21 Oct 2022

Across the Pond!

When the Berliner Philharmoniker set off on their first tour of the USA and Canada in February 1955, the tour organisers had a few anxious, desperate and stressful weeks behind them. So much so, that the project had come close to being cancelled.

Wilhelm Furtwängler, the chief conductor of the orchestra, who the American musical world had been much looking forward to, had died in November 1954, and a suitable “replacement” needed to be found in a hurry.

For the Philharmoniker, the then 46-year-old Herbert von Karajan, who had also agreed to step in, appeared to be the most suitable. He saw this as his chance to qualify as Furtwängler’s successor as the orchestra’s chief conductor. 

The orchstra is going off a plane.

Ready for first the American tour in 1955 (Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

Musical Triumph

From their very first concert at Constitution Hall in Washington, the Berliner Philharmoniker’s artistic qualities convinced both press and public alike. “Even when playing quickly and quietly, the sound is always full. 

The strings have a precise, glowing tone of rare warmth and vitality. The woodwinds never play too loud,” wrote the Washington Post enthusiastically. Almost everywhere, critics praised the tonal and mental homogeneity of the orchestra as its outstanding feature.

 The tour made extreme demands on the musicians and conductor: Within five weeks, they gave 26 concerts in 21 cities in the USA and Canada. The concert programmes were created from a pool of 20 compositions, ranging from works by Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Berlioz and Strauss to Blacher and Barber. 

 For financial reasons, the musicians travelled by bus, while trucks transported the instruments. But the effort was well worth it. This tour laid the foundation for the enthusiastic reaction the orchestra receives in the USA and Canada today. The tour also had a political dimension: It was considered a bridge building exercise to foster goodwill between Germany and the USA.

Group photo of the orchestra in front of Disneyland

1982: The orchestra visits Disneyland (Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

Welcome guests

From then on, the Berliner Philharmoniker toured North America on a regular basis – every three to five years on average. In 1986, the year in which Herbert von Karajan celebrated his 30th year as chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, a tour was planned which included not only the USA, but also Japan, where the Philharmoniker were the first foreign orchestra invited to appear in the newly opened Suntory Hall in Tokyo. 

Although the tour schedule was kept relatively light in view of Karajan’s health – eight concerts in three weeks – the organisers had to pull out all the stops again: This time, Karajan had to cancel due to illness at short notice, and a feverish search began for replacements.

“Will it be possible to sell the Philharmoniker without Karajan?” asked the critic of the Boston Globe. Under the shared direction of Seiji Ozawa and James Levine, the orchestra proved it was just as compelling without the participation of the legendary maestro.

Claudio Abbado and the orchestra receiving applause at Carnagie Hall

1993: For the very first time with Claudio Abbado at Carnegie Hall (Photo: Archiv Berliner Philharmoniker)

Curiosity about the “new guy”

Following a guest appearance in New York, which the orchestra had given under the baton of Bernard Haitink in 1991 for the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Hall, they went to North America for the first time with their new chief, Claudio Abbado, in October 1993, and for the first time in 32 years, the Philharmoniker gave a guest performance in Toronto, Canada – with an all-Mahler programme.

Expectations were as high as the black market prices for tickets. Of course, the “new guy” would be measured against Karajan. Critics reacted in different ways: some were enthusiastic, some more cautious while noticing the artistic spirit of new beginnings and found that the sound of the orchestra possessed more warmth than under Karajan. 

In 1996 and 1998, the Philharmoniker made guest appearances with Abbado in New York, and in 1999 and 2001 he accompanied them to New York, Boston, Chicago, Ann Arbor and Costa Mesa (only in 2001).

The 2001 tour took place under the shadow of the September 11 attacks and became a show of sympathy from the orchestra for the shocked country.

Modern Times

In November 2016, the Berliner Philharmoniker went on tour in the USA for the very last time with Sir Simon Rattle, performing in New York, Boston, Ann Arbor, Toronto, Los Angeles, Costa Mesa and San Francisco. They performed two concert programmes: The first included Pierre Boulez’ Éclat and Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, while the second included orchestral pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg and Johannes Brahms’ Second Symphony.

This year, the orchestra goes on USA tour for the very first time with chief conductor Kirill Petrenko. Follow along (almost) live in our tour blog!