The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, Russia’s oldest symphonic ensemble, was founded in 1882. In that year, by Order of Alexander III, the Court Musical Choir was established – the prototype of today’s Honoured Collective of the Russian Federation. Thus, in 2007, the orchestra celebrated its 125th anniversary. The Musicians’ Choir was founded to perform in the ‘imperial presence’ – at receptions and official ceremonies and at the balls, plays and concerts at the Imperial Court. The pinnacle of this type of activity was the participation of the choir in 1896 in the coronation ceremony of Nicholas II.
In 1897 the Court Choir became the Court Orchestra, its musicians having been transferred from the military and given the same rights as other actors of royal theatres. In the early 20th century the orchestra was permitted to perform at commercial concerts for the general public. The series of concerts ‘Orchestral Collections of New Music’ saw the first Russian performances of Richard Strauss’ symphonic poems Ein Heldenleben and Also sprach Zarathustra, Mahler’s First Symphony, Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony and Skryabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. There was a ‘historical series’, concerts featuring the works of a single composer and a series of subscription concerts, some of which were accompanied by a lecture or an introductory address. Among the conductors were worldrenowned musicians such as Richard Strauss, Arthur Nikisch, Alexander Glazunov and Serge Koussevitsky. In 1917 the Orchestra became the State Orchestra and following the Decree of 1921 it was incorporated into the newly founded Petrograd Philharmonic, the first of its kind in the country. Shortly afterwards an unprecedented number of great Western conductors began to come to conduct the orchestra. Their names enjoy unquestioned authority in today’s musical world: Otto Klemperer (who also conducted the subscription concerts), Bruno Walter, Felix Weingartner and many more. Soloists Vladimir Horowitz and Sergey Prokofiev (the latter performing his piano concertos) appeared with the orchestra. On the initiative of foreign conductors, the orchestra began to play modern repertoire – Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Hindemith, Honegger, Poulenc and continued to premiere the music of contemporary Russian composers. Back in 1918, directed by the composer, the orchestra had premiered the Classical Symphony of Prokofiev, and in 1926 Shostakovich made his debut when Nikolay Malko conducted Shostakovich’s First Symphony in the Great Hall of the Philharmonia. In 1934 the orchestra was the first in the country to receive the title of the Honoured Orchestra of the Republic. Four years later Evgeny Mravinsky, the First Prize winner of the National Conductors Competition, joined the orchestra and for the next 50 years he gradually transformed it into one of the best orchestras in the world. For the performance of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich symphonies, the orchestra rapidly became ‘the model’. The orchestra’s virtuosity put it on a par with the orchestras of von Karajan and Walter and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra as the best interpreters of Mozart during the Viennese festival dedicated to Mozart’s 200th anniversary. Unique in the musical world was also the creative alliance of Mravinsky and Shostakovich. Many of the symphonies were premiered by Mravinsky and they became the centerpieces of the repertoire, both at home and abroad on tour. We may imagine how deeply Shostakovich appreciated this collaboration when he dedicated the Eighth Symphony to Mravinsky. The orchestra also performed in this period and beyond with other famous conductors including Leopold Stokowski, Igor Markevich, Kurt Sanderling, Arvid Jansons, Mariss Jansons, Gennady Rozhdestvensky and Evgeny Svetlanov. In 1988 on the initiative of the orchestra, Yuri Temirkanov became the principal conductor of the most famous national orchestra. So began the ‘Temirkanov era’, the period of collaboration with one of the most sought-after conductors of our times. In the last few years the orchestra has given many world premieres and opened the 2005/2006 season at Carnegie Hall, the culmination of its performances in all the most prestigious concert halls of the world. In 2006/7, after a long gap, the orchestra went for the first time on a large-scale concert tour around Russia. It performed in Siberia in Irkutsk, Surgut, Khanty-Mansiysk and took part in the 2nd International Music Festival ‘Stars at Baikal’. The tour finished with great success in Moscow where in June 2007 the orchestra closed the 2nd Festival of the World Symphony Orchestras. 2007/8 saw the orchestra celebrating its 125th anniversary and in December 2008 Yuri Temirkanov’s 70th birthday. In the newly refurbished Philharmonic Hall the orchestra gave with Krzysztof Penderecki the first St. Petersburg performance of his Polish Requiem, took part in a concert with Rodion Shchedrin in which the composer played his First Piano Concerto, performed at the MarathonConcert for the International Music Day and celebrated the 125th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky. The orchestra also visited the USA with a major concert tour, including several performances in Carnegie Hall. In March 2009 the orchestra inaugurated the recording studio of the St Petersburg Philharmonia with a performance in the Great Hall of Verdi’s Requiem .