American prestige: The history of the New York Philharmonic
Editor’s note: This story first ran in the summer edition of Luxury magazine.
OK, we’ll admit it.
When the New York Philharmonic comes to town to cap the Bravo! Vail festival each summer, many come because it is THE New York Philharmonic. It’s as much of a social event as a concert — to see and be seen. We’re fine with that because people-watching is an essential part of the concert-going experience.
Yet it is also the fact that it is THE New York Philharmonic that attracts the music enthusiast. Truth be told, it’s not a matter of the New York Philharmonic playing “better” than the festival’s two other residents, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra or The Philadelphia Orchestra. Ninety-nine percent of listeners aren’t in a position to make said judgment, this author included.
It is the history of the New York Philharmonic and the physical manifestation of that tradition that makes the arrival of our nation’s oldest orchestra in Vail of all places notable.
As established as the New York Philharmonic is, it’s been avant-garde in its time, premiering new works and revitalizing composers. And then there is the ancestral line of conductors, a who’s who of musical history.
December 7, 1842 — A date that will not live in infamy. Imagine that — 99 years before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the New York Philharmonic makes its debut with Beethoven’s Fifth. This is the first time those epic opening chords, probably the best-recognized notes in all of classical music, are played on American soil. Of course, the Fifth is only 34 years old at this point, and Beethoven himself had died just 15 years ago. The Philharmonic, four years later, debuts Beethoven’s Ninth as well.
May 5, 1891 — The Philharmonic performs its first concert in what will eventually be known as Carnegie Hall. One of the conductors for the occasion? Tchaikovsky. (He apparently practiced enough to get to Carnegie Hall. Sorry, too easy.) By the way, the New York Philharmonic plays the Russian’s Fifth Symphony in its opening concert on July 19. Also in that decade, the orchestra had the American premiere of Dvorak’s Ninth. (Dvorak is this year’s Bravo! Vail’s immersion composer. Dallas plays the Ninth June 30. New York plays his Cello Concert on Friday and his Eighth July 25.)
December 3, 1925 — The Philharmonic plays something called “Piano Concerto in F,” by someone named George Gershwin. This is just a sliver of the role the orchestra plays in American music. The orchestra also debuts such seminal American works as “An American in Paris,” Copland’s “Rodeo Suite,” and “Appalachian Spring.” Back to Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” fellow composer Sergei Prokofiev panned the work as being too jazzy. That is the pot calling the kettle black, people.
October 5, 1930 — The New York Philharmonic performs its first radio concert on CBS. The conductor for that performance was Erich Kleiber. The Sunday radio concerts become a staple. Cool trivia here is that the Philharmonic was broadcasting Brahms’ “Second Symphony,” 99 years to the date of its founding, when CBS News broke into the performance to announce the Pearl Harbor attack.
At the baton
Mass media and a symphony orchestra? The name Arturo Toscanini generally comes to mind. Toscanini, of course, led the New York Philharmonic from 1926-1936. He was a part of the revolutionary — and it was — fusion of the symphony and radio and later on went onto lead NBC Symphony Orchestra from 1937-1954 on something called television.
One of the most-notable conductors of the 20th Century, Toscanini is part of a chain of celebrated leaders of the New York Philharmonic.
Ureli Corieli Hill was the first with Beethoven’s Fifth. Theodore Thomas led the New York Philharmonic from 1879-1891, leaving to found the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Big Five — New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston and Philadelphia — orchestras are linked in so many ways, as we will see.
Mahler served from 1909 until his death in 1911. While his influence with the Philharmonic wouldn’t be seen until nearly 50 years later, he certainly isn’t the only composer to take the baton.
Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Strauss, Ravel, Bernstein, Stravinsky and Copland all have been guest-conductors of the New York Philharmonic.
With the birth of the recording industry, the Philharmonic’s leaders under various titles from musical directors to advisors to co-principal conductors have emerged as celebrities.
Like Mahler before him Bruno Walter (1947-1949) fled Europe because of its anti-Semitism. Leopold Stokowski (1949-1950) actually didn’t take the baton from Walter. He conducted without one. Likely better known for his tenure with the orchestra, Stokowski was hugely influential in interpreting — a diplomatic way of saying rewriting — traditional works. This caused consternation among his critics, but then Stokowski was known as a autocrat for a reason.
Demitri Metropoulos (1951-1958) not only brought a classical repertoire to the Philharmonic, but also was a huge influence in the world of opera. After leading the Philharmonic, Metropoulos lead the Metropolitan Opera.
During his tenure, Metropoulos made the bold decision to stage Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. After his death in 1911 and the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the world, capped by Nazi Germany, Mahler was not in the regular rotation of most symphonies. (It also helped that long-play, or LP, records had finally been invented to hold longer stretches of the composer’s work.)
Leonard Bernstein (1958-1969) took it from there. He revived Mahler for the centennial of the composer’s death, bringing his symphonic cycle back into favor. (Many future New York Philharmonic leaders would end up recording all of Mahler’s symphonies, essentially making the composer an adopted son of the Orchestra.)
Bernstein, who studied at Tanglewood, the music festival of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, left his mark on the Philharmonic in many ways whether through televised lectures or the “Young Persons” concert series. And, of course, there were his compositions — “Candide,” “West Side Story” and the “Jeremiah” Symphony, to name a few.
George Szell (1969-1970), better known for his 29 years with the Cleveland Orchestra, followed as a strict interpreter. Pierre Boulez (1971-1977) was similar to Szell in that fashion, but completely different in every other aspect. If it was new or different, Boulez did it, much to the chagrin of audiences who prefer tradition.
Zubin Mehta (1978-1991, the longest tenure of any Philharmonic leader) and Kurt Masur (1991-2002) brought the orchestra into the 21st Century.
The New York Philharmonic was in Europe for 9/11. Just nine days later, the orchestra reassembled at Avery Fisher Hall to perform Brahms’ “German Requiem” with no applause at the end by request of Masur.
In a loop back to its Mahler roots, the orchestra performed the composer’s Second Symphony, “Resurrection,” after the Kennedy assassination in 1963 and for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in 2011.
Alan Gilbert (2009-present) followed Lorin Maazel (2002-2009), who brought the orchestra to North Korea for the first time in 2008. Gilbert is the first native New Yorker to head the Philharmonic.