Sixty Glorious Years – Philharmonia Orchestra

Written by: Colin Anderson

2005 is the 60th-birthday year of the Philharmonia Orchestra; one of its former Principal Conductors, Riccardo Muti, is about to return…

There is, thankfully, something above and beyond the mostly culturally-barren airwaves and the insular, annoying-to-others Walkman: it’s the magnificent institution known as the symphony orchestra. How remarkable are its members, real musicians who don’t mime and who humanly produce every sound that is heard. The Philharmonia Orchestra is 60 years old this year. David Whelton, the Managing Director, outlines (with the bust of Otto Klemperer, the Philharmonia’s titanic first Principal Conductor, looking down) his role. “Put simply it involves bringing together the conductors, soloists, repertoire and orchestra, and the venue, in a way which meets the demands of the market and provides a really interesting and stimulating environment for the members of the orchestra: then you have great music-making.”

As David says, “we live in an age when people expect instant gratification; the great thing about our world is that you have to invest time and energy in order to get back the huge riches which are there.” Alice Walton, Media and Marketing Director, seconds this. “Audiences are recognising this increasingly, that there is something additional that you gain from being at a concert, not least the interaction between players and the subtle differences that a conductor can have on the sound of the orchestra.”

Among London’s orchestras, the Philharmonia, for all its musicians’ flexibility and distinctive character, seems to lose out both in critical plaudits and number of broadcasts; is there any feeling of being hard done by? “No, absolutely not. I know what I value in music-making, and I’m absolutely confident of my judgement,” responds David. “The ability to phrase is at the heart of music-making; if you can’t do that it doesn’t exist, it can’t communicate. For me the Philharmonia is the only orchestra in London that phrases so naturally; therein begins the gulf between the Philharmonia as a musical instrument and the LSO. The shift in perception arises directly from the fact that the LSO gets three times the level of subsidy of the Philharmonia and the LPO and has been able to invest probably the equivalent to my salary in its PR. The Philharmonia has had to get through the most difficult period in London’s musical history, and retain its integrity; and the LSO has had an immensely stable and supportive Hall whereas the South Bank has gone through turmoil. That’s the dividing line in people’s perceptions and nothing to do with musical quality: Dohnányi, Masur and Colin Davis all work with three very fine London orchestras, all capable of fantastic performances.”

David Whelton is “optimistic. We recently did a film concert and the audience was riveted. They’d all been to the cinema and knew the pieces but didn’t know how the music was made; you could have heard a pin drop! I have absolute confidence in the value of the great emotional experience in a concert hall; the wider world needs to recognise that you can’t just have a saturation of populist entertainment.” Would any thinking person disagree with this judgement? Maybe those who attended the film-music concert would respond to the subscription and loyalty scheme that Alice formulates, one “looking at those techniques that have become part of daily life, Sainsbury’s reward cards and Boots advantage points, and transferring those into the arts market.”

A former Principal Conductor, Riccardo Muti, conducts the Philharmonia this Thursday and on Sunday afternoon. Alice reminds that “the orchestra’s only had four principal conductors in 60 years; to have the only other living one returning is such a big event for us.” David remarks that “the programme reflects Muti’s great time with the orchestra when classical repertoire was incredibly important; and Schubert’s a composer he really loves. Across the year we’re reflecting the different ambitions of the Philharmonia; we see 2005 as a celebratory year. The future is rooted in live performance, the concert experience as a collective experience, and all about communication; at the end of a concert I want people to go out with a spring in their step and a gleam in their eye. That’s the power of what we do.”

  • Philharmonia Orchestra/Muti concerts on 27 & 30 January in the Royal Festival Hall at, respectively, 7.30 and 3.00 – Beethoven Violin Concerto (Vadim Repin) and Schubert Symphony No.9
  • Philharmonia Orchestra
  • Philharmonia Orchestra information:

    Freephone 0800 652 6717
  • South Bank Centre
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 26 January 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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