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Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra brings Old World tradition to US

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra has 268 years of experience under its belt. Its seven-city tour through the leading concert halls in the US this month is backed by Old World tradition - but may hold a few surprises too.

Conductor Riccardo Chailly

Italian conductor Riccardo Chailly has been with LGO since 2005

When the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (LGO) with chief conductor Riccardo Chailly tours seven US cities this month, starting Wednesday in Los Angeles, it will feature a program made up entirely of romantic warhorses: Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.

When asked about it, Chailly admitted he might have liked to surprise audiences with something more modern, but said that fans expect "the Gewandhaus Orchestra, which is in a way the mother of all German orchestras," to perform the German classics that it grew up with.

The Leipzig orchestra has an unparalleled history - it has played with every great German composer since Beethoven. The big German romantic composers are the music it is most famous for and has helped shape over the last two-and-a-half centuries.

The orchestra isn't just a purveyor of a great orchestral tradition; it is the very founder of that tradition. Its history is like a slice of German history.

Gewandhaus in Leipzig

The current Gewandhaus opened in 1981

Serious but joyful

The Gewandhaus Orchestra's motto, which has adorned all its permanent homes, is telling: Res severa est verum gaudium - "True joy is a serious matter." While Germans admittedly have a tendency to take everything with a very generous helping of seriousness, that has kept the Gewandhaus Orchestra well functioning for the past 268 years (230 of them under the name Gewandhaus Orchestra).

The group is the oldest continuously existing civic orchestra - founded by normal citizens, rather than the court or the church. This legacy shapes the orchestra to this day, said Riccardo Chailly, who has been its chief conductor since 2005.

"The sense of civic involvement with the orchestra, because it always has been a city orchestra, not a court institution, is tremendous, to this day," he said. "It's almost become a habit for Leipzigers. The whole city promotes itself through music and the politicians are very sensitive to our activities - and the ticket prices reflect that."

Humble start in a local inn

The name "Gewandhaus Orchestra" (Garment House Orchestra) comes from the musicians' first move into the grand hall of the drapers' guild headquarters. The name stuck, and every permanent home of the orchestra since has been called the same. The history of the homes of the orchestra tell a German story of a buoyant, highly cultured society that destroyed itself through war, was torn apart by history, partitioned, and eventually unified.

Conductor Kurt Masur

Kurt Masur played a pivotal role in the political transition in eastern Germany

From their first appearances in a local inn to the point where the original Gewandhaus became impractical for the growing orchestra's activities, 140 eventful years elapsed. In that time, the mercantile city of Leipzig in Saxony had seen JS Bach perform his duty as cantor and music director and Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Nations in 1813.

Leipzig received its first long-distance railway connection and became a European hub for railway traffic. Germany battled through three Unification Wars and in 1871 Saxony became part of the brand-new German Empire.

Throughout, the Gewandhaus Orchestra performed its concerts. Mozart conducted them in his own works and they premiered Beethoven's "Triple Concerto," Mendelssohn's "Scottish Symphony" and many other works.

It was under Felix Mendelssohn, who became chief conductor in 1835, that the Gewandhaus Orchestra acquired world fame. In 1840, it became the official city orchestra, taking on weekly performing duties in the Leipzig churches and the opera house, while continuing its regular concert schedule. As a result of all these activities, it became the world's largest professional orchestra, employing 185 full-time musicians.

A people's orchestra

Riccardo Chailly isn't daunted by so much history, he revels in it: "You are spoiled - and there is a sense of obligation. But I like that… I really do.”

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

Mendelssohn was among LGO's chief conductors

In 1884, the Gewandhaus Orchestra opened its concert hall which was - unique in Germany for a project this size - privately financed. 160 years later, the hall fell victim to Allied firebombs in February 1944 and stayed a ruin until the remains were detonated in 1968, in a Leipzig then part of communist East Germany.

The building, although a "people's building" in the best sense, didn't fit the ideological and aesthetic objectives of the GDR. Homelessness in its own city ended for the LGO when the third Gewandhaus opened in 1981, partially due to the persistent lobbying of its music director at the time, conductor Kurt Masur.

When the Leipzigers took to the streets in the Monday Demonstrations that heralded the end of dictatorship in the East, Masur's involvement was pivotal in assuring peaceful protests. Twelve months later, the LGO was again a German orchestra without the need for the prefix "East."

The orchestra had survived that period unscathed since, like a church, what makes the Gewandhaus are not the bricks, or glass and steel on the outside, but the pulsing musical beat inside - a pulse that has been considerably quickened since Chailly's arrival.

"If we don't surprise with the works we play, at least I hope we will surprise with the interpretations," said Chailly, referring to the American tour. LGO is set to perform in 4 cities in California before concluding their tour in Boston and New York City, with a closing concert in Carnegie Hall on February 28.

Author: Jens F. Laurson

Editor: Kate Bowen

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