Being a young nation the symphonic history of Norway is rather short. The first start of Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra was made by Edvard Grieg and Johan Svendsen in the 1880'ies, but it was not until 1919 that the orchestra as we know it to day was established.
The beginning, up to 1919
The Scandinavian orchestras are for the most part relatively young. Copenhagen has the longest tradition; in Stockholm there were symphony concerts on regular basis from the 1870s. As for other Nordic cities, Helsinki possessed a permanent symphony orchestra from the 1880s.
In the 1870s Edvard Grieg and Johan Svendsen between them struggled to raise the standard of orchestral music in Christiania, as Oslo was then known (until 1924). They founded the Musikforening (Music Society), which arose from the ashes of the former Philharmonic Society whose first concerts went back to 1847. By the 1880s, the Musikforening orchestra was attracting municipal support, and by the turn of the century when the National Theatre was opened, it served a dual purpose providing music for the new theatre and symphony concerts for the Music Society.
During the first world war the appetite for symphonic concerts grew as never before – but so did inflation. An inevitable dispute between the orchestra and the National Theatre management in 1918 led to the collapse of the Musikforeningen’s concerts, and in the following year the foundation of the Oslo Philharmonic as we know it – on private initiative and financed by private shareholders.
Between the wars
The new symphony orchestra received a hearty response from the audiences. Great conductors visiting during the early years were for instance Weingartner, Nikisch, Fried, Monteux. Ravel himself came to Oslo, and other visiting and performing composers during these inter-war years were Nielsen, Hindemith and Szymanowski, and among instrumentalists d’Albert, Hubermann, Kempff, Schnabel and Fischer.
One can get some idea of the orchestra’s quality and level of ambition from the fact that its leaders included such soloists as Richard Burgin, who had played the Sibelius concerto in Finland during the war and was later to become Koussevitzky’s concertmaster in Boston; Max Rostal and Robert Söetens – for whom Prokofiev wrote his second violin concerto.
The 1930s saw great names like Stravinsky (the highlight of the decade), and a welcome procession of guests including many who had been driven out of Germany by the Nazis: Fritz Busch, Erich Kleiber and above all, Bruno Walter – who conducted the opening concert of the orchestra’s 20th anniversary season. From England both Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Adrian Boult visited Oslo. And Wilhelm Furtwängler’s guest appearance took place only a week before the Nazi fleet sailed into Oslofjord on April 9th 1940.
The post-war years
In 1945 there was much catching up to do. There were plans to increase the strength of the OPO to eighty players, and to build a new hall. All the Nordic countries had been cut off from new music, and composers like Bartók, Shostakovich, Britten, Prokofiev and Vaughan Williams, as well as Schönberg and Alban Berg.
In 1953 Oslo hosted the ISCM Festival, which brought further international contacts in the awareness of new repertoire. Seven LPs of Norwegian music appeared on the Mercury label, with music by Svendsen, Irgens-Jensen, Valen, Saeverud, Egge and Fliflet Braein. Another notable recording was the first commercial recording ever of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung with Kirsten Flagstad in 1956 (Decca, re-released in the 1990s).
During these post-war years the OPO did in no way command the world stage in the way they do today, but during the joint stewardship of Herbert Blomstedt and Øivin Fjeldstad in the early 1960s the orchestra began to make its waves abroad. Their first concert tour outside Scandinavia took place in 1962 and included venues such as Amsterdam/Concertgebouw, Berlin/Haus der Rundfunks, Bonn/Beethovenhalle and Frankfurt/Alte Oper. Critics gave prominence to the orchestra’s sound and style as “a new accent” within European music.
Okku Kamu, 1st prize winner of the Karajan competition 1969, and the OPO’s chief conductor 1975-79, toured the US with the orchestra in 1978.
The challenge of building an orchestra of international standing was about to be met. An important development of great psychological importance was the completion of Oslo Concert Hall, which opened to the public in 1977. Over the next few years, tickets sales doubled. In 1979 plans were made to expand the orchestra to 95 musicians by 1990 – plans which were to be hurried on at a forced rate by Mariss Jansons.
The Mariss Jansons years
During the 1970s Arvid Jansons had been a frequent guest.conductor, and had introduced his son, Mariss, to the orchestra in 1975. Their rapport was such that in 1979 he was appointed as its music director.
During the early 1980s the OPO was transformed into an orchestra of international standing. Its visits to London left Britain in no doubt as to its developing virtuosity. In 1985 it made its first major European tour with Jansons to Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and was immediately invited to return to Musikverein, Vienna as indeed it was when visiting the Edinburgh Festival. London’s Promenade Concerts and the Salzburg Festival.
Wider interest in the orchestra was kindled earlier in the decade by the release of a cycle of Tchaikovsky symphonies on Chandos with wide press acclaim. In 1987 EMI put Jansons and the Orchestra under exclusive contract; up to then the largest orchestra contract in the history of EMI., and which was renewed in 1992. From the late 1990s the OPO and Jansons recorded for the Norwegian label Simax. Releases so far including live recordings of Stravinsky’s The Firebird (complete version)/R. Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben, and a cycle of Brahms’ symphonies. Also within the latter repertoire, the most recorded within symphonic literature, the interpretations have received great international acclaim.
A highlight within the Mariss Jansons period is the one week residency at Musikverein, Vienna in 1997 – with five concert programmes, including Mahlers Symphony No. 2 and Verdi’s Requiem as well as Norwegian contemporary music, and with unanimous acclaim by the audiences as well as the Vienna press.
After 22 years of leadership, Mariss Jansons in February 2000 announced his resignation as music director, in protest against the Oslo Concert Hall and the city of Oslo’s lack of efforts to improve the hall acoustics.
In May 2002 the Oslo public took a moving farewell with their beloved music director since 1979, and in June the OPO went on their last tour with him, to Prague, Ljubliana and – of course – Vienna, and their fourteenth and fifteenth concerts in Musikverein.
When André Previn first visited the OPO in March 2000, he had of course been highly sought after as a guest conductor for many years. It became a very happy meeting between conductor and musicians, and their performances of Mahler and Previn’s own work Honey and Rue, were in any respect a great success. In June 2001 came the announcement of André Previn’s appointment as music director for four seasons from 2002-3.
When this is being written, André Previn’s opening concerts in Oslo can be written into the OPO history as great successes. Due to the relatively short time between his appointment and first season, André Previn has in 2002-3 just three concert weeks in Oslo, and a one week’s tour of Spain in March. From the 2003-4 season, however, his contract includes twelve weeks per season.
André Previn’s musical versatility will of course be reflected also in his programming and performances in Oslo. Already at his induction concerts, he performed as soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24, and from the 2003-4 season he will also perform at chamber concerts with musicians from the OPO.