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From the Archives: Philharmonic makes debut; new orchestra raises tone of local music

The newly formed Los Angeles Philharmonic, circa 1919. Founder W.A. Clark Jr. (standing with the first iteration of his orchestra above, center left) announced that the Los Angeles Philharmonic shall grow to be the best in the United States.
(Los Angeles Philharmonic)

Editors note: The L.A. Philharmonic is getting ready to kick of its centennial season this fall. To get a better sense of that feat, the Los Angeles Times pulled the original Oct. 25, 1919, review of the philharmonic’s debut performance.

Convincingly proving his ability to weld into shape a new organization and his capacity for realizing both the musical and artistic content of his programme, Walter Henry Rothwell, as conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra, yesterday startled Los Angeles out of her symphonic slumbers and introduced what be termed a new epoch in local musical history. The concert was first afternoon event of the series to be given at Trinity Auditorium. The audience was not especially notable as to size, the glamour of a premiere was not broadly apparent, but the people who were there represented musical taste, and their appreciation, particularly after they were fully convinced that the result was real, brilliantly tested the triumph achieved by the musicians under the scholarly and, at the same time, unconventional leadership of the new conductor.

It was evident as soon as the orchestra members had assumed their places on the stage that the backers of the enterprise have spared nothing money can buy in their effort to give a new importance to music in this city. No doubt, the chief credit for this belongs to W. A. Clark Jr., who officially and unofficially is the sponsor of the enterprise. And don’t worry about Mr. Clark not taking an active interest in his prodigy, because he has been watching its growth ever since the first rehearsal and he was there yesterday and as proud as any sponsor should be over a prodigy’s debut.

Largest Body

The real proof of what financial backing will do for a musical enterprise is in the size of the orchestra. It is easily the largest that has ever been heard here, for visiting bodies have not been full strength. It only takes one glance at the necks of the double basses craning over the other instruments to tell this, for there are ten of them. There are long avenues of violins and violas. And while all the woodwinds and brass are not visible from the downstairs, seats you don’t have to see them to know of their presence. It is a glorious thing to hear a woodwind section that stands out clear of the strings and the brass, and to hear a brass section that can thunder out what it has to say when the occasion demands.

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Rothwell’s Conducting

The really striking thing about Mr. Rothwell’s conducting is the comprehension he has of the full capacity of each section of the orchestra. His readings have clarity and tremendous emphasis. He uses this to brilliant effect through mingling it with his dramatic sense. Here is where the opera experience comes to the fore. There is nothing dry about Rothwell’s work. If there is one thing he lacks it is lightness.

I believe that in his symphonic conducting he strikes a point midway between Damrosch and Oberhoffer. He has something of the former’s striking ability for pointing out essentials in the music to the public, a valuable resource in building up taste; he has at the same time the freedom from constraint not so liberally, of course, that makes Oberhoffer a delight as an interpreter. Rothwell, is however, nearer to Oberhoffer than to Damrosch.

The Programme

For the programme, a few brief words owing to space limitations. It was a truly worthy one, chosen not for its novelty but from the standpoint of familiarity — such a programme as is a test and a delight if well done by a new organization. In his interpretations Rothwell seemed at his best in the movements affording the opportunities for broader contrasts. His renditions of the symphonic poem, “Les Preludes” and Chabrier’s “Espana,” are the most distinct triumphs, and were greeted with bravos. His effects were equally brilliant in the rapid movements of the Dvorak “New World Symphony.” In all of these the full breadth of his dramatic style is apparent. He glories in thunderous climaxes, shading down to the subtly-voiced whisperings of the woodwinds. He can make the violins sing a melody with penetrating beauty. You could realize at times that he was not getting the finer effects he desired, but that will be only a matter of rehearsals now, for everything indicated yesterday the certainty of a triumphal first season for the Philharmonic Orchestra.

The stamp of premiere was placed on yesterday’s event, when the procession of floral offerings passed down the aisle. It was a short procession, but what there was of it was spectacular. The programme is to have a second rendition tonight at Trinity.

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MORE L.A. PHIL:

LA Phil at 100: How the orchestra rose from humble roots to become one of the world’s best

LA Phil’s new CEO Simon Woods is helping to reframe what it means to be an American orchestra


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