The London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), founded in 1904, is the oldest of London’s symphony orchestras. It was set up by a group of players who left Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra because of a new rule requiring players to give the orchestra their exclusive services. The LSO itself later introduced a similar rule for its members. From the outset the LSO was organised on co-operative lines, with all players sharing the profits at the end of each season. This practice continued for the orchestra’s first four decades.
The LSO underwent periods of eclipse in the 1930s and 1950s when it was regarded as inferior in quality to new London orchestras, to which it lost players and bookings: the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic in the 1930s and the Philharmonia and Royal Philharmonic after the Second World War. The profit-sharing principle was abandoned in the post-war era as a condition of receiving public subsidy for the first time. In the 1950s the orchestra debated whether to concentrate on film work at the expense of symphony concerts; many senior players left when the majority of players rejected the idea. By the 1960s the LSO had recovered its leading position, which it has retained subsequently. In 1966, to perform alongside it in choral works, the orchestra established the LSO Chorus, originally a mix of professional and amateur singers, later a wholly amateur ensemble.
As a self-governing body, the orchestra selects the conductors with whom it works. At some stages in its history it has dispensed with a principal conductor and worked only with guests. Among conductors with whom it is most associated are, in its early days, Hans Richter, Sir Edward Elgar, and Sir Thomas Beecham, and in more recent decades Pierre Monteux, André Previn, Claudio Abbado (1933-2014), Sir Colin Davis and Valery Gergiev.
Since 1982, the LSO has been based in the Barbican Centre in the City of London.
The orchestra made its first British tour in 1905, conducted by Sir Edward Elgar. Elgar’s conducting was highly praised; as to the orchestra, Ernest Newman wrote in The Manchester Guardian, “Its brass and its wood-wind were seen to be of exceptional quality, but the strings, fine as they are, have not the substance nor the colour of the Hallé strings.” The following year the LSO played outside Britain for the first time, giving concerts in Paris, conducted by Edouard Colonne, Sir Charles Stanford and André Messager. Richard Morrison, in his centenary study of the LSO, writes of “stodgy programmes of insipid Cowen, worthy Stanford, dull Parry and mediocre Mackenzie”;they put the Parisian public off to a considerable degree, and the players ended up out of pocket.
In its early years, Richter was the LSO’s most frequently-engaged conductor, with four or five concerts every season: the orchestra’s website and Morrison’s 2004 book both count him as the orchestra’s first chief conductor, though the 1911 Musical Times article indicates otherwise. Richter retired from conducting in 1911, and Elgar was elected conductor-in-chief for the 1911–12 season. Elgar conducted six concerts, Arthur Nikisch three, and Willem Mengelberg, Fritz Steinbach and Gustave Doret one each.As a conductor Elgar did not prove to be a big enough box-office draw, and after one season he was replaced by the charismatic Hungarian maestro Nikisch.
Nikisch was invited to tour North America in 1912, and despite his long association with the Berlin Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestras, he insisted that the LSO should be contracted for the tour. The orchestra, 100-strong (all men except for the harpist), was booked to sail on the Titanic, but the tour schedule was changed at the last minute, and the players sailed safely on the Baltic. The tour was arduous, but a triumph. The New York Press said, “The great British band played with a vigor, force and temperamental impetuousness that almost lifted the listener out of his seat.” The New York Times praised all departments of the orchestra, though, like The Manchester Guardian, it found the strings “brilliant rather than mellow”. The paper had a little fun at the LSO’s expense: from the viewpoint of a country that had long enjoyed permanent, salaried orchestras such as the Boston Symphony, it gently mocked the LSO’s “bold stand for the sacred right of sending substitutes”.
In 1964 the LSO undertook its first world tour, taking in Israel, Turkey, Iran, India, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and the United States. The following year István Kertész was appointed principal conductor. Negotiations with the Corporation of the City of London with a view to establishing the LSO as the resident orchestra of the planned Barbican Centre began in the same year. In 1966 Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) conducted the LSO for the first time, in Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand at the Royal Albert Hall. This was another coup for Fleischmann, who had to overcome Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)‘s scorn for the inadequate rehearsal facilities endured by London orchestras. Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)remained associated with the LSO for the rest of his life, and was its president from 1987 to 1990.
Claudio Abbado, principal guest conductor since 1971, succeeded Previn as chief conductor in the orchestra’s diamond jubilee year, 1979. In a 1988 study of the LSO in Gramophone magazine James Jolly wrote that Abbado was in many ways the antithesis of Previn in terms of style and repertoire, bringing to the orchestra a particular authority in the Austro-German classics as well as a commitment to the avant-garde. From the orchestra’s point of view there were disadvantages to his appointment. His relationship with the players was distant and he was unable to impose discipline on the orchestra in rehearsals. He insisted on conducting without a score, and many times this led to barely-avoided disaster in concerts. Abbado had considerable international prestige, but this too had its downside for the LSO: he frequently made his major recordings with the Boston or Chicago Symphony Orchestras or the Vienna Philharmonic. One of the LSO’s principals commented, “Although we were sweating our guts playing those vast Mahler symphonies for … Abbado, he would go and record them with other orchestras, which made us feel like second, maybe even third choice”.
In August 1984 the orchestra’s managing director, Peter Hemmings, resigned. For the first time since 1949 the orchestra appointed one of its players to the position. Clive Gillinson, a cellist, took over at a bad time in the LSO’s fortunes, and played a central role in turning them round. He negotiated what Morrison calls “a dazzling series of mega-projects, each built around the personal enthusiasm of a ‘star’ conductor or soloist”, producing sell-out houses.In 1985 the orchestra mounted “Mahler, Vienna and the Twentieth Century”, planned by Abbado, followed the next year by an equally successful Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) festival.
- 1904-1911 Hans Richter (1843-1916)
- 1911-1912 Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
- 1912-1914 Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922)
- 1915-1916 Sir Thomas Beecham
- 1919-1922 Albert Coates
- 1930-1931 Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951)
- 1932-1935 Sir Hamilton Harty
- 1950-1954 Josef Krips
- 1961-1964 Pierre Monteux
- 1965-1968 Istvan Kertesz
- 1968-1979 Andre Previn
- 1979-1988 Claudio Abbado
- 1988-1995 Michael Tilson Thomas
- 1995-2006 Colin Davis
- 2006-0000 Harding, Daniel (1975)
- 2006-2015 Valery Gergiev
- 2016-0000 Gianandrea Noseda
- 2017-0000 Simon Rattle