London Symphony Orchestra
LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Formed: 1904, London, England
Genre: Classical In one of the world's great cities, which boasts no less than five professional symphony orchestras, the London Symphony Orchestra stands out—not only for the high quality of its musicianship but also for the entrepreneurial spirit that has made it one of the most recorded orchestras in the world.
The orchestra was founded in 1904, and is owned, directed, and operated by its players. Unlike American orchestras, the London Symphony is self-governing, and musicians determine business and work policies. The orchestra has attracted first-rate players who appreciate the flexibility of being able to pursue solo and chamber careers outside the orchestra. For its first forty years the orchestra survived by hiring itself out to conductors who wanted to perform in London, accompanying choruses, and making itself available for outside projects. Since its earliest days the orchestra has toured extensively; it was the first British orchestra to visit Europe (1906), America (1912), and Japan (1963), and it now regularly performs and records with top soloists.
The orchestra has been led by some of the most distinguished conductors of the twentieth century: Hans Richter (1904–1911), Sir Edward Elgar (1911–1912), Artur Nikisch (1912–1914), Sir Thomas Beecham (1915–1917), Albert Coates (1919–1922), Willem Mengelberg (1930–1931), Sir Hamilton Harty (1932–1935), Josef Krips (1951–1954), Pierre Monteux (1961–1964), André Previn (1968–1979), Claudio Abbado (1979–1987), Michael Tilson Thomas (1987–1995), and Sir Colin Davis (1995–present).
The London Symphony has been prolific in recording the symphonic repertoire: It has released almost 100 albums in the 1990s alone. The orchestra has also had a long career in the movies. As early as the 1920s, the LSO began accompanying silent movies. In 1922 the orchestra was hired by the head of United Artists to accompany a season of movies at the Royal Opera House; the first movie was The Three Musketeers, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
In 1934 the LSO recorded its first soundtrack—a science fiction epic called Things to Come, based on a story by H. G. Wells. That project launched the orchestra into the movie business, and it has recorded soundtracks for hundreds of movies since then. Its film-score business has been so successful that by the 1990s it was one of the most-recorded and most widely heard orchestras in the world. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s the LSO recorded scores for some of the biggest movies in Hollywood: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman, and all of the Star Wars movies. The original Star Wars soundtrack sold more than 3 million copies. The orchestra also recorded extensively with popular artists in the 1990s—including Tony Bennett, Metallica, Deep Purple, and Diana Krall—and recorded classical works by popular artists including Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, and Frank Zappa.
As the 1990s came to a close, the classical music recording business collapsed, and major labels canceled most orchestras' recording contracts. The LSO responded with typical entrepreneurial resourcefulness and started its own recording company in 1999. The orchestra records its live performances and releases the best of them commercially. Not one of the soloists, players, or conductors is paid until the recordings start earning money.
One of the first of the new recordings on the LSO Live label—Berlioz's Les Troyens, recorded in 2000—won two Grammy Awards for Best Classical Recording and Best Opera Recording. The orchestra has also entered into a partnership with the on-line music producer Andante to produce audio streaming webcasts and archive recordings. As orchestras struggle to reinvent themselves for new audiences, the London Symphony Orchestra is better positioned than most because of its film work and willingness to take risks on new ventures.
Star Wars Trilogy: The Original Soundtrack Anthology (Arista, 1993); Berlioz: Les Troyens (LSO Live, 2001); Elgar—Symphony no. 1 (LSO Live, 2001).