Boston Symphony Orchestra

Boston Symphony Orchestra

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Boston Symphony Orchestra

The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) is an orchestra based in Boston, Massachusetts. It is one of the five American orchestras commonly referred to as the "Big Five".[1] Founded in 1881,[2] the BSO plays most of its concerts at Boston's Symphony Hall and in the summer performs at the Tanglewood Music Center. The most recent music director, James Levine, stepped down from his position as of September 2011, due to ill health.

Early history

The orchestra was founded in 1881 by Henry Lee Higginson. Its first conductor was George Henschel, who was a noted baritone as well as conductor, and a close friend of Johannes Brahms. For the orchestra, Henschel devised innovative orchestral seating charts and sent them to Brahms, who replied approvingly and commented on the issues raised by horn and viola sections in a letter of mid-November 1881 .[3]

The orchestra's four subsequent music directors were all trained in Austria, including the seminal and highly influential Hungarian-born conductor Arthur Nikisch, in accordance with the tastes of Higginson. Wilhelm Gericke served twice, from 1884 to 1889 and again from 1898, to 1906. According to Joseph Horowitz's review of correspondence, Higginson considered 25 candidates to replace Gericke after receiving notice in 1905. He decided not to offer the position to Gustav Mahler, Fritz Steinbach, and Willem Mengelberg but did not rule out the young Bruno Walter if nobody more senior were to accept. He offered the position to Hans Richter in February, 1905, who declined, to Felix Mottl in November, who was previously engaged, and then to previous director Nikisch, who declined; the post was finally offered to Karl Muck, who accepted and began his duties in October, 1906. .[4]

The music director 1908-12 was Max Fiedler. He conducted the premiere of Ignacy Jan Paderewski's Symphony in B minor "Polonia" in 1909.

During World War I, Muck (born in Germany but a Swiss citizen since childhood), was arrested, shortly before a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and interned in a prison camp without trial or charge until the end of the war, when he was deported. He vowed never to return, and conducted thereafter only in Europe. Its next two music directors were French: Henri Rabaud, who took over from Muck for a season, and then Pierre Monteux from 1919 to 1924. Monteux, because of a musician's strike, was able to replace 30 players, thus changing the orchestra's sound; the orchestra developed a reputation for a "French" sound which persists to some degree to this day.[5]

First live orchestra concert on radio

The orchestra's reputation increased during the music directorship of Serge Koussevitzky. One million radio listeners tuned in when Koussevitzky and the orchestra were the first to perform a live concert for radio broadcast, which they did on NBC in 1926.[6]

Under Koussevitzky, the orchestra gave regular radio broadcasts and established its summer home at Tanglewood, where Koussevitzky founded the Berkshire Music Center, which is now the Tanglewood Music Center. Those network radio broadcasts ran from 1926 through 1951, and again from 1954 through 1956. The orchestra continues to make regular live radio broadcasts to the present day. The Boston Symphony was closely involved with the Boston's WGBH Radio as an outlet for its concerts.

Koussevitzky also commissioned many new pieces from prominent composers, including the Symphony No. 4 of Sergei Prokofiev and the Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky. They also gave the premiere of Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, which had been commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation at the instigation of Fritz Reiner and Joseph Szigeti.

Koussevitzky started a tradition that was to be continued by the orchestra with commissions by Henri Dutilleux for its 75th anniversary, Roger Sessions, and Andrzej Panufnik, for the 100th, and lately for the 125th works by Leon Kirchner, Elliott Carter, and Peter Lieberson. On other occasions, they have commissioned works from various other composers, such as John Corigliano's Symphony No. 2 for the 100th anniversary of Symphony Hall. Hans Werner Henze dedicated his Eighth Symphony to the orchestra.

Since 1949

In 1949, Koussevitzky was succeeded by the Alsatian conductor Charles Munch. As a violinist he had served as concertmaster for Hermann Abendroth in the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne and for Wilhelm Furtwängler in Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra, but had built his conducting career in Paris. During World War II he had refused to cooperate with the Nazi occupation in Paris, and was thus awarded the Légion d'honneur in 1945. He had made his conducting debut in Boston in 1946. He led the orchestra on its first overseas tour, and also produced their first stereo recording in February 1954 for RCA Victor.

Munch was succeeded in 1962 by Erich Leinsdorf, who served as music director for seven years until 1969. William Steinberg was then music director from 1969 to 1973. In 1973, Seiji Ozawa took over the orchestra and remained the Music Director until 2002, the longest tenure of any Boston Symphony conductor.

On 19 August 1990, the Boston Symphony Orchestra had the distinction of being the final orchestra to be conducted by the legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein. He would announce his retirement as a conductor on 9 October that year due to declining health, and died five days later.[7]

In 2004, James Levine became the first American-born music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Levine has received critical praise for revitalizing the quality and repertoire since the beginning of his tenure, including championing contemporary composers.[8] Since becoming music director, the Boston Symphony has performed 18 world premieres, 12 of them conducted by Levine.[9] To be able to fund the more challenging and expensive of Levine's musical projects with the orchestra, the orchestra has established an "Artistic Initiative Fund" of about US$40 million. This is in addition to the current endowment of the orchestra, which is the largest of any American orchestra at about US$300 million.[10] On March 2, 2011, Levine announced that he would resign as music director as of September 1, 2011 due to ill health.[11] The orchestra is now in its second season without an official musical director.

Related ensembles

An offshoot of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is the Boston Pops Orchestra, founded in 1885, which plays lighter, more popular classics, and show tunes. Arthur Fiedler was the conductor who did the most to increase the fame of the Boston Pops, over his tenure from 1930 to 1979. Film composer John Williams succeeded Fiedler as the conductor of the Pops from 1980 to 1993. Since 1995, the conductor of the Boston Pops has been Keith Lockhart.

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players were launched in 1964. Today they are the only chamber ensemble composed of principal players from an American symphony orchestra. In addition to regular performances in Boston and Tanglewood, they have performed throughout the United States and Europe. They have also recorded for RCA Victor, DG, Philips, and Nonesuch.

Performing with the BSO and Boston Pops for major choral works is the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Organized in 1970 by its founding director, John Oliver, the Chorus comprises 250 volunteer singers. Before the creation of the Tanglewood Chorus, and for some time after, the BSO frequently employed the New England Conservatory Chorus conducted by Lorna Cooke DeVaron, Chorus Pro Musica, Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society.


The Boston Symphony made its first acoustical recordings in 1917 in Camden, New Jersey for the Victor Talking Machine Company with Karl Muck. Among the first discs recorded was the finale to Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony. Typical of acoustical recordings, the musicians had to crowd around a large horn that transferred the sounds to a recording machine.

It was under Serge Koussevitsky that the orchestra made its first electrical recordings, also for Victor, in the late 1920s. Using a single microphone for a process Victor called "Orthophonic", the first recordings included Ravel's Boléro. Recording sessions took place in Symphony Hall. Koussevitsky's final recording with the Boston Symphony was a high fidelity version of Sibelius' second symphony, recorded in 1950 and released on LP.

In February 1954, RCA Victor began recording the orchestra in stereo, under the direction of Charles Munch. RCA continued to record Munch and the orchestra through 1962, his final year as music director in Boston (see the Charles Munch discography for a complete list of commercial recordings with the BSO under Charles Munch). During Munch's tenure, Pierre Monteux made a series or records with the BSO for RCA Victor (see Pierre Monteux for a complete list of commercial recordings with the BSO).

Erich Leinsdorf, who had already made numerous recordings for RCA, continued his association with the company during his seven years in Boston. These included a critically acclaimed performance of Brahms' German Requiem (see Erich Leinsdorf for a complete list).

Then, the orchestra switched to Deutsche Grammophon under William Steinberg. RCA recorded a handful of LPs with Steinberg and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique with Georges Prêtre during the transition to DG (see William Steinberg for a complete list of commercial recordings). Michael Tilson Thomas, who was an assistant conductor under Steinberg, also made several recordings for DG; some of these have been reissued on CD. Due to Steinberg's illness, DG recorded the BSO with Rafael Kubelík in Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, Ma Vlast by Bedich Smetana and in Béla Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra as well as with Eugen Jochum conducting Symphony No. 41 by Wolfgang Mozart and Franz Schubert's Symphony 8.

As a guest conductor in the 1960s, Seiji Ozawa made several recordings with the BSO for RCA Victor. Seiji Ozawa continued the BSO relationship with DG while making several other releases for New World. Over the course of Ozawa's tenure, the BSO diversified its relationships making recordings under Ozawa with CBS, EMI, Philips Records, RCA, and TELARC.

The BSO also recorded for Philips under its principal guest conductor, Sir Colin Davis (see Sir Colin Davis for a complete list). Leonard Bernstein made records for both Columbia and DG. It also appeared on Decca with Vladimir Ashkenazy, with Charles Dutoit and Andre Previn for DG, and on Phillips and Sony with Bernard Haitink (see Bernard Haitink for a complete list).

The Boston Symphony Orchestra has also done recording for film scores on occasion. Films such as Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan (both composed and conducted by John Williams) were recorded by the Orchestra at Symphony Hall.

In the James Levine era, the BSO had no standing recording contract with a major label;[12] the Grammy award winning recording of Levine conducting the BSO with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs, released on Nonesuch Records, was the only major label recording during Levine's tenure. On February 19, 2009, the BSO announced the launch of a new series of recordings on their own label, BSO Classics. Some of the recordings are available only as digital downloads. The initial recordings included live concert performances of William Bolcom's 8th Symphony and Lyric Concerto, Mahler's Sixth Symphony, the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem, and Ravel's complete Daphnis et Chloé,[13] which won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance.[14]

Music directors

  • 1881-1884 George Henschel
  • 1884-1889 Wilhelm Gericke
  • 1889-1893 Arthur Nikisch
  • 1893-1898 Emil Paur
  • 1898-1906 Wilhelm Gericke
  • 1906-1908 Karl Muck
  • 1908-1912 Max Fiedler
  • 1912-1918 Karl Muck

Orchestra musicians

A list of the principal players of the Boston Symphony as of 2011:

  • Malcolm Lowe, concertmaster
  • Haldan Martinson, principal second violin
  • Steven Ansell, principal viola
  • Jules Eskin, principal cello
  • Edwin Barker, principal bass
  • Elizabeth Rowe, principal flute
  • John Ferrillo, principal oboe
  • William Hudgins, principal clarinet
  • Richard Svoboda, principal bassoon
  • James Somerville, principal horn
  • Thomas Rolfs, principal trumpet
  • Toby Oft, principal trombone
  • Mike Roylance, tuba
  • Timothy Genis, timpani
  • Jessica Zhou, harp

Violin virtuoso Willy Hess was concertmaster from 1904 to 1910.

See also

  • Boston Pops Orchestra
  • Charles Munch discography


  1. Michael Walsh (1983-04-25). Which U.S. Orchestras are Best?. Time. Retrieved on 2008-03-26.
  2. BSO History at Boston Symphony Orchestra Website,
  3. Avins, Styra (1997). Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters, p. 587588, Oxford University Press.
  4. Horowitz, Joseph (2005). Classical Music in America: A history of its rise and fall, p. 7778, W.W. Norton and Company.
  5. "Pierre Monteux". All Music Guide to Classical Music. (2005). Hal Leonard Corporation.
  6. Young, William H. and Nancy K. Music of the Great Depression. Greenwood, 2005.
  7. [1]
  8. Lloyd Schwartz, Stretching exercises: The BSO challenges the audience and itself, The Boston Phoenix, March 2005. URL accessed on 2007-04-02.
  9. Loomis, George, "Boston Symphony Orchestra/Levine, Symphony Hall, Boston", Financial Times (February 10, 2009)
  10. Geoff Edgers, The cost of excellence, The Boston Globe, 2005-09-25. URL accessed on 2008-04-20.
  11. Jeremy Eichler, The opening movement, The Boston Globe, 22 February 2009. URL accessed on 2009-02-24.
  12. Philly Orchestra Composes Innovative Contract (audio). Weekend Edition. National Public Radio (2005-05-07). Retrieved on 2009-02-20.
  13. Eichler, Jeremy, Listening to Levine: two CDs, a season of firsts, The Boston Globe, 2009-02-20. URL accessed on 2009-02-20.
  14. Grammy Awards: List of Winners, The New York Times, 2010-01-31.


  • Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Further reading

  • Boston Symphony Orchestra. Season programmes. 22nd season, 1902–1903 Google books; 29th season, 1909–1910 Google books; 36th season, 1916–1917 Google books

External links

  • Official website
  • Discography at SonyBMG Masterworks
  • Edgers, Geoff. "6 minutes to shine". The Boston Globe, 4 September 2005.
  • The Turangalîla-SymphonieA film about the BSO Premiere of Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie, from the Philharmonia Orchestra's Messiaen Website.
  • Boston Public Library on Flickr. Programme from U.S. premiere of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, Symphony Hall, March 25, 1938.

This page was last modified 06.04.2013 18:31:54

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