Three names, seven principal conductors, 70 years of tradition: but numbers alone do not do justice to Berlin's Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester's colorful history.
Berlin's Philharmonie concert hall enjoyed a mighty celebration on Sunday with honorary conductor Kent Nagano leading the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester (DSO) and star pianist Mikhail Pletnev in Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54, as well as Arnold Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony, Joseph Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante and La Valse by Maurice Ravel.
This mixed program marking DSO's 70th anniversary reflected the orchestra's traditional vein, but what was missing was contemporary music - something in which the group has excelled at over the years.
The history of a name
The orchestra has had three different names during its history. It was founded on November 15, 1946 as the RIAS Symphony Orchestra - "RIAS" standing for "Radio in the American Sector." American occupying forces aimed to use that broadcaster as a balancing force to the Soviet-controlled Berliner Rundfunk.
However, in the 1950s, the United States cut off RIAS funding. Sender Freies Berlin (Radio Free Berlin), which is now known as rbb, then got on board. The orchestra was thus crowned Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.
Following German reunification in 1990, Berlin suddenly had two radio symphony orchestras. The orchestra based in the Western part of the city again received a new name - the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester - to reflect a reunited Germany. The orchestra in the former East part of the city was then called Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin.
Orchestra for the radio
Germany is home to nine different radio symphony orchestras, which are partially or fully financed through the radio fees charged to every German household for public media usage.
The radio orchestra tradition actually began in 1923, when Leipzig's broadcaster founded an orchestra that was to play all the music interludes required on the radio - from jingles to symphonies.
Soon, nearly every broadcaster had its own orchestra. Over time, the orchestras focused more on creating studio recordings and performing live concerts. An additional element was added to the orchestras' repertoires following World War II: music by composers who were restricted or even banned under the Nazi regime was to be given more time in the spotlight. That is just what Ferenc Fricsay, DSO's first conductor, did in 1948.
The young American star conductor Lorin Maazel took up DSO's reins in 1964, following Fricsay's early death in 1963. Tenures by Riccardo Chailly and Vladimir Ashkenazy followed from 1982-1989 and 1989-2000, respectively.
When American Kent Nagano took over DSO in 2000, Berlin newspaper "Der Tagesspiegel" called his first season an "explosive charge" and described the orchestra's sound as "sensual and passionate, spontaneous and unmistakable…a captivating mixture of glamour and serenity."
In an interview with DW in 2002, Nagano likewise praised his musicians, saying "It's an unbelievable orchestra with a strong will, massive dedication to music, and of course a very individual sound, full of iridescent color and striking virtuosity."
Ingo Metzmacher took the batton following Nagano's departure in 2006. This first and sole German conductor in the history of the orchestra introduced the Casual Concerts series, which was geared toward a new group of listeners.
Yet Metzmacher's era lasted only three years; he quit in 2010 in protest of budget cuts. Two years later, the desired candidate Tugan Sokhiev, a Russian, took up the lead. The press responded favorably to Sokhiev as well. "A conductor of radiant intelligence who reacts immediately to the music and compellingly to his orchestra," the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper wrote.
When Sokhiev accepted the post of musical director of the renowned Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 2014, it was evident that DSO had to find a successor. Robin Ticciati, an English conductor with Italian roots, will take up the conductorship in September 2017.
Since the aim of any radio symphony orchestra is be in the media limelight, Deutschlandradio Kultur and rbb's Kulturradio (the culture programs of two main public broadcasters) record DSO's symphony concerts. Deutsche Welle also distributes selected concerts globally. The DW series Classical Masterpieces with Kent Nagano and the DSO on DVD has received numerous prizes.
The Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin received a Grammy Award in 2011 for the world's first recording of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's opera "L'amour de loin" under Kent Nagano.
A publicly sponsored orchestra does not have to worry foremost about numbers of listeners. It can try to polish its reputation in lesser-known areas of the repertory.
Yet even if the DSO has always stood in the shadow of the much more famous Berlin Philharmonic and is one of five symphony orchestras in the capital city, it still attracted a record number of visitors in the 2015/16 season: 76,000 listeners and nearly 85 percent of seat tickets sold.