An introduction to the Philharmonia Orchestra

Philharmonia Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen, 6 March 2013

We are the Philharmonia Orchestra and we would like to introduce you to who we are and what we do. Founded in the 1940s by record label EMI as a recording orchestra, we have now moved on a long way and are one of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, with a notorious recording history as well as international live performance acclaim.

You may not have heard of the Philharmonia Orchestra but you may well have heard us. We’re often on the radio, and are the musicians playing the soundtracks to films such as Thor: The Dark World (2013), Iron Man III (2013) and Hercules (2014), and video games such as Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. We also have a number of residencies across the UK, in London, Leicester, Bedford, Basingstoke, The Three Choirs Festival and, of course, Canterbury, for which we are very excited to be bringing a fantastic new 14/15 season starting this month.

This Saturday 11 October, it’s the Philharmonia Orchestra’s first concert of the season at The Marlowe Theatre. 2014 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, and so appropriately, the Philharmonia are commemorating in their own unique way, showcasing post-war pieces by three of the most well-known and treasured British composers.

Each of these composers were personally affected by war, whether they were involved in battle or not, and channel these experiences into their music. Vaughan Williams was a stretcher bearer during the Great War, exposing him to horrific sights of injured service men amongst other things. Elgar, although not serving active duty, remembers hearing the eerie sounds of canons from across the channel in France.

From The Marlowe stage we travel across the channel to Bruges to perform this concert on the same day in 1914 that Bruges was occupied by the Germans.

Onto the night’s music…Elgar’s mesmerising Cello Concerto was written just after the First World War and is still one of Elgar’s most performed and celebrated pieces. He poured the emotion of the after effects of the war into his music. Elgar knew that the gravity of the Great War would have an everlasting effect, which inspired a somewhat different musical language for his compositional style.

Famously performed and recorded by the cellist Jacqueline Du Pré, the intensity and emotional context of the Cello Concerto is fully exerted by her playing.  Alisa Weilerstein, who listened to these recordings as a child and is often described as the modern Jacqueline Du Pré, is a rising star who has a growing international reputation far beyond her years.

Speaking about the Elgar Cello Concerto, Alisa says “no matter how many times you return to it, there is always something new to discover”.  A review of her performance in May 2010 at The Sheldonian, Oxford, really gives a sense of how emotionally heart-wrenching her playing is: “Alisa Weilerstein gave the most technically complete and emotionally devastating performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto that I have ever heard live, with an [Berlin Philharmonic] orchestral accompaniment she can only have thought possible in her wildest dreams…”The Guardian, May 2010.

Hear Alisa Weilerstein talking about Elgar’s Cello Concerto:

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 3rd Symphony, Pastoral, is a master class of emotional and musical genius. This piece was Vaughan William’s attempt at confronting the horrors of the First World War. Although named as Pastoral, it is far from the idyllic scene one might imagine. Composed from the memory of Vaughan William’s personal experience in the Great War whilst in France, he depicts an almost ‘anti-pastoral’ symphony. All four movements are fairly slow, sometimes being described as the four seasons, however melancholy at that, and the fourth serving as a sort of Requiem for the First World War.

At the age of 42 when enlisting in 1914, he joined the Army Medical Corps where he received basic training as well as also having enough time to form a band, which he conducted. It wasn’t until 1916 that he was deployed to France. Although the war took up the majority of his time, on his return he picked up straight from where he left off, being offered work and commissions.

Here is a short video about Vaughan Williams experience of the war and how it affected his music:

Last up, chronologically at least, is the Four Sea Interludes’ from Benjamin Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes, which was also the piece that reopened Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London after the Second World War. The interludes act as scene changes and musical soliloquies for the opera, however, Britten later decided that they could be performed in their own right, making slight changes so they can stand on their own.

During the Second World War, Britten and his life partner, Peter Pears, spent their time between Canada and the United States, and it was here he wrote his most famous work Sinfonia da Requiem (1940). Although not actively involved in the war, once it had been won, Britten accompanied Yeheudi Menuhin playing for survivors at a concentration camp.

Towards the end of his life, he told Peter Pears that “the experience coloured everything he had written subsequently”. As John Bridcut says, “if you’re a newcomer to Britten, there is nowhere better to begin than here, but the Sea Interludes are not cheap cuts. You will find they haunt you for the rest of your life.”

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