In 2015, the Philharmonia Orchestra celebrates its 70th anniversary. Founded by Walter Legge in 1945, it soon became closely associated with Herbert von Karajan, who was Principal Conductor in all but name. An impressive roster of conductors followed – Otto Klemperer, Riccardo Muti, Giuseppe Sinopoli and Christoph von Dohnányi. Maestro Dohnányi returns for the 70th birthday gala, opening (and closing) the season with Beethoven, before current Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen embarks on two important series.

Esa-Pekka Salonen © Clive Barda
Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Clive Barda
Even those who don’t consider themselves classical music buffs will know of Lang Lang, the irrepressible Chinese pianist with a reputation for barnstorming performances to wow the crowds. But he is also capable of “a wonderfully introspective touch” as our reviewers have noted. Early this season, London audiences can look forward to Lang Lang play Grieg’s evergreen Piano Concerto in A minor, plus earthier fare in the form of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s Third, the most popular of his five piano concertos, a work with moments of sheer poetry.

Under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s visionary leadership, the Philharmonia has undertaken a number of fascinating series, exploring different aspects of music on a particular theme. Last season, City of Light: Paris 1900-1950 provided some memorable experiences, not least wonderful semi-staged performances of Pelléas et Mélisande and L'enfant et les sortilèges. Previous series have explored the music of Béla Bartók (Infernal Dance, 2011) and City of Dreams: Vienna 1900 -1935 (2009). Spanning the end of the 15/16 season and into 16/17, Salonen is at the helm for a five concert Stravinsky festival.

“Myths and Rituals” explores Stravinsky scores inspired by Greek myths and Russian ritual. The Rite of Spring, which caused a scandal at its 1913 première in Paris, still has the power to shock. Less familiar are Les Noces, for which Stravinsky himself wrote the libretto drawing on Russian wedding lyrics, and the one-act satirical opera buffa Mavra. Both these rarities feature in the same programme.

Stravinsky’s collaboration with choreographer George Balanchine is celebrated in September 2016 with Orpheus and Apollon musagète, where the God of music is visited by three muses. Stravinsky neoclassical scores were perfect for the clean, elegant lines of Balanchine’s choreography, but they stand up well in concert too. Perséphone is another rarity; a work for soloists, speaker and dancers. Stravinsky often tested boundaries and labels. Oedipus Rex is described as an “opera-oratorio after Sophocles”. He had originally considered setting the work to Ancient Greek, but settled on Latin instead. Paired with the Symphony of Psalms, the results should be fascinating.

© Philharmonia Orchestra
© Philharmonia Orchestra
Aside from Christoph von Dohnanyi, a couple of other veteran conductors return to the orchestra. Vladimir Ashkenazy conducts a series entitled “The Rachmaninov Project”. Ashkenazy has a special relationship with Rachmaninov’s music; for decades, he was one of the world’s leading exponents of his piano works. As a conductor, Rachmaninov is one of his specialities. The Philharmonia’s series focuses on some of the Russian composer’s greatest works: the Second and Third Symphonies and his final work, the Symphonic Dances, which is – arguably – his very best. If Ashkenazy conducting Rachmaninov is tantalising, then Herbert Blomstedt conducting Bruckner is positively mouthwatering. Although 88, Blomstedt is still incredibly active on the circuit, full of “seemingly boundless energy”. Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 in E flat major is one of the season’s standout concerts.

Young guns are well represented this season too. Man of the moment Andris Nelsons – newly installed with the Boston Symphony and recently announced as the new music director-designate at the Leipzig Gewandhaus – returns to the South Bank, to conduct Bruckner’s mighty Eighth. Another popular young maestro, Edward Gardner, leads the Philharmonia in Elgar’s nostalgic, deeply personal Second Symphony, dedicated to the memory of King Edward VII.

Popular maestro Paavo Järvi conducts a mini-series celebrating Carl Nielsen. Each concert pairs a symphony with a concerto. The Philharmonia’s brilliant principal flautist Samuel Coles performs the heroically testing Flute Concerto in November, alongside the Fifth Symphony, whose first movement has the snare drummer seemingly taking on the entire orchestra! In May, Mark van de Wiel, principal clarinet at the Philharmonia since 2000, tackles the virtuosic, fiery Clarinet Concerto, a piece well contrasted against the Symphony no. 3 “Espansiva”, one of Nielsen’s most life-affirming works.  

© Philharmonia Orchestra
© Philharmonia Orchestra
Other highlights include “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, a celebration of Håkan Hardenberger. Nobody Knows De Trouble I See, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s concerto (which we reviewed recently in Ostrava) should provide the perfect platform for Hardenberger prodigious talent. Hardenberger also performs Rolf Martinsson's Bridge, dedicated to the Swedish trumpeter and commissioned by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra.

Another contemporary concerto this season is Unsuk Chin’s Clarinet Concerto, receiving its UK première. “I am a bit of a sadist,” Chin wrote and the challenges thrown at the soloist are immense. At the US première last autumn, Kari Kriikku – who also performs it in London – dazzled

The Philharmonia takes many of its programmes outside the capital, with residencies in Basingstoke, Bedford, Canterbury and Leicester. This autumn also sees Salonen take his orchestra on a short Swiss tour, with German violinist Arabella Steinbacher. Not just a London orchestra at all.


Article sponsored by Philharmonia Orchestra.