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Five Things to Know About the New York Philharmonic

Widely regarded as one of the most important symphonic ensembles in the United States, the New York Philharmonic is also one of the nation’s oldest musical institutions, and has appeared more than 6,000 times at Carnegie Hall, its one-time home. But beyond the many engagements, the NY Phil has become so iconic because of the many notable composers whose works the orchestra has premiered.

“I'm not interested in having an orchestra sound like itself; I want it to sound like the composer,” former music director Leonard Bernstein once remarked—a realistic ambition, considering how many of the Phil’s music directors and guest conductors wrote the music themselves. Learn more about this symphonic landmark’s storied history in and around Carnegie Hall with these five facts.

A Self-Governed Start

The New York Philharmonic was not always guided by a president and CEO as it is today. When the organization was founded in 1842 as the Philharmonic Society of New York, it was a collective led by musicians, who for the orchestra’s first quarter century selected the repertoire, voted on which new musicians to admit, and even chose their conductor. (The players would split the proceeds at the end of a season.)
The society’s first maestro was founding member Ureli Corelli Hill, a Connecticut-born violinist whose grandfather was a fifer in the Revolutionary Army. When he wasn’t leading the orchestra, Hill was an aspiring inventor with an array of interesting business ideas. One of his more talked-about creations was a piano that would never go out of tune, relying on bells instead of wire strings.

Even early on, the Philharmonic Society enjoyed enormous popularity in New York City. When Hungarian conductor and former music director Anton Seidl—whose accomplishments included leading the world premiere of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony—died in 1898, the streets were jammed for blocks as more than 12,000 people descended on his funeral at the old Metropolitan Opera House.

Start at Carnegie Hall

Out of several sites—including the modest Apollo Rooms on lower Broadway, and its current home at Lincoln Center—one of the orchestra’s most famous headquarters in the last century was none other than Carnegie Hall. This partnership between two landmark institutions dates to the 19th century, when Walter Damrosch, the son of a former NY Phil conductor, convinced Scottish-American steel titan Andrew Carnegie to finance a new music venue for the city.

In 1891, Damrosch conducted at Carnegie Hall’s inauguration, sharing top billing with Tchaikovsky for a five-day Opening Week Festival. The orchestra performing was the New York Symphony, an ensemble that eventually merged with the New York Philharmonic—which had been its rival—in 1928.

The NY Phil’s Carnegie Hall residency lasted seven decades until 1962, when the orchestra relocated to Philharmonic Hall—now named for benefactor David Geffen—in Lincoln Center. Even so, the Phil considers itself a “touring orchestra,” scheduling regular trips to far-flung locations. (To date, the orchestra has headlined in 435 cities and 63 countries on five continents, including a 2008 visit to Pyongyang, North Korea.) And it continues its venerable association with Carnegie Hall, even launching the Hall’s 125th anniversary season in 2015.

Podium to the Stars

From its earliest years, the Philharmonic has been a key player in bringing the lions of classical music to New York City. The first president of the newly reorganized New York Philharmonic in 1909 was the worldly and audacious Mary Seney Sheldon, a Manhattan-based socialite whose father was president of Metropolitan Bank.

Putting her connections to use, Sheldon raised funds to guarantee the musicians’ salaries and hire the Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler, who would serve as the Philharmonic’s music director from 1909 until his death in 1911. Altogether, Mahler conducted at Carnegie Hall 72 times—all but three of those concerts with the Phil—and premiered various new works, including the US premieres of his own First and Second symphonies.

Mahler’s fame set a fruitful precedent, and his successors have included such luminaries as Arturo Toscanini, John Barbirolli, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, and Kurt Masur. The longest tenure on the podium belongs to the Indian-born maestro Zubin Mehta, who served as the orchestra’s music director from 1978 until 1991, during which time he premiered 48 works. The post is currently held by Dutch conductor Jaap van Zweden, who has led the orchestra since 2018.

Champion of New Music

Since its inception, the Philharmonic has hosted scores of classical music icons, many of whom took the opportunity to try out their own new works while on the podium: Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Richard Strauss, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Gershwin, to name a few. Over the years, the NY Phil has built a reputation as a kind of new-music incubator, a legacy that has included premieres of such masterpieces as Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Britten’s Violin Concerto and Sinfonia da Requiem, Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite, and Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements—all works that had their world premieres at Carnegie Hall.

This pioneering tradition was especially prosperous between 1958 and 1977, when Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez—both of them composers as well as conductors—were on staff as music directors. Boulez had already established himself as a highly sought-after music theorist by the time he was appointed. French-born and a protégé of modernist composer Olivier Messiaen, he made a point of programming more recent music throughout his tenure, while introducing informal chamber music concerts as part of the downtown Prospective Encounters series to the seasonal repertoire—all of which he hoped would strengthen contemporary audiences’ allegiance to up-and-coming composers.

Pioneers of New Media

The NY Phil’s remarkable feats in radio, television, and other media continue to set standards for how music gets immortalized—a tradition that arguably begin during its time at the Hall. In 1922, the Phil became one of the first orchestras to appear on the radio, and in 1930 it made history by beaming a live radio broadcast of Erich Kleiber’s performance at Carnegie Hall across the continent on CBS—the first orchestra to broadcast a concert coast-to-coast. An entire generation was reared on Bernstein’s televised Young People’s Concerts of the 1960s.

The NY Phil’s recorded history spans more than a century, and in 2003, the orchestra was honored by the Recording Academy with a special Trustees Award in recognition of its outstanding contributions to the industry and American culture—one of many accolades the orchestra has earned for its pivotal contributions. Whether introducing new works or showcasing new stars, the Phil continues to set the agenda for classical music with its bold and refined approach to symphonic innovation at Carnegie Hall and beyond.

 

Photography: New York Philharmonic by Chris Lee, photograph of Anton Seidl and program page courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.

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