History of The Philadelphia Orchestra

Photo by Jeff Fusco

The world-renowned Philadelphia Orchestra strives to share the transformative power of music with the widest possible audience, and to create joy, connection, and excitement through music in the Philadelphia region, across the country, and around the world. Through innovative programming, robust education initiatives, a commitment to its diverse communities, and the embrace of digital outreach, the ensemble is creating an expansive and inclusive future for classical music, and furthering the place of the arts in an open and democratic society. In June 2021 the Orchestra and its home, the Kimmel Center, united to form The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center, Inc., an organization that is poised to bring the greatest performances and most impactful education and community programs to audiences in Philadelphia and beyond. Recently, the Orchestra was named BBC Music Magazine’s Orchestra of the Year, heralded the return of music to Carnegie Hall, and won a GRAMMY Award for the music of Florence Price.

Artistic Leadership

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is now in his 11th season as the eighth music director of The Philadelphia Orchestra. He joins a remarkable list of music directors spanning the Orchestra’s 122 seasons: Fritz Scheel, Carl Pohlig, Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Riccardo Muti, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Christoph Eschenbach. Under this superb, forward-looking guidance, The Philadelphia Orchestra has represented an unwavering standard of excellence in the world of classical music—and continues to do so today.

Widely recognized for his artistry and commitment, Yannick has established himself as a musical leader of the highest caliber and one of the most thrilling talents of his generation. His intensely collaborative style, deeply rooted musical curiosity, and boundless enthusiasm, paired with a fresh approach to orchestral programming, have been heralded by critics and audiences alike.

Your Philadelphia Orchestra

Your Philadelphia Orchestra takes great pride in its hometown, performing for the people of Philadelphia year-round, in Verizon Hall and around the community, in classrooms and hospitals, and over the airwaves and online. The Kimmel Center has been the ensemble’s home since 2001. Previously it performed at the Academy of Music, a National Historic Landmark and the oldest continuously operating opera house in the nation.

Beyond concerts at the Kimmel Center, the Orchestra also performs for Philadelphia audiences during the summer months at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, as well as in venues across the region, including Penn’s Landing, Longwood Gardens, and the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Many of these performances are part of the ensemble’s educational and community partnership programs, creating greater access and engagement with classical music.

In response to the cancellation of concerts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Orchestra launched the Digital Stage, providing access to high-quality online performances, keeping music alive at a time when it was needed most. It also inaugurated free offerings: HearTOGETHER, a podcast on racial and social justice, and creative equity and inclusion, through the lens of the world of orchestral music, and Our City, Your Orchestra, a series of digital performances that connects the Orchestra with communities through music and dialog while celebrating the diversity and vibrancy of the Philadelphia region.

Commitment to Our Communities

The Philadelphia Orchestra continues the tradition of educational and community engagement for all age groups across the region—a tradition dating back to 1921 when Leopold Stokowski initiated concerts exclusively for children. With Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a dedicated body of musicians, and one of the nation’s richest arts ecosystems, the Orchestra launched its HEAR initiative in 2016 to become a major force for good in every community that it serves. HEAR is a portfolio of integrated initiatives that promotes Health, champions music Education, enables broad Access to Orchestra performances, and maximizes impact through Research. These programs support those experiencing trauma such as homelessness, thousands of public-school students, citizens of Philadelphia who will have opportunities to experience the Orchestra personally, and those not connected with the Orchestra or symphonic music, bridging all ages and backgrounds.

The Orchestra inspires new generations through programs for children and adults, including Sound All Around (for children ages 3–5), Family Concerts (for children ages 6–12), School Concerts (free for School District of Philadelphia elementary schools), APPLE (Appreciation Program for Philadelphia School District Leaders in Education, providing free tickets for employees of the Philadelphia School District), and Student Circle (a ticket program for students age 14 and older). The Orchestra also engages audiences more deeply in its performances through free PreConcert Conversations and Lecture/Luncheons with guest speakers.

The Orchestra’s award-winning education and community initiatives engage over 50,000 students, families, and community members through programs such as PlayINs; side-by-sides; PopUP concerts; Our City, Your Orchestra Live; School Concerts; sensory-friendly concerts; open rehearsals; the School Partnership Program and School Ensemble Program; All City Orchestra Fellowships; and residency work in Philadelphia and abroad. The Orchestra’s musicians, in their own dedicated roles as teachers, coaches, and mentors, serve a key role in growing young musician talent and a love of classical music, nurturing and celebrating the wealth of musicianship in the Philadelphia region.

An Ambassador at Home and Abroad

The Philadelphia Orchestra believes deeply in the power of music to connect people. Through concerts, national and international tours, residencies, and recordings, the Orchestra is a global ambassador and one of our nation’s greatest cultural exports. It performs annually at Carnegie Hall, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in New York, and the Bravo! Vail Music Festival.

The Orchestra also has a rich history of touring, having first performed outside Philadelphia in the earliest days of its founding. The Philadelphia Orchestra was the first American orchestra to perform in the People’s Republic of China in 1973, launching a now-five-decade commitment of people-to-people exchange through music. The Philadelphia Orchestra regularly performs in the world’s greatest concert halls, including on its 2022 Tour of European Festivals.  

A Trailblazer in Innovation and Collaboration

The Philadelphia Orchestra has long pushed the boundaries of convention in the classical music realm, presenting the world or American premieres of such important works as Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (“Symphony of a Thousand”), Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. The Philadelphia Orchestra also made movie history by performing the soundtrack to Walt Disney’s legendary animated film Fantasia, with Stokowski.

The Orchestra maintains a strong commitment to collaborations with cultural and community organizations on a regional and national level and has partnered with the Metropolitan Opera, digital artist Refik Anadol, Brian Sanders’ JUNK, Philadelphia Ballet, the University of Michigan, FringeArts, Philadanco, Opera Philadelphia, the Curtis Institute of Music, and Ridge Theater Company, among many others.

The Orchestra returned to recording in 2013 under Yannick’s leadership with a CD on the Deutsche Grammophon label of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Leopold Stokowski transcriptions of works by Bach and Stravinsky. To date there have been an additional 11 releases, including Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini and all four piano concertos with pianist Daniil Trifonov, Bernstein’s MASS, Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, and Florence Price’s First and Third symphonies, which won a GRAMMY Award for Best Orchestral Performance. These continue the Orchestra’s remarkable history in this area, having made its first recording in 1917 and amassing an enormous discography in the intervening years.

The Orchestra also makes live recordings available on popular digital music services such as Apple Music, Spotify, and Amazon, among others. Beginning in Yannick’s inaugural season the Orchestra also returned to the radio airwaves, with weekly broadcasts on WRTI-FM. In 2017 the Orchestra launched a national radio series on SiriusXM, making it the only American orchestra to provide exclusive content to SiriusXM on a regular basis.

These initiatives continue a legacy that boasts an extraordinary record of media firsts, including being the first symphonic orchestra to make electrical recordings (in 1925), the first to perform its own commercially sponsored radio broadcast (in 1929, on NBC), the first to perform on the soundtrack of a feature film (Paramount’s The Big Broadcast of 1937), the first to appear on a national television broadcast (in 1948, on CBS), and the first major orchestra to give a live cybercast of a concert on the internet (in 1997).

September 2022

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