Carnegie Hall in New York is one of the most famous and glamorous concert halls in the world. Funded by the American industrialist Andrew Carnegie and built by architect William Burnet Tuthill, it has served as a stage for outstanding concert events since it opened in 1891. Anyone who performs there is among the elite of the music world. The Berliner Philharmoniker is one of the regular guests of the house – and has been for 60 years. It made its debut there on 1 March 1955 during their first American tour, which Columbia Artists Management had planned together with Wilhelm Furtwängler. A German orchestra under a German conductor with works of German Classicism and Romanticism – that was the idea of the organisers. However, the Philharmoniker’s chief conductor had died in November 1954, and the “orphaned” orchestra had to quickly take on a new conductor: Herbert von Karajan.
Herbert von Karajan’s big chance
The then 46-year-old Karajan, who had long been working on succeeding Furtwängler, saw his hour had come. On this tour, he could prove just how well he and the orchestra harmonized. With Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, the Prelude and Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he would woo the New York audience. The German guests, however, were not welcomed by all Americans. Ten years after the end of the Second World War, the horrors of the Nazi regime were still fresh in people’s minds and the appearance of the former Nazi party member Karajan was felt by many as an affront. Outside Carnegie Hall, the protesters demonstrated, while inside, the Berliner Philharmoniker and their new chief conductor were winning over the audience, earning thunderous applause. “A superior concert!” cheered the critic of the New York Journal-American. Karajan was an “outstanding conductor”. The guest appearance was very positively received by the press, who admired the homogeneous string sound and the wonderful phrasing of the Philharmoniker, yet they often pointed out that the sound was not as full or brilliant as American orchestras. Just one year later, the Berliner Philharmoniker and Karajan returned to Carnegie Hall.
A Beethoven cycle and a death threat
Further guest appearances followed in 1961 and 1976. In between, there was a guest performance in 1965 when Karajan and the Berliner Philharmoniker became the first foreign orchestra to perform a Beethoven cycle. However, the public still had reservations about the conductor: Before the first concert, Karajan received a death threat and the evening took place under police protection. While the audience celebrated the orchestra from the start, the critics reacted with a certain coolness after the first concert. Karajan's Beethoven interpretation was “aseptic”, “expressionless”, “disappointing”. But that opinion changed during the cycle. After the performance of the Ninth Symphony, the Journal American wrote, “Nothing like that has been heard here since Toscanini.” The conductor and orchestra guaranteed a full house. The 1982/1983 season marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Johannes Brahms and to celebrate this event, the orchestra presented a Brahms cycle in the October of 1982. One reviewer remarked that it would probably be the last occasion to experience the Philharmoniker with the then 74-year-old maestro in New York. Prophetic words indeed.
A spirit of a new beginning
The next Carnegie guest performance by the orchestra in 1991 for the 100th anniversary of the concert hall took place without Karajan who had died in 1989. However, the Philharmoniker did not travel with its new boss, Claudio Abbado, but with Bernard Haitink. The New Yorkers had the opportunity to hear Abbado and the Berliner Philharmoniker two years later – in an all-Mahler programme. Expectations were as high as the black market prices for tickets. The first two concerts did not convince audiences, but the orchestra was greeted with the usual enthusiasm again after a performance of Mahler’s Ninth on the third evening. The critics reacted cautiously, while noticing the artistic spirit of a new beginning and found that the sound of the orchestra possessed more warmth than under Karajan. The new principal wind players received a special mention in the press: principal flautist Emmanuel Pahud, principal horn Stefan Dohr, principal clarinettist Wenzel Fuchs and principal oboist Albrecht Mayer had all recently joined the orchestra and impressed the critics with their youthful music-making. After this debut, further performances with Claudio Abbado at Carnegie Hall followed in 1996, 1998 and 2001, with Mahler, Brahms and Beethoven forming the core of the repertoire.
With Sir Simon Rattle, the programming of the guest performances changed. In addition to Joseph Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 86 and 88, Claude Debussy’s La Mer and Franz Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony, the new artistic director conducted György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, Henri Dutilleux’ Correspondences and Heiner Goebbels’ Aus einem Tagebuch for his first New York appearance with the Philharmoniker in November 2003. Since then, works by contemporary composers have been included in the orchestra’s touring repertoire. The Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation and the Carnegie Hall Corporation began to commission works together, such as Thomas Adès’ work Tevót which the orchestra presented to New York audiences at the Festival Berlin in Lights in 2007. During this festival, which also involved the education programme’s Rites of Spring project, the Philharmoniker was appointed a UNICEF ambassador. In October 2014, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker's Carnegie Hall residency included their Schumann cycle; furthermore, there was again a composition the Philharmoniker had commissioned together with Carnegie Hall: darkdreams by Georg Friedrich Haas. This season, the orchestra and its chief conductor return to New York to play a cycle once more: 50 years after Karajan's spectacular Beethoven cycle, Simon Rattle now presents his reading of the nine symphonies by the master of the First Viennese School.