From its first days the London Symphony Orchestra has been defiantly different and proudly pioneering – so says the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) on its website.
The orchestra, founded in 1904, was the first British orchestra owned by its players, and its fiercely independent ethos has never waned. The LSO was one of the very first orchestras to record albums and film scores; nowadays, its discography contains more recordings than any other orchestra in the world.
In its twelfth decade, the London Symphony Orchestra still believes in its main goal of ensuring that as many people as possible encounter great music.
Since 1982, the orchestra has been the orchestra-in-residence of London’s Barbican Centre. It gives around 70 concerts annually in London and around 50 elsewhere in the world.
The orchestra’s education programmes and projects involve around 65,000 people every year. The almost legendary LSO Discovery cycle, begun thirty years ago, sees the orchestra invite people of all ages to participate in music making.
The LSO was not just the first orchestra to create its own education programmes. They were also the first to create their own education centre. In the 90s, when planning to turn Hawksmoor Church of St Luke’s, close to the Barbican Centre, into the home of LSO Discovery, they approached the global financial services firm UBS. UBS supported (and continues to support) the project not only with impressive sums of money, but also with technical expertise and voluntary work. The end result is a wonderful example of what can be achieved when business, art and education collaborate. The London Symphony Orchestra invites families, teenagers, children and people with disabilities to over ten different kinds of events at St Luke’s.
The LSO was first in another significant field. In 1999, they founded their own record label, LSO Live. At the time, it represented an almost revolutionary approach to recording concerts and distributing recordings. It was one of the very first record labels to once again belong to the musicians. Over the course of its twenty year existence, it has produced more than 150 albums. Since an LSO Live recording first won a Grammy award in 2002, its recordings have received both Gramophone and BBC Music Magazine awards, as well as Classical Brit, Opus Klassik, Orphées d’or and German Record Critics’ awards.
The LSO was the first to make use of digital filming, Blu-Ray Audio, and download and streaming opportunities. Their playing can also be heard on hundreds of film soundtracks, from Star Wars to The King’s Speech, The Shape of Water to Indiana Jones.
The orchestra does not tire of popularising new music, regularly commissioning ambitious orchestral pieces from leading British composers. And the orchestra also looks after the nurturing of young conductors: traditionally, the winner of the Donatella Flick LSO Conducting Competition joins their conducting team. This is currently a young German conductor, the LSO assistant conductor Felix Mildenberger.
The London Symphony Orchestra has an almost familial relationship with its artists, shown by their interest in the orchestra’s growth. This includes, first of all, the orchestra’s conductors – the LSO Music Director since 2017 is Sir Simon Rattle, the two Principal Guest Conductors are Gianandrea Noseda and
François-Xavier Roth, the Conductor Laureate is Michael Tilson Thomas, and the Conductor Emeritus is André Previn. Of course, many other world-class conductors and soloists value the musical ambitions of the London Symphony Orchestra. The LSO’s recent conductors include Claudio Abbado, Valery Gergiev, Michael Tilson Thomas and André Previn, while further back they include conducting legends Hans Richter, Arthur Nikisch, Albert Coates and Willem Mengelberg.
Composer Edward Elgar also graced the conducting podium in the orchestra’s first season, followed by many of his fellow composers such as Sir William Walton, Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Aram Khachaturian.
The LSO has also been orchestra-in-residence at New York’s Lincoln Center, the Philharmonie de Paris, the Florida International Festival and Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. In 1956, it became the first British orchestra to visit South Africa. They travel regularly to the Far East and, of course, to all major European cities.
Concert tours have played a significant part in the life of the orchestra since the very beginning. At first, they were annual provincial tours – by train for two weeks at a time. In 1905, composer Edward Elgar took the orchestra on its first tour. A year later, they travelled to Paris on their first overseas trip with 300 singers from the Leeds Choral Union. They performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony twice at the Théâtre du Chatelet.
In 1912, the LSO became the first British orchestra to tour to America. A last-minute change in schedule saved them from travelling on the Titanic – the orchestra sailed a few days earlier on the Baltic.
The orchestra had its largest audience – 900 million – in 2012 when they performed with Sir Simon Rattle at the London Olympic Opening Ceremony alongside Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson).