The New York Philharmonic began the 2017–18 season with a truly global celebration—a concert experienced by 3,000 in person at David Geffen Hall, and by more than approximately 50,000 worldwide courtesy of the Facebook Live broadcast, their reactions floating across screens through emojis and shout-outs to friends and to the musicians onstage. That shared, real-time musical experience would have astounded the Orchestra’s founders, but we can bet they would have cheered. After all, their precedent-setting, forward-looking philosophy made an embrace of the new and innovative part of the Orchestra’s DNA from the start.
We celebrate that beginning with our 175th birthday concert on December 7. The very first concert of the newly formed Philharmonic Society of New York was performed on that date in 1842 by 54 musicians for an audience of about 600 in the Apollo Rooms, a meeting hall and performance space on Broadway just south of Canal in what was then the bustling center of the city.
The players—representing the most respected talent in the city—were drawn together by a desire to offer something different from the theatre and pick-up ensembles heard around town. The goal of presenting consistently high-caliber concerts was paramount, but so was a desire to set the standard for what an American orchestra could become when freed from the shadow of European musical dominance.
Some approaches were radical: musicians would be members of the orchestra and participate in its operations; there would be a set rehearsal and performance schedule with penalties for absences; concert tickets would be sold on a subscription basis (ten dollars secured four tickets to the season’s three concerts); the repertoire would focus on masterpieces, but a committee would be formed to review works by American composers to recommend at least one to be performed each season.
From the start this new Philharmonic sought to make the orchestra experience accessible and meaningful to New York City’s growing population. In the first two seasons it opened rehearsals to “Associate Members,” a new category of subscribers who could now attend rehearsals, which for the first time made it possible for women to attend without the male escorts needed for night-time excursions. And the Orchestra performed the U.S. Premieres of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 3, 7, and 8; in 1846 it offered the first English translation of the choral text for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
As the country expanded westward, the Philharmonic became the first U.S. orchestra to tour the Mississippi, in 1882, traveling as far as Detroit and Kansas City. Regular statewide and regional tours made the Philharmonic a familiar name, while World Premieres by such eminent composers as Dvořák (Symphony No. 9, From the New World), Tchaikovsky (Piano Concerto No. 2), and Rachmaninoff (Piano Concerto No. 3) solidified the Orchestra’s reputation by 1909, enough to lure Gustav Mahler to be Music Director.
This became the first American orchestra to stake a claim on the international cultural map, in 1930, when the mighty Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini presided over an ambitious European tour. Later travels made the Philharmonic America’s cultural ambassador, as when then Music Director Leonard Bernstein led performances in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev in 1959, during the height of the Cold War. In 2008 the Orchestra acted on its belief in music’s power to bring people together when it became the first Western orchestra to perform in North Korea.
A willingness to experiment with new outlets made it possible for an ever-widening circle of listeners to become familiar with musicians, conductors, and symphonic repertoire. The Philharmonic had already been a regular presence on the national airwaves for three decades when Bernstein made must-see television viewing of Young People’s Concerts, beginning in 1958. With the breathtaking pace of technological advancement in recent decades, the Orchestra has redefined and stretched the boundaries of the concertgoing experience, becoming the first orchestra to develop a smartphone app and to produce its own concert webcast. Ever mindful of how the past informs the present, the Philharmonic Archives’ vast cache of photos, documents, scores, and programs have been made available through the Leon Levy Digital Archives, so visitors worldwide can freely access materials dating back to 1842.
As we celebrate this very big birthday, we can see so many ways to experience and connect with the Philharmonic, from the rich stock of our LPs, CDs, and DVDs found in homes across America, to recent photos shared on Instagram. We are 175 years young!
Rebecca Winzenried is the Program and Publications Editor at the New York Philharmonic.