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.
But the involvement of Karajan brought new problems: An American industrialist who was going to cover the travelling expenses of the orchestra withdrew his offer. Also, indignant voices were raised in the USA.
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 seen by the American Musicians Union and Jewish organisations as an affront. Against this background, it seemed questionable whether the tour would be a success. Was it worth the risk? The organisers, especially André Mertens, vice president of the American concert agency Columbia Artists Management, nevertheless went all out to make the tour a reality.
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.
As early as the October of the next, the Philharmoniker and Karajan undertook a second concert tour, and a third followed in 1961 during which Karajan and Karl Böhm shared the musical direction.
They performed in such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall in New York and Boston Symphony Hall as well as in university auditoriums in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and East Lansing, Michigan.
The musical baggage had become somewhat lighter: only 12 works, mainly from the Classical and Romantic repertoire, including Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Michel Schwalbé, then first concertmaster, as the soloist.
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.
Curiosity about the “new guy”
The Karajan era came to an end. The chief conductor of the Philharmoniker died in 1989. 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.
The presence of new, younger musicians was mentioned favourably time and again. 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.
The next tour in November 2003 was again expected with the greatest excitement in the USA: Sir Simon Rattle had then taken over the baton and the Americans were curious to see how the Philharmoniker would be under his direction.
The completely new concert programming was the first thing to stand out. There was not the usual German-Romantic repertoire, rather Rattle focused on a combination of classical, modern and contemporary works. Alongside Joseph Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 86 and 88, Claude Debussy’s La Mer and Franz Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony, programmes also included György Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, Heiner Goebbels’ Aus einem Tagebuch and Henri Dutilleux’ Correspondances, the latter two works were commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker and received their first American performances.
So much avant-garde was something completely unaccustomed from the German orchestra. But Rattle’s energetic, captivating conducting style was highly acclaimed. The American tours have seen many highlights, such as the 2007 Residency in New York's Carnegie Hall when the orchestra was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, or the Schumann and Beethoven cycles in 2014 and 2015, to name just a few.
From 9 to 23 November, the Berliner Philharmoniker and their chief conductor are once again on tour in North America, performing in New York, Boston, Ann Arbor, Toronto, Los Angeles, Costa Mesa and San Francisco.
On this occasion, they will perform two concert programmes: The first includes Pierre Boulez’ Éclat and Gustav Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, while the second includes orchestral pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg and Johannes Brahms’ Second Symphony.
Two programmes which reflect the modern times that dawned with Simon Rattle. At the same time, this tour also marks the end of an era: It is the last time that Rattle will accompany the orchestra to the USA and Canada as their chief conductor.