The Philharmonia Orchestra is a British orchestra based in London. It was founded in 1945 by Walter Legge, a classical music record producer for EMI. Since 1995, the orchestra has been based in the Royal Festival Hall. The Philharmonia also has residencies at De Montfort Hall, Leicester, the Corn Exchange, Bedford, and The Anvil, Basingstoke. Esa-Pekka Salonen has been the orchestra’s principal conductor and artistic advisor since 2008, and Vladimir Ashkenazy and Christoph von Dohnányi both conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra regularly.
The Philharmonia Orchestra tours widely, regularly welcomes top soloists and conductors, and performs more than 160 concerts a year, as well as recording music for films and computer games. Performing more than 35 concerts a year at Royal Festival Hall, the orchestra notably presents premieres of contemporary works, along with the classics. Since its inception in 1945, the Philharmonia has commissioned more than 100 compositions from composers that include Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Mark-Anthony Turnage and James MacMillan.
The orchestra was founded in 1945 by Walter Legge. As Legge was a recording producer for EMI it was believed that the orchestra was primarily formed for recording purposes, but that was not Legge’s intention. He had been Sir Thomas Beecham’s assistant at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, before World War II, and, assuming that he and Beecham would be in charge there again after the war, Legge planned to establish a first-class orchestra for opera, concerts and recordings. After the war, opera resumed at Covent Garden under a different management, but Legge went ahead with his plans for a new orchestra. His contacts in the musical world during the war enabled him to secure the services of a large number of talented young musicians still serving in the armed forces in 1945. At the Philharmonia’s first concert on 25 October 1945, more than sixty per cent of the players were still officially in the services. Beecham conducted the concert (for the fee of one cigar), but as he refused to be Legge’s employee and Legge refused to cede control of the orchestra, Beecham instead went on to found the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
In its early years, with financial support of the Last Maharaja of Myssore, Jayachamaraja Wodeyar Bahadur (1919-1974), the orchestra engaged many prominent conductors, including Arturo Toscanini, Richard Strauss and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Herbert von Karajan was closely associated with the Philharmonia in its early years, although he never held an official title with the orchestra. At first Legge was against appointing an official principal conductor, feeling that no one conductor should have more importance to the orchestra than Legge himself. But Karajan was principal conductor in all but name. He built the orchestra into one of the finest in the world and made numerous recordings, including all the Beethoven symphonies.
In 1954, following the death of Furtwängler, Karajan was elected music director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and subsequently curtailed his work with the Philharmonia. Needing to find a new conductor for the orchestra, Legge turned to Otto Klemperer, whose career was flagging at the time. Klemperer’s name became closely linked with the orchestra during an “Indian summer” of celebrated recordings. In 1959, he was named music director for life.
On 10 March 1964, Legge announced that he was going to disband the Philharmonia Orchestra. At a recording session with Klemperer, a meeting was convened where those present unanimously agreed that they would not allow the orchestra to be disbanded. Klemperer gave his immediate support, and on 17 March 1964 the members of the orchestra elected their own governing body and adopted the name New Philharmonia Orchestra. The inaugural concert of the New Philharmonia under its own auspices took place on 27 October 1964. It was a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, conducted by Klemperer, who was now honorary president of the orchestra. From 1966 until 1972 the chairman of the orchestra was the principal flautist, Gareth Morris.
The orchestra gave many more live performances after it became self-governing than it had under Legge’s management. It reacquired the rights to the name “Philharmonia Orchestra” in 1977, and has been known by that name ever since.
Klemperer retired from conducting in 1971, but was officially still the orchestra’s principal conductor until his death in 1973. For the two intervening years, Lorin Maazel held the post of associate principal conductor (1971–1973), and was effectively the principal conductor. Riccardo Muti was principal conductor from 1973 to 1982. Giuseppe Sinopoli succeeded Muti, acting as principal conductor from 1984 to 1994. In 1997, Christoph von Dohnányi became principal conductor, and served until 2008, at which time he took on the title of Honorary Conductor for Life of the orchestra.
In November 2006 the orchestra announced the appointment of Esa-Pekka Salonen as its fifth principal conductor, effective from the 2008-2009 season. Salonen had made his first conducting appearance with the Philharmonia in 1983 at the age of 25, his first such engagement outside Scandinavia: on short notice he took over Mahler’s Third Symphony for an indisposed Michael Tilson Thomas. Salonen has since then conducted the orchestra regularly. From 1985 to 1994 he served as principal guest conductor. His initial three-year contract as principal conductor has twice been extended, so that it currently runs to the end of the 2016–17 season.
The Philharmonia is one of the most recorded orchestras in the world, with over one thousand recordings on such labels as EMI, CBS, Deutsche Grammophon, and Naxos, and more recently several self-produced recordings. One of its earliest recordings was the last concert ever conducted by Richard Strauss in 1947 in a programme which included his youthful work Burleske.
Antal Doráti conducted the orchestra in recordings for Mercury Living Presence (Tchaikovsky Suites for Orchestra, 1966) and EMI (Bartók Violin Concerto No. 1 featuring Yehudi Menuhin, 1965). Esa-Pekka Salonen has conducted several commercial recordings with the Philharmonia, including music of Berlioz and of Schoenberg.
The Philharmonia has a partnership with Signum Records, which releases live recordings of the orchestras concerts, including Lorin Maazel’s cycle of Mahler symphonies, Christoph von Dohnányi’s recordings of Brahms’s symphonies, and works by Elgar, Bruckner, Berlioz, Bartók, and others.