The last orchestra nurtured by famed conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (= RPO) is one of five world-class orchestras based in London, a city where concert life in its modern form has roots three centuries deep. In 1813, a group of professional musicians founded the Philharmonic Society to organize regular concerts of orchestral music, and a century later. this Society was granted a royal charter by King George V, making it the Royal Philharmonic Society (= RPS). Nevertheless, it took the independently wealthy Thomas Beecham to keep the group from collapsing during World War I.
In 1926, Thomas Beecham planned to form a permanent Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to serve the BBC and the RPS, but the BBC instead started its own BBC Symphony Orchestra. In 1932, Thomas Beecham founded the London Philharmonic Orchestra, financially backed by recording contracts and a contract to serve as the RPS's concert orchestra. Thomas Beecham left to take a position with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra when World War II broke out, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra transformed itself into a self-governing organization.
Thomas Beecham returned to Britain in 1944 and formed a new orchestra, giving its first concert at the Davis Theatre in Croydon on September 15, 1946, just three weeks after Thomas Beecham started hiring musicians. Again, he placed the new orchestra under the RPS rubric, enabling it to take the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra name. In 1948, the RPO became the resident orchestra of the summer Glyndebourne Festival Opera, and in 1950 it became the first British orchestra to tour the USA since before World War I. Feeling his advancing age, Thomas Beecham engaged Rudolf Kempe as assistant conductor. When Thomas Beecham died in 1961, Kempe became principal conductor.
The RPO's financial situation immediately worsened. Glyndebourne and the RPS itself declined to renew their contracts, and the RPO was excluded from the London Orchestral Concert Board's schedule of concerts in the new halls on the South Bank. The orchestra re-formed as a self-governing organization, but had to give its concerts in a movie house on the north side of London. Kempe received the titles of Artistic Director in 1964, and Conductor for Life in 1970.
Things took a turn for the better in 1966 when Queen Elizabeth II granted the orchestra its own Royal Charter, enabling it to continue calling itself the RPO. After a difficult period following the death of Kempe, the RPO appointed Antal Doráti, noted for building orchestral discipline and morale, as Conductor-in-Chief (1975-1978). He has been followed by Walter Weller (1980-1985), André Previn (Conductor-in Chief, 1985-1987, and Principal Conductor, 1987-92), and Vladimir Ashkenazy (Music Director, 1987-1994). Yuri Temirkanov became Principal Conductor in 1992 and remains as Emeritus Principal Conductor. Daniele Gatti, a young and exciting Italian conductor, became Music Director in 1996.
The RPO is now firmly back in the center of London concert life. It plays its main series at the Royal Albert Hall with a few concerts also given at the Barbican Centre in the City of London. In addition, in an innovative move, it also established itself as the resident orchestra of the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham, where it gives a series of ten concert programs a year. Its 2004-2005 season at the Royal Festival and Royal Albert halls has included concerts with such internationally acclaimed artists as Leonard Slatkin, Sarah Chang, John Rutter, Barbara Hendricks and Thomas Hampson. Its brand new Home is Cadogan Hall, London’s newest concert venue, in Chelsea where forthcoming concerts will feature Emma Johnson, Tasmin Little and Julian Lloyd Webber.
The RPO uses its schedule in the capital as the springboard for a comprehensive regional touring programme including residencies at Royal and Derngate Theatres in Northampton, the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft and a series of concerts at Fairfield in Croydon (where it is Orchestra in Association). The RPO also plays to tens of thousands of people across the country in open-air concerts throughout the summer months.
As an international orchestra, the RPO has played for Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, the President of China in Tiananmen Square and at the tenth anniversary celebration of Kazakhstan’s independence. The Orchestra was privileged to be invited to record the music for the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. In addition to touring regularly throughout Europe, the RPO’s future plans include tours of the USA, Mexico and China.
The RPO has a 125-release contract with Tring International, the largest contract in history between one orchestra and a record company. It has a close association with Classic FM, the largest commercial radio company in Britain. The RPO has its own record label and currently has fourteen discs in its Here Come The Classics series. These recordings reflect the diversity of the RPO’s repertoire and range from popular orchestral and choral works to film classics and music from the musicals. It also records widely for commercial record companies - most recently for Harmonia Mundi in a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 and Capriccio Italien with Daniele Gatti. This is the latest addition to Gatti’s Tchaikovsky Cycle with the RPO and is scheduled for release shortly.
The RPO extends its artistic work through a vibrant and innovative Community and Education programme. Using music as a powerful and motivating force, the RPO works in a variety of settings including projects with young homeless people, youth clubs, the probation service, schools and families. RPO Community and Education projects promote live music making which reflect the diversity of the individuals involved, as well as the Orchestra’s own background.
Over the years, the RPO has become a byword for exceptional quality and versatility as the sheer diversity of its activities, stretching from the populist Hooked On Classics series through the stalwarts of the European concert repertoire to long-standing associations with contemporary and living composers, bears testament. Sir Thomas Beecham once said ‘Good music is that which penetrates the ear with facility and quits the memory with difficulty.’ Today, as then, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra seeks unfailingly to prove the truth of his words.
It has formed two sub-ensembles. The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra is essentially the RPO's "Pops" (or as the British say, "light classical") orchestra. Sharp Edge, a flexible ensemble of 10 to 30 musicians, plays innovative concerts of the newest music. The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra was formed in 1987 to complement the work of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Since then, it has been in constant demand for performances and recordings of classical, light classical and popular music both in the UK and abroad. It has a history of working with international celebrity artists ranging from Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, José Carreras, Montserrat Caballé, Bryn Terfel, Chloë Hanslip, Julian Lloyd Webber, Lesley Garrett and Russell Watson to Sir Cliff Richard, Liza Minnelli, Stevie , Dionne Warwick, Rod Stewart, Henry Mancini, Michel Legrand, Diana Krall and Elaine Paige. Recent concert highlights include a Scandinavian tour of Les Misérables and a Christmas tour of the USA and Canada with Julie Andrews and Charlotte Church. In addition to its regular summer season of outdoor concerts, future plans for the Orchestra include further live performances around the UK of the recently launched and ongoing series of Here Come the Classics recordings.