Trans-Atlantic Love Affair for the London Symphony Orchestra

October 21st, 2012

LSO Archive

The London Symphony Orchestra first came to the United States in 1912. Their visit to Washington was part of a tour that took them to 23 cities. More Photos »

THE London Symphony Orchestra takes over Avery Fisher Hall on Monday and Wednesday in what Lincoln Center’s artistic director, Jane Moss, calls “a visiting home team, if that makes sense.” In other words, most of the players could find Columbus Avenue in their sleep, they’ve been there so often.

For lovers of statistics, this visit, with Valery Gergiev, its principal conductor, represents the London Symphony’s 13th annual Lincoln Center residency, its 52nd tour to the United States and the 100th anniversary of its first appearance in America, in 1912. To say there is a trans-Atlantic bond would be an understatement. This is an ensemble that has forged special relationships with a succession of American conductors — Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, André Previn, Michael Tilson Thomas — and maintains what some would call the most American sound of any British orchestra: thrusting, direct, with pumped-iron muscle in the brasses.

Much the same is true of its attitude. “Their workload is ferocious,” Mr. Thomas said in a recent interview, “but there’s a can-do quality within the L.S.O., a yes we can and yes we will, for which I so respect them.” And this most American of virtues seems to run through the orchestra’s collective DNA, back to its origins in 1904 as a self-declared “musical republic,” where the players were defiantly freelance and answerable to themselves rather than to some all-powerful, hire-and-fire conductor.

That the founding circumstances involved dubious demands to play in concerts without actually attending rehearsals (something nobody would dare even suggest today) was immaterial. Self-determination generated confidence, a sense of self-worth, though it also brought financial risks that generated hard, commercial ruthlessness. In 1911 the players brutally dropped Edward Elgar as their chief conductor on the ground that he did badly at the box office. It broke his heart.

They weren’t shy when it came to self-promotion either; hence the 1912 American adventure. Nothing of the kind had ever been attempted by a European orchestra. It was a huge undertaking for its time, designed to take in a circuit of 23 cities that began and ended in New York but stretched to Cleveland and Wichita, Kan., and crossed the border into Canada.

The invitation came from a commercial impresario, Howard Pew, whose chief objective was to bring in the Hungarian conductor Arthur Nikisch, who had previously worked in Boston and enjoyed celebrity status in the United States. Whichever orchestra came with him was of secondary importance, and it isn’t clear why the choice was the London Symphony, as against the Berlin Philharmonic or the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with which Nikisch was also associated.

But having made his choice, Pew declared the London Symphony the “best in the world” — or so it was promoted to American audiences, with some opposition from American ensembles — and fixed the tour repertory, which again was driven by commercial imperatives. The London Symphony, possibly touched by guilt, wanted to perform some Elgar but was told that if it did, the sponsors would pull out. Elgar was dropped once more.

The tour began with a stroke of luck: the orchestra was originally booked to sail on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. This would have added luster to stories of the band playing on as everyone else ran for the lifeboats but would also have been the greatest disaster in modern music history. Fortunately for the London Symphony players, the Titanic’s maiden voyage was delayed by three weeks, and they couldn’t change their tour dates; so a less glamorous but safer ship became their home for the 10-day crossing. And it was here that the discomforts of the trip began.

We know of these discomforts because two diaries — one kept by a percussionist, the other by a string player — recently came to light in the course of research by the orchestra’s latter-day principal flutist Gareth Davies. They make vivid reading. To keep costs down, the musicians worked for their passage by giving concerts on board, but rough weather left several of them seasick. A cellist broke his leg and spent the rest of the tour in a hospital. Then, with arrival on dry land, came the rigors of 28 concerts in 21 days, and travel between cities in a chartered train where the orchestra slept 32 to a coach.

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