would make modern audiences green with envy, as orchestras competed for the first performances of such works as the Brahms} Symphony No. 1} and the Saint-Saens} Piano Concerto No. 2}.

Leopold Damrosch} may have intended to outdo all rivals, with a performance of a Berlioz} mass featuring 1500 musicians in 1881, but then a year later Thomas} led 3200 players and singers in a concert. After succeeding his father, Walter Damrosch} proved every bit as ambitious and daring a leader, and musical life in the city had never been as active before. Additionally, from 1887 onward, New York was visited frequently by the Boston Symphony Orchestra}, and later by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra}, and the Philadelphia Orchestra} began making regular concert appearances in New York starting in 1903. There was also a Russian Symphony Orchestra} from 1904 until 1918, which debuted numerous works by Rachmaninoff}, Scriabin}, and Rimsky-Korsakov}, and an Italian Symphony Orchestra} that appeared in 1913.

Ultimately, the New York Symphony} won out over Thomas's} ensemble by wooing the support of wealthy New Yorkers such as Andrew Carnegie, whose patronage gave them advantages in both fundraising and press exposure. Finally, in 1891, Thomas} packed up for Chicago -- to found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra} -- and the New York Symphony} was left as the sole competitor to the Philharmonic Society}. While the Philharmonic} achieved greater critical respect, however, the Symphony} was beloved for its more daring and adventurous programming, mixing French and American pieces with that standard Germanic fare common to both orchestras. And the Carnegie patronage paid off in a big way -- which is still providing benefits to the musical world -- in 1891 with the opening of Carnegie Hall, built expressly for the New York Symphony}. Damrosch's} own reputation, as a leader as well as a conductor, was such that he served as conductor of the Philharmonic Society} during its 1902-1903 season. Meanwhile, the New York Symphony} had achieved such respect by then, that no less a figure than Felix Weingartner} was enticed to serve as guest conductor.

The New York Symphony} was reorganized as the New York Symphony Orchestra} in 1903, and again in 1907, when the modern structure of the orchestra was put into place, including a board of directors and regular salaries for the players. The orchestra quickly became a vital institution in the musical life of the entire country, playing on tour to audiences who had never before heard a full symphony orchestra. In 1920, it became the first American orchestra ever to tour Europe, and was a resounding success. During the 1920s, there began a parade of renowned and legendary conductors as guests at its podium, including Bruno Walter}, Fritz Busch}, Vincent d'Indy}, Maurice Ravel}, and Albert Coates}.

The Philharmonic Society} survived during the early 20th century as a relatively sedate, highly praised ensemble, and was remarkably successful in wooing some of the most talented conductors from Europe to its podium. The most notable of these was Gustav Mahler}, who served as the orchestra's conductor from 1909 until 1911 -- his tenure there was more successful and far less stormy than his conductorship of the Metropolitan Opera}, and it is possible to hear some of the surviving Philharmonic Society} players discuss Mahler} on a Pickwick compact disc devoted to his piano roll recordings of his own work.

The Philharmonic Society} merged with the New (aka National) Symphony Orchestra} in 1921, and in doing so boosted both its subscribership and its concert schedule, to the point where the responsibilities for conducting finally had to be divided up among three musicians, where one had sufficed in prior years. Among the those legendary figures who graced the podium in the years that followed were Mengelberg} (1921-30), Furtwangler} (1925-27), Toscanini} (1927-33), Erich Kleiber} (1930-32), and Walter} (1931-33). Throughout the 1920s, the Philharmonic Society} absorbed several smaller orchestras, including the City Symphony}, the American National Orchestra}, and the State Symphony Orchestra}, all of which enhanced its own resources and reduced the competition.

Finally, in 1928, the modern New York Philharmonic} was created with the merger of the Philharmonic Society} and the New York Symphony Orchestra}, into the Philharmonic-Symphony Society Orchestra}, later the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York} and, finally, the New York Philharmonic}. The merging of the two institutions created a musical powerhouse the like of which had never been seen in New York before, combining the powerful and conservative performing tradition of the Philharmonic Society} with the more forward looking, progressive approach of the New York Symphony}. Ever since, the New York Philharmonic} has sought to balance these two sides, juxtaposing a commitment to the core Classical/Romantic repertory with an obligation to perform (and commission) new works by living composers.

Toscanini} became the new orchestra's principal conductor, for a 28-week, 103-concert season, the longest in the Philharmonic's} history. It was a perfect marriage in its time, in terms of personalities and reputations.

Toscanini} was one of the most lionized conductors in the world, and far better known to the world at large than the Philharmonic} -- indeed, he was probably the only conductor in the world whose name was widely known to people who didn't go to concerts or listen to classical music. Within the musical world, he was known for his conservative taste in programming, a strict adherence to the printed score (often, his critics said, at the expense of artistic insights), a demanding and tempestuous demeanor, and an enormous ego. He was a match for the players in the Philharmonic}, who had a reputation for being difficult and uncooperative.

Toscanini's} exit from the orchestra created a gap that wasn't entirely filled until the 1960s. After Furtwangler} declined the offer of the chief conductor's post for political reasons, and Otto Klemperer} lost his chance at the position for reasons of personality and internal politics, Sir John Barbirolli} succeeded Toscanini} for a stormy seven years, thru 1943. Barbirolli's} tenure was a stormy one, owing to his difficulties in dealing with the often recalcitrant members of the orchestra, which marred the relationship between this legendary conductor and a great orchestra. His successor, Arthur Rodzinski} was a good administrator, and widely recognized as a great "builder of orchestras," but not a great conductor, and he left after four years, in 1947, over personality conflicts with management.

Bruno Walter} served in an interim capacity for two seasons as "Musical Advisor," shepherding the orchestra through the two years in which a successor to Rodzinski} was chosen. Walter} would have been the first choice as a permanent successor but for his being past 70 and not at all in sympathy with contemporary composers -- part of the Philharmonic's} major mission since Damrosch's} day had been presenting works by living composers, and Walter} seldom conducted any music written after 1910.

Finally, Greek-born Dimitri Mitropoulos} was chosen in 1949. Mitropoulos} had done a great job of turning the Minneapolis Symphony} into a major orchestra, and was popular with East Coast critics, in particular. His tenure in New York, however, proved an unhappy one, despite some great moments on record and in concert, marred by internal political struggles between the conductor and the board of directors, as well as the press and the orchestra. His spare, severe spiritual demeanor (his definitive biography is entitled Priest of Music}) made him seem very monkish, in a job that required the social skills of a diplomat. Additionally, although it was never spoken of at the time, Mitropoulos'} homosexuality precluded his private life being delved into beyond the most cursory examination -- published profiles at the time describe a severe, priest-like self-denial, and otherwise presented Mitropoulos} as a complete cypher off the podium. (His successor, Leonard Bernstein}, was also homosexual -- he and Mitropoulos} had even had an affair in the late '30s -- but had the cover of a marriage and family, and an outgoing, exuberant personality to protect him from any rumors, which would have been devastating in the social climate of the 1950s).

The Philharmonic's} situation in the 1930s, 1940s, and early '50s was further complicated by the continued presence in New York of Arturo Toscanini}, in a very public musical role.

From the 1920s until his retirement in 1954, Toscanini} was the most well-known conductor in the world, and he automatically attracted audiences, press coverage, and critical raves wherever he was based. And after leaving the New York Philharmonic} in 1936, he didn't leave New York -- rather, Toscanini} became the conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra}, an ensemble organized specifically for him. It was primarily a radio and recording orchestra (though it did make concert appearances on occasion), but the NBC Symphony} was a de facto rival to the Philharmonic}. Its radio broadcasts, heralded by both the NBC publicity operation, got greater exposure than that of the Philharmonic}, especially among more casual listeners. Additionally, the NBC Symphony} attracted many of the best musicians in New York, because its members were paid far more than those of the Philharmonic}. And when television came along in the mid-'40s, the NBC Symphony's} hand-in-glove relationship with the NBC network brought it to into the new medium almost immediately, and with massive exposure.

The Philharmonic} had appeared on the radio since 1922, and its concerts were still important -- much repertory that was never formally recorded by the orchestra was presented during these broadcasts -- but never as visible as those of the NBC Symphony}. The situation with recording wasn't much different. The Philharmonic} had an exclusive relationship with the Columbia Masterworks label since the 1920s under Mengelberg}, but with a few exceptions, its postwar records didn't sell as well as those by the Philadelphia Orchestra}, the Chicago Symphony}, or the Boston Symphony}.

The advent of the long-playing record in 1948 helped all classical music sales, but the Philharmonic} under Mitropoulos} never sold as many records as Toscanini's} NBC Symphony} recordings on RCA Victor, despite the fact that the latter were notorious for their harsh, dry acoustic, or as many records as Eugene Ormandy} and the Philadelphia Orchestra} during the same period. It was only with Toscanini's} retirement in 1954 that the Philharmonic} lost this longtime rival for New York and national audiences.

The real turning point for the Philharmonic} came in 1957 with the appointment of Leonard Bernstein} as Music Director of the orchestra. Not yet 40 years old, and American born, and a composer as well as a conductor (something the Philharmonic} had not had since Gustav Mahler}) with a reputation for daring but not outrageous showmanship and ambitious programming, Bernstein} added a degree of elegance and a flair for publicity that the orchestra had lacked since Toscanini's} era.

His approach to music-making, though not universally praised, raised the orchestra to new prominence. His interpretations of the standard repertory were always exciting, if not always very deep or profound. Additionally, his arrival at the Philharmonic} coincided with Columbia Records' switch to stereo recording. Thus, Bernstein} was obliged -- and Columbia was more than happy to do the obliging -- to re-record the entire mainstream classical repertory from Beethoven} to Wagner}.

The results were spectacular, at least at first, on a commercial level. The Philharmonic's} records began selling in ever larger quantities as a new generation of listeners and concertgoers were drawn to the charismatic Bernstein}. Where Mitropoulos} had been a highly mystical, spiritual figure at the podium, Bernstein's} music making at his most involved achieved an almost sexual ecstacy (although it was never defined as such during that more reserved era) that radiated through the playing and into the concert hall.

And then there was the concert hall.

The New York Philharmonic's} performing home for decades had been Carnegie Hall. But in the late '50s, planning had begun for a huge new complex devoted to the performing arts on the West Side of Manhattan, called Lincoln Center. Opened in 1963, the complex included a splendid new performing home for the orchestra called Philharmonic (later Avery Fisher) Hall. Bernstein} was the first of the orchestra's chief conductors to lead the orchestra from the new hall and, indeed, with the exception of Barbirolli}, was the only one of its chief conductors from the pre-Lincoln Center era to live to see Lincoln Center opened.

Bernstein} and the Philharmonic} also became fixtures on national television, thanks to Columbia Records' relationship at the time to the CBS network (the two entities have had separate ownership since the end of the 1980s) and to his flair for showmanship and his considerable skills as a teacher and musical emissary. Nowhere did these abilities serve him or the public better than in the Young Peoples' Concerts, which Bernstein} wrote, hosted, and conducted from 1958 thru 1969 in a series of 47 broadcasts. Intended for audiences ages seven through 17, these performances by the Philharmonic}, first at Carnegie Hall and later at Lincoln Center, introduced millions of viewers of all ages to the world of classical music in a manner that was lively, informative, and distinctly unthreatening, covering everything from Bach} to Bartok}.

By the mid-'60s, Bernstein} was the pre-eminent conductor in the United States and the best known American conductor in the world, while the Philharmonic} was the pride of the entire nation's musical community, which was growing by leaps and bounds. The orchestra's season was expanded, along with the number of concerts, and employment at the Philharmonic} was, for the first time, a year-round responsibility, all accompanied by generous increases in the musicians' salaries. Additionally, under Bernstein's} direction, the Philharmonic} became celebrated for various repertory -- in particular, he brought to fruition the Mahler} revival started by Walter} and Mitropoulos}, and received critical raves for his performances of the Haydn} symphonies with the Philharmonic}. The Philharmonic} also became known as an important force in contemporary music, especially for its presentation of new works by American composers.

The 13 years of Bernstein's} tenure was the high point of the orchestra's visibility and popularity. The only obvious negative event to transpire during this era was the end, in 1967, of the Philharmonic's} radio broadcasts, which had started in 1922 (these resumed in 1975). In 1969, however, weary from his duties with the New York Philharmonic} and feeling he could go no farther with them, and with virtually every major orchestra in the world eagerly beckoning, Bernstein} announced his retirement as Music Director, effective with the end of the 1969-70 season.

No departure since the exit of Toscanini} in 1936 had left the orchestra or its audience at a greater loss. For many younger listeners, Leonard Bernstein} was the New York Philharmonic}, and for many listeners nobody would be able to fill his shoes.

His successor, Pierre Boulez}, was a daring choice -- indeed, Boulez's} selection showed how much the music world had changed since the days when Bernstein} had been chosen back in 1956. In those days, Bernstein} was considered a radical choice for his relative youth, his aspirations as a composer, and the fact that he was still learning much of the repertory that he would be expected to conduct on a regular basis.

Boulez}, who succeeded Bernstein} in 1970, was far better known as an avant-garde composer than as a conductor. He had relatively little familiarity with the standard orchestral repertory, and the concertgoing public had relatively little familiarity with him, except as one of the those contempoary composers that critics were always raving about.

Boulez} was able to grow into the role of a mainstream conductor, however, and ultimately came to excell at the podium. He also devoted a considerable amount the orchestra's programming to new twentieth century works from all over the globe. His concerts were very popular, selling out regularly, and his record sales, although not as spectacular as those of Bernstein} in the early and mid-'60s (and even Bernstein's} sales had begun slackening off before the end of the decade), were respectable.

But Boulez} was as concerned with composing as he was with conducting, and the demands of the Philharmonic} position left relatively little time for composition. His departure came with the end of the 1977-78 season, and he was replaced by Zubin Mehta}, a charismatic conductor who had previously been music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic}.

Mehta's} tenure coincided with a downturn in the orchestra's fortunes. The sales for the Philharmonic's} recordings plummeted at the end of the 1970s, amid a period of increasing production costs, which ultimately led to the termination of the orchestra's longtime exclusive relationship with Columbia Masterworks. Additionally, other orchestras, most notably the Chicago Symphony Orchestra} under Sir Georg Solti}, began to challenge the Philharmonic's} reputation as the best that America had to offer.

Part of the problem lay with the legacy that Mehta} was competing with, not only Boulez} and Bernstein}, but Mitropoulos} and Walter}, all of whom were well represented in the Columbia Records back catalog, often on very competitively priced budget classical albums. He also had the misfortune to have begun recording with the Philharmonic} in the late '70s, during a period when the market for mainstream repertory was completely saturated; and unlike Bernstein's} arrival with the orchestra, which had coincided with the advent of stereo phonographs, there was no compelling new technical innovation to compel people to buy the new records. Adding to the problem was that Mehta's} interpretations of the core Classical and Romantic repertories, from Haydn} thru Mahler}, were simply never very popular, at least compared with those of his predecessors.

The New York Philharmonic} did occasionally raise excitement, but more often than not, it was on those occasions when Bernstein} -- who had been appointed Conductor Emeritus for life, returned to conduct a program or make a recording, such as parts of his new Mahler} symphonic cycle for Deutsche Grammophon records. Those recordings reveal an orchestra that played splendidly. The dawn of the compact disc era saw a new wave of record sales, although the Philharmonic's} older recordings under Bernstein} and Walter} often elicited greater interest than their new ones.

Beginning with the 1991-92 season, German conductor Kurt Masur} became the Music Director of the Philharmonic. The start of Masur's} tenure with the orchestra coincided with the 150th anniversary of its founding, a year-long celebration that saw attendance rise and public and critical enthusiasm for the Philharmonic} rise once again. New programming initiatives, including concerts scheduled earlier in the evening to meet the needs of younger executives, helped bring the orchestra's work to a wider audience. A recording contract with the Teldec label also led to several superb recordings, including brilliantly played renditions of the Dvorak} Symphonies Nos. 8} and 9}, although, as with most American orchestras in the 1990s, the sales of the Philharmonic's} new recordings pales in comparison to their older releases.

Additionally, Masur} has earned the loyalty of the Philharmonic's} musicians, not always an easy achievement amid the tensions that can exist in a modern orchestra (neither Barbirolli} nor Mitropoulos} ever had it), which is borne out in their performances and recordings. The orchestra, whose reputation was battered during the 1980s, is now ranked among the finest in the world, and is increasingly compared favorably with the Berlin Philharmonic}.

The New York Philharmonic} heads toward its 160th year of its existence in somewhat better financial and artistic condition than many of its American rivals -- in an era of declining government subsidies for the arts, and the rapidly aging demographics of concertgoers, no classical music institution in America is ever in very good condition, but the Philharmonic's} budget has been balanced for most of the 1990s, its endowment fund is the largest of any orchestra in the country, and its concerts have an average attendance level of 94 percent of capacity, with over 300,000 tickets sold in a typical season. It maintains a very high reputation as an ensemble and a healthy level of audience and community involvement. It continues to strike a careful balance between newly commissioned works by contemporary composers and established parts of the repertory. ~ Bruce Eder

NOTE: The number of notable and worthwhile recordings by the New York Philharmonic} is too great to list, ranging all the way from the orchestra's 1922 recording of Richard Strauss'} Ein Heldenleben} under Willem Mengelberg} to Kurt Masur's} 1990s performances of the Dvorak} symphonies. The list below is only a small smattering of the highlights.

Beethoven Symphony No. 7 (Legato Classics) [7] (Walter cond.)

Berlioz Symphony Fantastique (Sony Classical) [8] (Mitropoulos cond.)

Dvorak Symphony No. 8 (Teldec) [7] (Masur cond.)

Symphony No. 9 (Teldec) [8] (Masur cond.)

Haydn Paris Symphonies (Sony Classical) [7] (Bernstein cond.)

Mahler Symphony No. 2 (Sony Classical) [8] (Walter cond.)

Symphony No. 4 (Sony Classical) [6] (Walter cond.)

Symphony No. 5 (Sony Classical) [7] (Walter cond.)

Symphony No. 3 (Sony Classical) [8] (Bernstein cond.)

Symphony No. 3 (Deutsche Grammophon) [8] (Bernstein cond.)

Symphony No. 7 (Sony Classical) [7] (Bernstein cond.)

Symphony No. 7 (Deutsche Grammophon) [8] (Bernstein cond.)

Symphony No. 9 (Sony Classical) [7] (Bernstein cond.)

Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3 (Columbia Masterworks) [7] (Mitropoulos cond.)

Mozart Symphonies 36-41 (Sony Classical) [7] (Walter cond.)

Schumann Symphony No. 1 (Sony Classical) [7] (Bernstein cond.)

Strauss Ein Heldenleben (Biddulph) [6] (Mengelberg cond.)

Stravinsky Rite of Spring (Sony Classical) [8] (Bernstein cond.), All Music Guide

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