On its 60th birthday, the Philharmonia Orchestra is at its very best—so why isn't the wider culture listening? An interview with managing director David Wheltonby Stephen Everson / February 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
When David Whelton took on the position of managing director of the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1988, there were some who thought he would not be long in the post. Self-governing orchestras such as the Philharmonia and the LSO can be unruly bodies at the best of times. Soft-spoken, polite, self-effacing: to some, Whelton, then only 34, did not seem enough of a bruiser to enjoy the rumbles of British orchestral management. Seventeen years later, however, not only is he still in the post but his time at the Philharmonia has been something of a triumph. The orchestra—celebrating its 60th birthday this year—is probably playing better than it ever has, not least because of Whelton’s work to secure Christoph von Dohnányi as its principal conductor in 1997. As an orchestral trainer, Dohnányi is in the top rank, and his interpretations, especially of the central Austro-German repertoire, have an authority that is now rare on any concert platform. Whelton is conscious of what Dohnányi has brought to the orchestra. “Its sound is richer than it was in the past. His sound is like ebony—it’s dark and rich and very beautiful. Coming to a Dohnányi concert you hear playing of a chamber-music delicacy, and he makes you listen because the orchestra itself is listening.”
Whelton is not alone in his admiration for what Dohnányi has achieved. Last April the Philharmonia performed Mahler’s 1st symphony at the Musikverein in Vienna, and moved the notoriously difficult Viennese audience into a standing ovation. The Wiener Zeitung raved and Die Presse found the concerts “overwhelming”: “What this conductor has achieved in London is second to none. He has made his orchestra into a precision instrument, which he is nonetheless able to inspire to utterly relaxed music-making.” This was a notable success for Dohnányi and the players, but no orchestra, and certainly no British orchestra, gets to play at this level unless it has an administration of the highest calibre—and an administration that has not allowed convenience or fundraising possibilities to distract from the real goals of the institution it serves.