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New York Philharmonic at 175

Rick Fulker
February 24, 2017

The oldest symphony orchestra in the United States, and one of the oldest in the world, celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2017. Here's everything you need to know about the New York Philharmonic.

New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Image: Getty Images

Its nearly 2,000 recordings and more than 15,000 concerts are numbers unmatched by any other orchestra in the world. The New York Philharmonic is expected to reach up to 50 million music lovers in the current season, through live concerts in New York and on tour, digital recordings, transmissions on television, radio and online and through education programs.

Another statistic: for years, the NY Phil has seen declining subscription rates and run a budget deficit that reached $2.1 million (about 2 million euros) in 2016. And when its home base, the David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center, is closed for renovation in 2019, it will be an orchestra without a home, with a new principal conductor and as yet unnamed president.

Living on the edge

The New York Philharmonic may lead a precarious life - but its playing has been the stuff of music history, dating back to December 7, 1842, when 63 instrumentalists of the Philharmonic Society of New York performed for about 600 people in the Apollo Rooms on lower Broadway.

Ureli Corelli Hill
Ureli Corelli Hill knew he had a truly American institution on his handsImage: Historical Archives of the New York Philharmonic

Ureli Corelli Hill, the orchestra's founder, led it in Beethoven's 5th Symphony, a performance that a music lover described as "most perfectly drilled." The American-born Hill, who had traveled abroad, recognized that his orchestra was a truly American institution, made up of musicians of various nationalities and combining a wide range of traditions.  

The leitmotif for the current anniversary year is Dvorak's New World Symphony, a work the orchestra premiered in 1893. Other works given their first performances by the NY Phil include Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto (1881), Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto (1909) and Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F (1925).

With Gustav Mahler, Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez and Zubin Mehta, the list of this orchestra's principal conductors is no less illustrious. Three of them - Mahler, Toscanini and Bernstein - also had longstanding ties with the New York Philharmonic's great counterpart, the Vienna Philharmonic, also celebrating 175 years in 2017.

These conductors faced an unusually confident, notoriously testy group of musicians known as "a minefield for conductors." Toscanini, uncowed, had the entire string section re-audition when he took the helm in 1928.

The players have been accused of many things, but never of timidity. Critics have mentioned the orchestra's "brassy excesses," a factor that even conductor Kurt Masur could not completely tame.

The strict German disciplinarian and reunification hero had been mentioned as a possible candidate for Germany's president in the early 1990s. His conductor colleague, Simon Rattle, then said to Masur: "Certainly you have no illusions about which job will be more difficult." Rattle wasn't referring to the role of president.

Indelible moments

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Kurt Masur
Masur, the German "Kapellmeister," restored discipline and moraleImage: picture-alliance/dpa

With his brass tacks approach, Masur, who served as the NY Phil music director from 1991 until 2002, actually revitalized the orchestra, which had been left demoralized following the tenure of its longest-serving music director, Zubin Mehta, from 1978 until 1991.

A cherished moment in New York's history was Masur leading the NY Phil in the "Deutsches Requiem" by Johannes Brahms to mourn the victims of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Over its long history, the orchestra's musicians have struck the tone of the moment in crises ranging from the Great Depression to the AIDS epidemic and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It also consoled the nation after the assassinations of two American presidents: Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F. Kennedy in 1963.

The latter concert was conducted by a man who'd been a guest at the White House, Leonard Bernstein. "Lenny" was in fact doubtless the most beloved among the New York Philharmonic's music directors.

When he stepped in on short notice for conductor Bruno Walter, who'd taken ill, to conduct a live radio broadcast on November 14, 1943, his performance was hailed as legendary.

New York music critics, ever severe, sometimes disparaged Bernstein's graphic gestures and expressions, but no conductor was more highly appreciated by the public - particularly in the "Young People's Concerts," a tradition dating back to 1924.

And it was Lenny who led the orchestra at an unforgettable event in Germany, a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony at Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt at Christmas 1989 - a month after the Berlin Wall was breached.

In Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," the conductor had the word "Freude" ("joy") replaced with "Freiheit" ("freedom"), offending purists and moving the masses.

Charisma and discipline

Serving from 1958 until 1969, Bernstein was called a visionary, as was his successor, Pierre Boulez. In outward manner, it was an apparent switch from the flamboyant to the austere, but like his predecessor, the Frenchman was both a conductor and a composer - and eager to make even modern atonal music accessible to audiences, such as in his informal "rug concerts."

Leonard Bernstein
The beginning of a rocket-propelled career: Bernstein in 1943Image: Historical Archives of the New York Philharmonic

On the "visionary" scale, the orchestra's current leader Alan Gilbert also ranks high, imaginatively spicing concerts with contemporary works and establishing the New York Philharmonic Biennial, a festival of contemporary music.

After the current season, Gilbert will depart to be succeeded in 2018 by Jaap van Zweden. Not among the world's best-known maestros, the disciplined Dutchman seems likely to fall in line with other conductors who gravitated toward more traditional repertories, including Toscanini and Lorin Maazel.

As the orchestra's 26th music director, Zweden will have the task of motivating members and mobilizing audiences when the New York Philharmonic faces upheaval, moving from venue to venue during an expected two-year period as the orchestra's home base, the David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, is renovated beginning in 2019.

At the same time, the orchestra is challenged by a declining subscription base, but the cinema karaoke concerts, where it performs live to movie screenings, and the concerts on the Great Lawn in Central Park, are certain to remain among the most popular local events.

Arturo Toscanini
Toscanini belonged to an earlier age of "dictatorial" maestrosImage: Historical Archives of the New York Philharmonic

The New York Philharmonic embarks on a tour of Europe on March 23, once again generating excitement abroad. Its first European tour was in 1930. In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, the New Yorkers were cheered in the Soviet Union. And in an even greater political coup, the orchestra was warmly received in Pyongyang, North Korea in 2008. Altogether, they have racked up performances in 432 cities in 62 countries and on five continents.

More facts and figures

Finally, another statistic: the New York Philharmonic has meticulously cataloged information on every program it has ever performed since that first one on December 7, 1842. More than 170,000 pages of historic material are now available online, with many more on the way.

Jaap van Zweden
When he takes over in 2018, Zweden will face uncertain times for the orchestraImage: picture alliance/dpa/S. Koning

As a result, finding material for an exhibition marking the orchestra's 175th anniversary wasn't difficult. That exhibition opens at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York on February 24.

Why there? The display is a collaborative effort with that other great orchestra celebrating 175 years in 2017: the Vienna Philharmonic.

Marking the centennial of the New York Philharmonic's first recording on January 20, 1917, a set of 65 CDs is being released on Sony Classical. And later this season, the orchestra will begin a retrospective of the music of Leonard Bernstein, jumpstarting the centennial of the birth of its most beloved maestro in 2018.