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75 Years of the Philharmonia Orchestra

Esa-Pekka Salonen, credit Camilla Greenwell

Ahead of the opening of our 75th anniversary year in 2020, read about the history of the Philharmonia in this feature from the concert programme of one of our upcoming concerts.

The Philharmonia Orchestra was founded by impresario and record producer Walter Legge in 1945.

During the Second World War, Legge had worked with the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), providing entertainment for Allied troops. London’s permanent symphony orchestras had suffered at this time, and Legge felt confident that he could establish a new, exceptional ensemble. His aims were ambitious: to bring together first-rate musicians capable of rivalling any European orchestra; to ensure that every musician was of such high calibre that people would deem it a privilege to join the orchestra; that the Philharmonia should have style, rather than “a style”.

Legge drew upon his contacts at ENSA to bring together musicians serving in the armed forces. The Philharmonia Orchestra gave its first concert on 25 October 1945, with Sir Thomas Beecham conducting – for the fee of one cigar. Alongside a busy recording schedule, the Orchestra gave a number of pivotal concerts: Richard Strauss conducted the Philharmonia in 1947, with the world premiere of his Four Last Songs following in 1950, directed by Wilhelm Furtwängler. Since 1948, Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan had conducted the Orchestra for concerts and recordings, many of which were funded by the Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar of Mysore.

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Philharmonia at 75

Interview with Esa-Pekka Salonen

The Philharmonia Sound

Karajan continued to work with the Orchestra in the 1950s, including a European tour in 1952 during which the conductor encouraged the musicians to display “exceptional qualities of tone, aristocracy and vitality”. Violinist Joseph Szigeti added that the Orchestra’s sound demonstrated “all the qualities of perfect chamber-music playing raised to the power of a great symphony orchestra”. Arturo Toscanini was so impressed that he offered to come to London to conduct the Philharmonia; two concerts followed at the newly-completed Royal Festival Hall, where the Orchestra regularly performs to this day.

In 1957 Otto Klemperer was made the Philharmonia’s first permanent conductor. The Observer referred to the Philharmonia as “our best orchestra” at this time, a reputation that continued well into the 1960s. Even so, Legge attempted to disband the Orchestra, believing that its heyday was over. The musicians had other ideas and ensured that the ensemble survived independently, with Klemperer continuing to conduct the Philharmonia until he retired from the concert platform in January 1970.

From Strength to Strength

Riccardo Muti’s appointment as Chief Conductor in 1973 heralded a new era for the Philharmonia. Since then, the Orchestra has gone from strength to strength, forging new relationships including a number of long-standing regional residencies alongside its residency here at Southbank Centre. Esa-Pekka Salonen succeeded Christoph von Dohnányi as Principal Conductor in 2008, presenting artistically integrated series and groundbreaking digital projects with the Orchestra. His mantle has recently been taken up by Santtu-Matias Rouvali, with whom the Philharmonia looks set to enjoy a bright future when he takes over the role at the start of the 2021/22 season, building on those attributes first established 75 years ago: performing with chamber-like intimacy on a large scale, and doing so with style.

Programme notes and Feature by Joanna Wyld © Philharmonia Orchestra/Joanna Wyld

Our 75th Birthday celebrations commence in January with two concerts on 16 January and 19 January, 7.30pm at Royal Festival Hall.