Avery Fisher Hall
10 Lincoln Center Plaza
New York, New York 10023
Telephone: (212) 875-5900
Fax: (212) 875-5715
Incorporated: 1842 as New York Philharmonic Society
Sales: $34.7 million (2003)
NAIC: 711130 Musical Groups and Artists
Founded in 1842 by a group of local musicians led by American-born Ureli Corelli Hill, the New York Philharmonic is by far the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States and one of the oldest in the world. In continuous operation throughout two-thirds of our nation's history, the Philharmonic has played a leading role in American musical life and development. In 2002-03, the Philharmonic celebrated its 160th anniversary. Currently, the Orchestra plays some 180 concerts a year, most of them in Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, during its September-to-June subscription season.
1842: New York Philharmonic is founded as cooperative society.
1886: Orchestra moves to Metropolitan Opera House.
1909: Philharmonic changes corporate structure from cooperative to nonprofit subsidized orchestra.
1911: Joseph Pulitzer wills money to Philharmonic for use as an endowment.
1928: Philharmonic merges with Symphony Society and becomes Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York, Inc.
1930: Philharmonic takes first tour of Europe.
1962: Orchestra moves from Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center.
1991: Kurt Masur becomes Music Director.
2002: Lorin Maazel succeeds Masur.
Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York, Inc., better known as the New York Philharmonic, is the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States and one of the world's most prestigious. The group began as a small cooperative of local musicians and rose to become the leading orchestra of the nation's cultural capital, New York City. The group is housed in New York's vast performing arts complex, Lincoln Center. The New York Philharmonic gives approximately 180 concerts a year, and tours both the United States and abroad. The group is financed through subscriptions and ticket sales, government grants, an endowment fund, and through corporate and individual charitable donations. The New York Philharmonic has long attracted all the biggest names in classical music as soloists and conductors. Its long roster of famed conductors includes Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, and Kurt Masur. Since 2002, the orchestra has been led by Music Director Lorin Maazel.
The orchestra now known as the New York Philharmonic began as a cooperative of professional musicians, the New York Philharmonic Society, which banded together to provide three concerts a year to subscribers. The group was organized by violinist and conductor Ureli Corelli Hill and other musicians. Proceeds of the orchestra's season were divided equally among the members. The New York Philharmonic gave its first performance in a rented hall called the Apollo Rooms in December 1842, playing what was only the second New York hearing of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. New York was a growing metropolis, already one of the ten largest cities in the world, and it boasted a strong cohort of musicians, many of them immigrants from Germany. In 1842, larger orchestras of more than 60 players were becoming quite popular. The Philharmonic Society began with 70 members, about 40 percent of them of German origin. In its first year, the group brought in $1,855, and in its second year raised that to almost $2,500. As ticket sales increased, the cooperative paid out a bigger dividend to its members, and also put money aside for members in need--the rudiments of a health benefits and pension plan.
The young orchestra was an immediate success. It brought in as a soloist one of the world's leading violinists, Henri Vieuxtemps, in 1843, and invited such illustrious guest conductors as Louis Spohr and Felix Mendelssohn (neither Spohr nor Mendelssohn was able to travel to New York, but they did become honorary members of the cooperative.) The group played what was cutting-edge contemporary music of the era: Beethoven, Hummel, Rossini, Berlioz and Verdi. Encouraged by its warm reception in New York, the orchestra made plans to build a permanent concert hall for itself. To aid in fundraising (and collection of debts), the group decided to incorporate. With some governmental foot dragging, this finally occurred in February, 1853. By its 1856-57 season, the orchestra was bringing in as much as $14,000 annually. Ticket sales grew when it decided to admit women as subscribers in 1847, and then to allow single ticket sales for friends of season subscribers. The group weathered financial panics, fires, and the Civil War, as well as competition from other orchestras and glamorous soloists in New York.
The New York Philharmonic had an array of conductors in its early years, and played at many different venues. In 1879 it hired conductor Theodore Thomas, who brought some stability to the group by remaining its head until 1891. Thomas had been the conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and that group had siphoned off many of the New York Philharmonic's best players. The two groups often performed on the same night, and contemporary critics generally preferred the Brooklyn ensemble. The New York Philharmonic enticed Thomas with the princely salary of $2,500. His tenure was a time of growing financial stability for the Philharmonic Society. It moved to better quarters in the just-built Metropolitan Opera House in 1886. In 1891, Thomas abruptly decamped to Chicago. He was replaced with the Hungarian-American conductor Anton Seidl. Seidl was well-respected by critics and audiences. He notably premiered Anton Dvorak's Ninth Symphony, the American-influenced "From the New World," in 1893.
Changes in Structure in the Early 20th Century
The New York Philharmonic Society maintained its cooperative governing structure until 1909. Yet as early as the 1880s, the group's direction was influenced by wealthy New York patrons. The Society's president handled the business affairs of the group, and this position had been filled by professional musicians until 1867, when a chemist, R. Ogden Doremus, took the job. Doremus and other succeeding presidents were devoted music-lovers, though not professionals. In the 1880s, the job of president was filled by a series of extremely prominent New Yorkers, known for their great wealth. International banker Joseph Drexel held the post from 1881 to 1888, when the job passed to corporate lawyer E. Francis Hyde. In 1902, the Philharmonic's presidency passed to one of the most prominent men in the nation, Andrew Carnegie. The orchestra had found a new home in the concert hall Carnegie endowed, Carnegie Hall, in 1893 (after the Metropolitan Opera House was destroyed by fire.) Under Carnegie's leadership, the Philharmonic Society began to invest in European celebrity conductors. The orchestra had made do with two unpopular conductors after the sudden death of Anton Seidl in 1898, and ticket receipts fell. Carnegie came up with a plan to give the orchestra a large permanent endowment fund, and to bring in exciting guest conductors from Europe. Instead of one principal conductor, the Philharmonic's season was split among as many as seven European superstars. Then from 1906 to 1909, the orchestra had one principal conductor, the Russian Vassily Safonoff.
Though the Philharmonic brought in exciting and world famous conductors, it was not the only high-caliber orchestra in the region. Walter Damrosch, who had led the New York Philharmonic for one miserable season, had his own acclaimed orchestra in the city, the Symphony Society of New York. The Metropolitan Opera was also enjoying enormous success in the early years of the 20th century. Boston and Pittsburgh too had large symphony orchestras with dynamic leaders. The New York Philharmonic often suffered from the comparison when these orchestras toured New York.
By the 1890s, the orchestra was relying increasingly on substitutes rather than actual members to play its concerts. By 1909, out of the 100-piece orchestra, only 37 players were Philharmonic Society members. The orchestra had ballooning expenses as it paid thousands of dollars in advertising. Its big-name conductors and soloists were paid for out of separate funds raised by its philanthropist board members, while the members' dividends remained modest, and many played dance music at other venues to make ends meet. The orchestra's cooperative governing structure was seeming less and less able to meet the group's needs.
In 1909, the Philharmonic's wealthy backers took over the orchestra in order to guarantee its continued existence. Elections for board members were suspended, and business affairs were instead turned over to a Committee of Guarantors. These Guarantors were able to put up tens of thousands of dollars of their own money towards the orchestra's expenses, and in exchange, the committee gained the authority to hire the conductor and business manager, and to contract with the musicians. The orchestra players were guaranteed a salary of $35 a week. The Philharmonic Society voted to suspend its old governance system, and the group became, like most of its competitors, a professional orchestra subsidized by wealthy backers. The new governors immediately made waves by hiring none other than composer Gustav Mahler as the Philharmonic's next conductor. Mahler brought in his own concertmaster and made many other changes in personnel. Mahler took the orchestra on tour for the first time, and offered an expanded menu of concerts, including a series in Brooklyn and a series of "educational" Sunday concerts.
Mahler was apparently too radical in his musical tastes for New York, and audiences shrank. He died in 1911 and was replaced by Josef Stransky. The orchestra had changed greatly under Mahler's leadership, with very few of the pre-1909 players left in the orchestra. On its sounder financial footing, the orchestra was now able to guarantee its players a decent salary, and to play more concerts and tour. In 1911, the newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer died, and willed the New York Philharmonic $500,000 plus other sums, to be used as a permanent endowment. This was another crucial step in guaranteeing the orchestra's future and the expansion of its capabilities. The Philharmonic made its first recordings in 1917, and reached broader audiences through radio beginning in 1923. The orchestra also began a summer stadium concert series, which ran from 1922 until 1951, and began offering special children's concerts in 1924. In 1928 the Philharmonic finessed a merger with one of its major New York competitors, the National Symphony Orchestra. The group, though still colloquially known as the New York Philharmonic, took the official name the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York.
After the merger with the National Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic came into its own as the New York orchestra. Following several seasons under principal conductor Willem Mengelberg and various guest conductors, the Philharmonic landed the most acclaimed conductor of the era, Arturo Toscanini. After sharing the top billing with Mengelberg, Toscanini became the principal conductor in 1930, when he took the group on its first European tour. Toscanini was the most charismatic of conductors, handsome, with a terrible temper, known for the purity and discipline of his interpretations. He brought enormous crowds to Carnegie Hall. Nevertheless, during the years of the Great Depression, the Philharmonic found itself in financial difficulties. Toscanini was paid a high salary, reputedly $100,000 for ten weeks of performances, and ticket sales tended to die down for the part of the season when the great man was not on the podium. The orchestra players agreed to a 10 percent pay cut in the early 1930s, giving them on average about $90 a week for a 30-week season. Yet by 1934, the Philharmonic's financial position had grown so precarious that the group started an emergency fundraising campaign. The orchestra hoped to raise $500,000 in order to meet immediate needs. Other arts groups in the city also suffered from the severe economic cutbacks of the time. As an economizing measure, it was suggested that the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera merge. But Toscanini did not approve, and the merger plans were abandoned.
Toscanini left the Philharmonic in 1936. He was replaced by a much more modest conductor, the Englishman John Barbirolli. He was principal conductor from 1936 to 1941. During that time, the orchestra retrenched. It brought its number of players down to 102 from 107, played a 24-week season instead of 30, and cut costs by almost 25 percent, mostly by saving on guest conductor and guest artist fees. The orchestra returned to financial stability by the late 1930s, and the Philharmonic went on several lengthy tours.
During World War II, the Philharmonic played at military camps, bases, and hospitals. Members of the orchestra were able to donate two ambulances to the Red Cross. The Philharmonic was headed by a series of guest conductors after Barbirolli left in 1941, and then it hired Artur Rodzinski in 1943 as principal conductor and Musical Director. Rodzinski remained in place until 1949, presiding over a time of relative financial ease for the Philharmonic. The orchestra instituted a formal pension plan in 1944, which was a model for orchestras across the nation. The orchestra also began broadcasting summer Sunday radio concerts nationwide during Rodzinski's tenure, supplementing existing fall and winter broadcasts. The summer broadcast concerts featured some of the leading soloists and guest conductors of the time, and led to a grand tour of 17 states in the summer of 1947.
Rodzinski resigned in 1947, and the job of principal conductor went to the eminent German Bruno Walter. Walter also took the title of Musical Adviser (sic), overseeing a very broad repertoire and an assortment of guest conductors. Walter was already in his 70s when he took the post, and he had apparently not planned to stay for long with the Philharmonic. Two conductors, Leopold Stokowski and Dimitri Mitropoulos, shared the principal conductor role for the 1949 to 1950 season. Mitropoulos was principal conductor alone from 1950 to 1957. One of the most significant changes in the orchestra's history came in the mid-1950s, when it finalized plans to leave its home in Carnegie Hall and move to a proposed new midtown arts center, Lincoln Center.
The Move to Lincoln Center
The Philharmonic's management had been involved in planning for a new arts center since at least 1953. A section of midtown Manhattan known as Lincoln Square was to be razed, and various groups came together to propose building a performing arts complex there. The Philharmonic's home, Carnegie Hall, was scheduled to be knocked down, and the orchestra thus was under pressure to find new quarters by 1959. A nonprofit group, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc., incorporated in 1956, and ground was broken for the new center in 1959. The Philharmonic moved into its new home, Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall, in 1962.
The new Philharmonic Hall at first proved a big disappointment. Carnegie Hall was at the last minute saved from the wrecking ball, and audiences and performers alike wistfully recalled the warmer acoustics of the old place. The new hall had been meticulously engineered, but it was nevertheless not acoustically balanced, and a few months after it opened, it had to undergo a substantial overhaul. One of the Philharmonic's frequent guest conductors, George Szell, gave this scathing account of the result of the refurbishment (as quoted in Howard Shanet, Philharmonic: A History of New York's Orchestra): "Imagine a woman, lame, a hunchback, cross-eyed and with two warts. They've removed the warts." More changes were made in 1964 and 1965. Finally a three-month, $1.25 million renovation in 1969 made the hall, now Avery Fisher Hall, a satisfying place to play and hear music. The hall was redesigned yet again in 1976.
The Bernstein Years: 1958-69
During the years the Philharmonic was moving into its new quarters, it gained a new conductor, the American Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein had been an assistant conductor with the Philharmonic in 1943 when he was 25 years old, and the young man had made a thrilling debut, filling in at the last minute for Bruno Walter. Bernstein was a flamboyant, warm-hearted conductor, one of the few American conductors the orchestra had ever had, and his character was very much attuned to the times. He became well-known to television audiences, and he was immensely popular as the conductor of the Philharmonic's children's concerts and free concerts in the park. Bernstein, a composer himself, championed American music in a way few of the Philharmonic's conductors had. During his tenure, the orchestra vastly increased the number of concerts it gave. Its subscription series was generally completely sold out during the 1960s, and the Philharmonic's free outdoor concerts attracted huge audiences. One outdoor concert in 1966, with Bernstein conducting Beethoven and Stravinsky, attracted an audience estimated at more than 75,000 people.
The New York Philharmonic became firmly identified with Bernstein, who embodied a certain verve and glow that made him enduringly popular. The orchestra made as many as 200 recordings under Bernstein. These sold well, and royalties from recordings became a significant source of income for the Philharmonic Society. The orchestra expanded its repertoire in the Bernstein years, playing everything from Baroque music to electronic compositions to musical theater. Bernstein also stretched the roster of guest conductors the orchestra called on, bringing in many canonical European conductors such as Nadia Boulanger and Herbert van Karajan and varied composer-conductors such as Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, and Darius Milhaud.
The 1970s and 1980s
The orchestra reached a musical high point under Bernstein. Nevertheless, it was not free of financial worries. It had greatly expanded its programming, and by the end of the 1960s its musicians had a 52-week contract. Expenses always outran income, though the gap was made up by contributions from patrons and from the Philharmonic's endowment. In 1969, the Philharmonic banded together with the four other leading American orchestras--the Boston Symphony, the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra--and hired a management consultant firm to analyze the financial outlook of the groups. Of the five, the New York Philharmonic was in the best financial shape. The others were all running deficits, while the Philharmonic had a small surplus. But the economic picture such organizations presented was not bright. The five-orchestra group, led by the Philharmonic's board president, decided to petition the federal government for aid through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Despite the federal government's own fiscal worries, in 1970 President Nixon signed a bill authorizing some $40 million for the NEA. Only a small percentage of this actually reached the Philharmonic, but it represented a milestone in U.S. government support of symphony orchestras. The New York Philharmonic on its own then asked the New York state legislature for a grant. To its immense surprise, the legislature complied with a broad appropriation to go to many of the state's nonprofit arts groups. The fundraising and business aspect of running the Philharmonic had become so complex by the early 1970s that the board decided for the first time to make the job of president a full-time salaried position. Back when the post had been filled by such figures as Andrew Carnegie, it was not considered a full-time job but an extra obligation, and wealthy men like Carnegie had no need of a salary from the Philharmonic Society. The hiring of a salaried executive was a sign that running the Philharmonic had become much more daunting.
Leonard Bernstein conducted his farewell concert in 1969. He was followed by several guest conductors, until Pierre Boulez took over in 1971. Boulez presided until 1978. He was known as a daring modernist, and he presented quite a contrast with Bernstein. Subscription sales dropped somewhat during Boulez's tenure. He was followed in 1978 by Zubin Mehta. From the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, the orchestra grew and prospered in many ways. Salaries for the players rose markedly. In the mid-1970s, the annual minimum salary for a Philharmonic player was just under $20,000. The minimum rose to almost $60,000 by 1990. The number of season ticket subscribers also grew, from a little more than 27,000 for the 1977-78 season to more than 37,000 subscribers in 1990. The orchestra's endowment fund rose from under $10 million in the mid-1970s to $69 million by 1990. Audiences seemed to appreciate Mehta's warmth. He enjoyed a very long stay as principal conductor, leaving in 1991, when he was replaced by Kurt Masur.
New Directions in the 1990s and 2000s
When Mehta resigned, so did the Philharmonic's managing director, who had been with the orchestra since 1975. The new managing director, Deborah Borda, came to a difficult task of keeping balance between the orchestra's artistic needs and financial possibilities. Government support for the Philharmonic dropped off in the 1990s, as many arts groups across the country turned increasingly to private donations. The Philharmonic maintained balanced budgets through the mid-1990s, though not without work. Many orchestras, both large like the Philharmonic and smaller regional groups, suffered poor labor relations in the 1990s, with strikes, lockouts, bitterly contested pay cuts, and much wrangling over the cost of health benefits. The New York Philharmonic came close to a strike over contract negotiations in 1995, while in 1996 and 1997 the orchestras in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and San Francisco all walked off the job. In 1997, the Philharmonic players signed a six-year contract, though three-year contracts were the industry norm. The contract guaranteed small annual increases in base pay and pensions for most players. The long contract gave the orchestra more years in which it did not have to worry about contentious financial issues.
The orchestra seemed to do well in many ways under Kurt Masur. Joseph Horowitz, writing in the New York Times (September 15, 2002), stated, "For the first time in memory, the orchestra can be depended upon to play with virtuosity and commitment, and not merely when the boss is in charge." But the critic also noted that there had been times when Masur had "stopped conducting, and even left the podium, because the Philharmonic's listeners were quite audibly not listening." Jay Nordlinger, writing for the National Review (July 23, 2001), summed up Masur's stay at the Philharmonic similarly as one of mixed effect, saying "Masur has made this orchestra one of the mightiest in the world, restoring a glory that had been lost. Yet he has been grossly underappreciated here, by his own management, his own players, and the city's critics." Masur was first scheduled to leave in 1998, apparently because of friction between the conductor, the Philharmonic's board, and the players. He then extended his contract through 2002 while the orchestra looked for a replacement.
Masur was followed by the American conductor Lorin Maazel. Maazel had led the Cleveland Orchestra for ten years and was one of the grand names in the international orchestral scene, yet he had not appeared as a guest conductor for the Philharmonic since the 1970s. Maazel seemed to quickly make his mark on the orchestra, and he boasted to the press that subscription ticket sales had risen by 4 percent in his first month as Music Director. The next order of business was apparently to get the orchestra a new hall, as the Philharmonic's Avery Fisher Hall was still plagued by less than satisfactory acoustics. In June 2003, the Philharmonic announced that it was leaving Lincoln Center and moving back to Carnegie Hall. The orchestra and the nonprofit that ran Carnegie Hall would then merge. The decision was prompted in part by a consultant's report on the cost of rebuilding or renovating Avery Fisher Hall, which made moving out seem like the most economical option.
Yet a mere four months later, Carnegie Hall's management and the orchestra announced that the merger plans were off. The Philharmonic was scheduled to remain at Lincoln Center until at least 2011, and Avery Fisher Hall would undergo extensive refitting. The next year, the Philharmonic announced that it had extended Lorin Maazel's contract through 2009. Maazel had originally planned on staying only four years, or through 2006. But the Philharmonic Society's managing director claimed that Maazel was unexpectedly happy at the podium, and he and all other parties involved wanted him to stay on. Also in 2004, the orchestra's musicians ratified another three-year labor contract, assuring some stability to the group.
- Conrad, Willa J., "Harmony Reigns with N.Y. Philharmonic Pact," Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), December 20, 1997, p. 37.
- Gates, David, "The Philharmonic's New 'Admiral' Takes Command," Newsweek, July 9, 2001, p. 56.
- Horowitz, Joseph, "Anybody Listening? A Hapless History," New York Times, September 15, 2002, sec. 2, p. 28.
- Isherwood, Charles, "N.Y. Phil, Carnegie Hall Scuttle Wedding Plans," Daily Variety, October 8, 2003, p. 4.
- Kozinn, Allan, "Philharmonic Appoints Its New Chairman," New York Times, September 18, 1996, p. C15.
- ------, "Who Pulled the Big Five's Plug?" New York Times, February 7, 1993, p. H1.
- Malitz, Nancy, "Arriving on the Fast Track," New York Times, September 15, 1991, p. H25.
- "New York Philharmonic's New Conductor Says Sales Up," Europe Intelligence Wire, October 21, 2002.
- Nordlinger, Jay, "Mere Excellence," National Review, July 23, 2001.
- Pogrebin, Robin, and Ralph Blumenthal, "Philharmonic Deal, Completed Quickly, Left Some in Dark," New York Times, June 3, 2003, pp. A1, B7.
- Rockwell, John, "Administrator Quits Philharmonic," New York Times, October 6, 1990, p. 11.
- Shanet, Howard, Philharmonic: A History of New York's Orchestra, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1975.
- Smith, Patrick J., "Filling the Philharmonic's Podium," New Criterion, April 2001, p. 52.
- "3-Year Deal for N.Y. Philharmonic," Star-Ledger (Newark, N.J.), October 13, 2004, p. 41.
- Tindall, Blair, "The Plight of the White-Tie Worker," New York Times, July 4, 2004.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.69. St. James Press, 2005.