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Philharmonia Orchestra
Philharmonia  Biography
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The Philharmonia Orchestra - History

The Philharmonia Orchestra was the brainchild of the remarkable idealist Walter Legge. During the 1930s he had been the highly successful initiator and producer of a series of specialist recordings for EMI called the Society sets, in which internationally prestigious performers particularly associated with certain composers recorded their works, sometimes in their entirety, for limited edition releases avaliable by subscription. These Society sets give a revealing indication of music that was considered of 'specialist' interest for record buyers at that time. They included Bach's Suites for unaccompanied cello played by Pablo Casals; Beethoven's 32 Piano Sonatas played by Artur Schnabel; Haydn's Quartets played by the Pro Arte Quartet; Music by Delius conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham; Mahler's Ninth Symphony conducted by Bruno Walter; Mozart's operas Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni, and Le nozze di Figaro recorded by the Glyndebourne Opera Company; Sibelius Symphonies and tone poems conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Thomas Beecham, Robert Kajanus, Serge Koussevitsky, and George Schneevoigt; Schubert's song cycles Die Schöne Mullerin and Winterreise sung by Gerard Husch; and songs by Wolf recorded by, amongst others, Alexander Kipnis and Elisabeth Rethberg.

The nature of Legge's intentions and the level of his success with his Society recordings give the clue to his vision of the Philharmonia Orchestra and its success. The Society sets were aimed at a discriminating public and were remarkable for the consistent participation of top international performers famed for their mastery of the music. This was the kind of public Legge had in mind for a top quality new orchestra, which would perform with a remarkably consistent selection of top international conductors and soloists. At a time when performing standards were rising dramatically, Walter Legge dreamed of creating this new orchestra that could be specially subsidised to attract all the finest players available. Legge himself would handpick these players, and the orchestra would become the most sophisticated, virtuoso and disciplined ensemble of its time. It would work as regularly as possible with the most sought after conductors and soloists alive. It would have versatility as well as virtuosity - as Legge was to state, it must have style, not a style.

Legge began contemplating this idea during the Second World War, and it was at this time that he first used the name Philharmonia when he formed a string quartet. He called this the Philharmonia Quartet taking the name Philharmonia from the publishing company that produced an edition of Mozart's B flat Hunt Quartet which was the first work they recorded. When the War finished in 1945 the historical time and social situation in Britain were ideally propitious for Legge to develop his vision of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Post war euphoria created a rare openness and willingness to back new artistic initiatives, and in fact Legge was the first of three remarkable impressarios to take advantage of this when he formed his Philharmonia Orchestra. The other two were Sir Thomas Beecham and David (later Sir David) Webster who founded the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Covent Garden Opera (later Royal Opera) respectively in 1946 (Sir Thomas was of course also one of the most powerful and internationally admired conductors of the century). Like Beecham and Webster, Legge had exceptional acumen for recognising artistic talent and creating the financial and managerial conditions within which to build his ideal artistic company, which, like them, he would autocratically control. As always with ambitious new ventures, the procurement of larger than usual subsidies was a fundamental necessity, and Legge astutely found the bulk, though not all, of this through offering his new idea to EMI, where he was a senior producer. He suggested that by an exclusive association with EMI's recording programme this new 'Rolls-Royce' orchestra would guarantee EMI the highest quality and most marketable classical music recordings by attracting the very most sought after artists of the time.The Orchestra would be made available whenever EMI and Legge required, since, being Legge's own 'property' he as an EMI employee would automatically grant its services to the recording company. In return EMI, at this time when the recording industry was expanding and booming, would guarantee a minimum quantity of recording sessions to the Philharmonia Orchestra that would enable it to provide a higher than usual income for its members. A few times each year the Orchestra would appear in public playing gala concerts mainly with just the very most prestigious conductors and soloists of the time.

Legge's artistic altruism was supported by his business brilliance, and his vision became a reality. The Philharmonia Orchestra was founded in 1945 as a body of players specially selected from the finest orchestral musicians available in England, including experienced masters of their instruments and brilliant young artists. Initially the Philharmonia was formed as a house recording orchestra for EMI, but before long it became the special "club class" organisation Legge had envisaged, recording with prestigious artists and giving a select number of gala concerts with some of the most sought after artists in the world. Legge's unusual insight into artistic quality, his remarkable ability to attract and satisfy the demands of great conductors and soloists, and his outstanding business acumen made his dream a reality, and quickly the Philharmonia Orchestra became one of the most famous virtuoso orchestras in the world with a tremendous reputation. In its early days it attracted famous conductors such as Wilhelm Furtwangler, Richard Strauss, Arturo Toscanini, Guido Cantelli and Herbert von Karajan, who became its principal conductor in reality if not in name. Soloists included legendary artists like Dinu Lipatti, Artur Schnabel, Kirsten Flagstad and Jascha Heifetz. The Orchestra itself included players who became world famous such as Dennis Brain, Manoug Parikian, Gareth Morris and Reginald Kell. It set a standard in sonority, intonation, balance and discipline that has been handed down through successive Philharmonia generations ever since. An interesting feature was the inclusion of a good number of women at a time when some London orchestras (the London Philharmonic, and London Symphony, and when it was founded the next year the Royal Philharmonic) mainly refused to employ them. They and their male colleagues produced the famous glowing bloom of the Philharmonia string sound, which continues today.

Gradually the Philharmonia Orchestra's concert appearances increased and they were invited to perform at some of the most prestigious musical centres and Festivals of the world such as Vienna, Lucerne, Edinburgh and New York. A milestone was the tour of the United States with Herbert von Karajan in 1955.

From its inception until 1964 the Philharmonia Orchestra was entirely controlled by Walter Legge and a small administrative staff under his direction. However by 1964 Legge had lost the exclusive financial, artistic and programming control in London that he had once enjoyed and unilaterally he decided to suspend the orchestra using every possible device he could think of to prevent it continuing under alternative direction. There were two main reasons for his decisions. First of all, already by the early 1960s the first signs of a dwindling market for classical music recordings meant that less recording sessions for the Orchestra were available from EMI. Consequently Legge was having to increase the Orchestra's concert giving, sometimers with less than his ideal artists, in order to keep his top players on a high income. Secondly, the Royal Festival Hall and the Greater London Council were about to introduce a scheme in which the Hall's programming would be driven by a management committee to which senior executives of three (later four) London orchestras would belong, including the Philharmonia. Legge could not contemplate belonging to a committee that represented other orchestras as well as his own. That would be a fundamental refutation of the entire ethos and identity of the Philharmonia Orchestra as an exclusive and indeed superior organisation. Ostentatiously, as he claimed in his press statement in March 1964, Walter Legge could no longer maintain the standard of the Philharmonia Orchestra in the then present climate. In fact the orchestra was still as outstanding as it had always been, and the reality was that Legge decided to close it down because he could no longer control its life and fortunes in the way that once been possible.

The Philharmonia Orchestra could well have ceased to exist in 1964 had it not been for the remarkable initiative of the players. The Orchestra decided it must continue, and an emergency meeting of all the players was called by some prominent members. Mindful that the London Symphony Orchestra had been run as a self-governing orchestra body since its foundation in 1904, the London Philharmonic Orchestra had become a self-governing players' cooperative when Sir Thomas Beecham deserted them in 1940, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra had become self-governing just the previous year in 1963, a unanimous vote was taken to find all possible means to keep the Philharmonia alive as a self-managed co--operative. Notwithstanding the enormous new responsibilities for the players to find funding, attract top artists and handle complex day-to-day administration, before anything could be considered there remained the obstacle Legge had created by attempting to prevent anyone using the name Philharmonia, which he claimed he wholly owned. In fact one of the violinists, Andrew Babynchuk, recognised that Legge had not thought of the title New Philharmonia Orchestra amongst the many forbidden names he had cited in his dissolution document. It is probable that had this title not been conceived, the orchestra would not have been able to use the vital name Philharmonia. It is also very likely that had the players not formed themselves into a co-operative to run their artistic and financial affairs the orchestra would have terminated. There was little if any likelihood of finding a sole impressario, patron or commercial company that could take the responsibility of arranging the lion's share of funding for a new orchestra, which would certainly not be able to survive only on public subsidies that might be available.

Much to Walter Legge's consternation, in April 1964 the Board of Trade accepted that the New Philharmonia Orchestra be constituted and registered. No players from the Philharmonia Orchestra left and effectively the New Philharmonia Orchestra was the same ensemble as the famous Philharmonia. A Council of Management was elected by the players, with Bernard Walton as the first Chairman. They engaged Barrie Iliffe as their first General Manager, employed by the Orchestra to work with the Council on the orchestra's behalf - a very different position from that of Walter Legge, who had owned the Orchestra. A vital and major achievement by the New Philharmonia Orchestra was the securing of support from Otto Klemperer, whose association with the Philharmonia had been one of the highlights of London's musical life for nearly a decade. Indeed Walter Legge had made Klemperer Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, recognising his great influence and reputation. When the Orchestra decided to continue on its own steam in 1964, Klemperer immediately threw his weight behind them and accepted responsibilities as the Principal Conductor and Honorary President. Carlo Maria Giulini also agreed to conduct many of their concerts, as he had been doing to great international acclaim for several years. Walter Legge was outraged and never forgave Klemperer or Giulini for doing this to the day he died. He felt his 'children' had betrayed him. In fact they were instrumental in helping to keep the great Philharmonia alive when its 'father' wanted it to die.

Quickly the New Philharmonia Orchestra established itself with the very credentials that had made the Philharmonia so famous since its inception: magnificent playing with many of the very most sought after conductors and soloists of the time, who were now being engaged under the auspices of the Orchestra itself rather than Walter Legge's Philharmonia Concert Society Ltd. A major highlight of the early years was the visit in 1965 of Igor Stravinsky to conduct his Fireworks Fantasia and the 1945 suite from his ballet The Firebird. Recalling the unique atmosphere of the concert Richard Strauss had conducted with the Philharmonia in 1948, it was the last time Stravinsky conducted in Britain, and the quality of playing was hailed as exceptional even by Philharmonia standards.

The Orchestra's great success was now entirely due to the players themselves, as not only were they continuing to maintain their outstanding standards, they were also managing all their financial and artistic affairs themselves, including matters concerning orchestral personnel, guest conductors and soloists and, of course, funding.

However, during the late 1960s and early 1970s the New Philharmonia Orchestra began to experience considerable financial and artistic difficulties. This was partly due to the changing economic and social climate, in which public subsidies for the arts were being reduced and pressure to reduce the number of orchestras in London were making fundraising even harder than normal. But it was also because the Orchestra faced direct competition with the other London self-governing orchestras and was no longer protected by the buttress of recordings that Walter Legge had provided through EMI. Key players began to leave to accept more lucrative posts elsewhere, and playing standards began to decline in comparison with previous years. Although Otto Klemperer's influence continued, it was realised that at his very advanced age there would have to be a change in the Orchestra's direction before long, and in early 1972 he retired, ending an era and forcing the New Philharmonia Orchestra to find a new direction for its survival.

In December 1972 a young Italian conductor made his British debut conducting the New Philharmonia Orchestra in a concert at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon. The most auspicious appearance of Riccardo Muti was a watershed in the Orchestra's life. Within a short space of time he was elected the Orchestra's Principal Conductor, and later Music Director, and his presence with the Orchestra for the next eleven years strongly influenced their recovery to a pre-eminent position as of one of the world's greatest orchestras once again. Lorin Maazel, who for a time had been the Orchestra's Associate Principal Conductor, was later to re-emerge as another major influence in the New Philharmonia's success.

In 1977 the New Philharmonia Orchestra was able to purchase back the Orchestra's original title as the Philharmonia Orchestra, which in fact had been sold in 1972 to the conductor Ling Tung. The General Manager of the New Philharmonia at this time was Gavin Henderson, who was having to take on a far more active and dynamic role than his predecessor both as fundraiser and programme planner with the Council in order to help attract the finest conductors and soloists. His success ensured artistic stability for the Philharmonia who now enjoyed regular visits from conductors such as Seiji Ozawa, Lorin Maazel, Bernard Haitink and a very young Simon Rattle, who had made a very impressive Royal Festival Hall debut conducting the Orchestra in 1976.

Giuseppe Sinopoli became the Philharmonia Orchestra's new Principal Conductor in 1984, heading a controversial but impressive period in the Orchestra's history. During this time, in 1987, the Orchestra engaged David Whelton as their Managing Director. During his tenure the Orchestra has benefited enormously from his innovative programme planning, extensive corporate fundraising and dynamic business plans for major residencies in London at the Royal Festival Hall, Paris at the Chatelet Theatre, Bedford at the Corn Exchange, and Leicester at the De Montford Hall. In today's perilous economic climate for the arts, the Managing Director of a self-governing London orchestra has far wider and more complex responsibilities than previously, and even though the Philharmonia Orchestra receives public subsidies through the Arts Council, its basic existence depends on far more than this increasingly diminutive funding can provide.

Before Giuseppe Sinopoli's resignation in 1994 the Philharmonia Orchestra had begun to form close associations with some of the top conductors of our time, including Christoph von Dohnanyi, James Levine, Leonard Slatkin, Esa Pekka Salonen, Yevgeni Svetlanov and Kurt Sanderling. These major artists continue their happy, close relationships with the Orchestra, who appointed Christoph von Dohnanyi as their new Principal Conductor in 1997. With him and their guest conductors and soloists the Philharmonia Orchestra is now at the height of its powers with brilliant young players joining outstanding experienced members to continue the great Philharmonia tradition and spearhead important new developments, such as contemporary music festivals with Esa Pekka Salonen and other themed music festivals with Leonard Slatkin. The Philharmonia Orchestra is enjoying its international reputation as one of the greatest virtuoso and artistic orchestras in the world.

Jon Tolansky

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