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NY Philharmonic Celebrates 'Storied' Past and Present - 2004-01-10

The New York Philharmonic is the oldest orchestra in the United States and for the past 162 years its musical traditions have been an integral part of New York City's cultural life.

The orchestra has debuted some of the world's most cherished symphonies and provided the musical backdrop during some of America's most sorrowful moments.

Leonard Bernstein has stepped out onto the podium, and will lead our orchestra in the National Anthem.

It was during this performance, which was broadcast on American radio in November, 1943, that a relatively unknown conductor named Leonard Bernstein made his debut with the New York Philharmonic.

Clarinet player Stanley Drucker remembers Leonard Bernstein, who went on to become one of America's most celebrated conductors, for the passion and energy he brought to the music.

"Lenny, as he was known, he was our renaissance man," he said. "He could do everything and he was constantly in motion. Every performance was an event, really exciting. It was a great era."

Mr. Drucker is something of a legend himself. He has played with the Philharmonic since 1948. When he joined, he was 18 years old, and the youngest musician ever to play in the orchestra. Now in his 55th year with the Philharmonic, he is the longest-standing member.

"What Is great about playing in the Philharmonic is that it is always new," he said. "Everything is like a first time. The repertoire is different every week or even more often that that. The personalities are different. You have different soloists. You experience something new all the time."

The first incarnation of what would become the present-day New York Philharmonic played its first performance at the funeral of President George Washington in 1799. Back then, the group was made up of just a few dozen musicians.

Philharmonic historian Barbara Hawes says the opening of the Erie Canal in 1835 prompted the development of orchestral music in the United States.

"It made New York City the commercial center and the harbor center of the United States," she said. "It increased import-export going on between Europe. The musicians followed that, they stayed in New York, and finally you had more than one bassoon player. Because we take for granted that there was this great city of musicians. In the 1820s, you had only one bassoon player in New York City. So by 1842 you have enough to form a symphony orchestra."

Some of the early Philharmonic musicians were born in America, but others were natives of Europe. Most were merchant musicians who grouped together to play music, both for the joy and for the money. They made all their organizational and artistic decisions together, by taking a vote on any matter of concern.

In 1842, they played their first concert, several months after the Vienna Philharmonic made its debut performance.

While the Vienna Philharmonic gained renown for premiering Brahms' Symphony No. 2 and No. 3, The New York Philharmonic also gradually made a name for itself.

The U.S. orchestra debuted Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in New York, though the audience at the time was not entirely in agreement that the work was a masterpiece.

The New York Philharmonic toured the world, playing concerts in Europe, South America, and Asia. As time went on, technology expanded the orchestra's reach. Beginning in 1923, listeners could tune in to hear the New York Philharmonic on the radio.

Audiences who tuned into the Philaharmonic's performance on December 7, 1941, were interrupted by a grave announcement.

We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin. The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by air, President Roosevelt has just announced. The attack was also made on all naval and military activities on the principal island of Oahu.

After terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, the Philharmonic commissioned a special piece to honor those who lost their lives, a work by contemporary composer John Adams called On the Transmigration of Souls. It was performed by the orchestra on the first anniversary of the attack.

Stanley Drucker says the Philharmonic is accustomed to being at the forefront of American culture, and performing at the highest level.

"The tradition continues. It is a very strong tradition there is a lot of pride," he said. "It is really great working together in an artistic sense. When we are on that stage, I do not think anybody holds back anything."

The orchestra's focus on tradition leads some observers to criticize the Philharmonic for being too conservative in its repertoire. But it continues to play an important role in American culture, with children's programs, holiday concerts and a schedule that includes about 200 performances each year.

The orchestra has been plagued by acoustic problems since it moved from New York's Carnegie Hall to the Lincoln Center performing Arts complex in 1962.

Recently, some members of the Philharmonic board initiated a secret deal to move the orchestra back to its former home, Carnegie Hall, spurring a debate among orchestra members, critics, and the public, a debate that has since quieted. Orchestra officials have decided the Philharmonic will stay where it is for now.