At a time when even instant messaging takes too long, you have to wonder how the New York Philharmonic managed its first trip to Europe, in 1930, without jets, cell phones, and e-mail. Just crossing the Atlantic took a week. Phone service was sketchy, transatlantic cable was the hot new technology, and dashing off a wire was hip, but who knew for sure if your missive ever arrived? Traveling with a symphony orchestra, administrators, well-wishers, and tons of instruments‹not to mention legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini‹could not have been easy, and the success of that first European tour is a testament to the Orchestra's determination to bring great music from the New World back to the Old. Moreover, the tour took place during the Great Depression, and represented a leap of faith and a substantial financial investment on the part of the Philharmonic.
The gamble paid off. The tour demonstrated that the New York Philharmonic belonged in the same league as established European orchestras, and argued for America as a place where the classics were appreciated and understood, and performed with a uniquely American mastery.
This fall the Philharmonic celebrates the 75th anniversary of that groundbreaking European visit with a two-part tour to Europe, led by Music Director Lorin Maazel, and underwritten, in part, by Citigroup. Jet flight being speedier than the ocean greyhounds of old, the Orchestra is able to do some accelerated globe-trotting. The Philharmonic visited Frankfurt, Baden-Baden, Lucerne, Essen, Bonn, Braunschweig, and Berlin between September 1 and 13; performed in Avery Fisher Hall last month and this; and will head back to Europe for concerts in Brussels, Amsterdam, Düsseldorf, Luxembourg, Dresden, and Munich from November 10 through 20.
Soloists for the 2005 tour constitute a starry roster. The September concerts featured violinist Gil Shaham, soprano Melanie Diener, pianist Lang Lang, and two of the Philharmonic's own: Principal Cello Carter Brey and Principal Viola Cynthia Phelps. In November cellist Jan Vogler will return, pianist Margarita Höhenrieder will make her Philharmonic debut, and soprano Anna Larsson will sing works of Mahler.
Berlin, Dresden, Munich, and Brussels were destinations on the 1930 tour, and two of the works in the repertoire on that first trip are being performed on the 75th Anniversary Tour: Richard Strauss's Death and Transfiguration and Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Interest in the Philharmonic was high during the 1930 visit: one concert in Berlin was attended by Leopold Stokowski, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber, and Otto Klemperer, among other conducting luminaries. The New Yorkers, by all accounts, rose to the challenge. The New York Post reported breathlessly, "German Critics Call N.Y. Philharmonic Greatest Orchestra in the World." Even allowing for home-team boosterism, the reviews were excellent and audiences ecstatic. Curtain calls went on so long following one performance that Toscanini finally appeared in his hat and topcoat for a last bow.
This year, history has repeated itself. Although music lovers around the world can now hear a Philharmonic concert with the click of a mouse, European audiences jammed the halls for the Philharmonic's September 2005 appearances, and stomped and cheered until all the encores were exhausted. DPA, a German news service, wrote of the Orchestra's first concert, in Frankfurt: "The highest musical standards, a diversified program, consummate sound, and an impressive conductor made the evening perfect." The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung critic reported that "Maazel and his musicians effortlessly succeeded in astonishing the audience," and that following the final work of the program "frenetic applause" broke out, requiring two encores.
Much has changed in the decades since that historic visit in 1930, but as reactions to the current tour demonstrate, the essential mission of touring ‹ bringing live classical music to people around the world ‹ remains as vital as ever. That tours can foster international good will is perhaps best illustrated by the Philharmonic's upcoming concerts in Dresden, where the Orchestra has performed twice before: in 1930 with Toscanini, and in 1985 with then-Music Director Zubin Mehta. On its November visit the Orchestra and Lorin Maazel will give three concerts in that city's storied Frauenkirche (Church of Our Blessed Lady), a Baroque gem destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II. The church has recently been rebuilt and is being reconsecrated this month. Among the works on the three programs is the World Premiere, on November 17, of Colin Matthews's Berceuse for Dresden, which was commissioned by the Friends of the Dresden Music Foundation to commemorate the renovation of the cathedral. Ten days later, the work will receive its U.S. premiere at Avery Fisher Hall, again led by Mr. Maazel.
"I think I speak for all of us at the Philharmonic when I say that being asked to perform at the reopening of this architectural treasure holds great meaning," says Mr. Maazel. "An American orchestra, with an American conductor, will perform new music by a British composer at a German landmark scarred by war. Surely music in this instance serves a mission of peace."
The world is different from what it was in 1930, but the fundamental things apply. Reporting on audience reaction to a Philharmonic concert in Belgium during the 1930 European tour, The New York Times reported: "There was wave after wave of thunderous applause." Some things never change.
Robert Sandla writes frequently about the performing arts.