History & Prehistory
During the late 1920s and early ’30s, considerable efforts were made to foster interest in a professional orchestra for the Greater Buffalo community. By late 1934, via the efforts of Cameron Baird, Frederick Slee and Samuel Capen, a conductor of extensive European training was recruited to Buffalo in the person of Lajos Shuk, a cello virtuoso and director of the New York Civic Symphony. Shortly thereafter, the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Society was formed and a series of Classics concerts and the first BPO Youth concerts were presented in the 1935-36 season.
It was a critical time, but from the very first downbeat, the Society’s Board of Directors got everything right. Through the leadership of Society President Florence B. Wendt, funds were raised to maintain a viable ensemble through 1937 when support was received from the federal WPA project, which sponsored additional players and recruited a conductor named Franco Autori from the Dallas Symphony. Over the next two seasons, despite a variety of administrative and financial growing pains, the Orchestra presented many fine symphonic performances with renowned soloists, and began performing run-out concerts to neighboring localities like Niagara Falls. Finally, by the opening of the 1939-40 season, the Society and the Greater Buffalo community were ready to provide enduring support for the expansion of both the classical and lighter ‘Pops’ programming by its burgeoning orchestra. The only thing missing from the equation was a fine concert hall.
But then, like magic, in the fall of 1940 came a gift from Parnassus – Kleinhans Music Hall – a shrine for music which today enjoys an international reputation of its own, with exquisite acoustics and a large seating capacity of 2,839. Constructed with funds bequeathed by Edward L. and Mary Seaton Kleinhans, the Hall has ever since served as the Orchestra’s permanent home. Kleinhans Music Hall was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1989.
The BPO’s dedication of Kleinhans concert in October of 1940 signaled that the time was right for the Orchestra to grow internally with additional players, and externally with expanded outreach and the regular appearance of major concertizing artists, a series of FM broadcasts and a widely diverse repertoire. With demands on his expanding career, Autori resigned in the spring of 1945 and closed his tenure by conducting the Buffalo premiere of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with Carl Sandburg as narrator.
Time was prime for a new maestro in the revered opera-symphonic tradition. A major coup was achieved when the industrious and ever-versatile Cameron Baird (Chairman of the UB Music Department) received a recommendation from Arturo Toscanini of the NBC Symphony that its Associate Conductor, William Steinberg, would be perfect for the job.
The Steinberg era of the BPO was marked by many changes in orchestra personnel, including the beginning of an influx of extraordinary European musicians who had (like Maestro Steinberg himself) sought new lives and careers here in the United States just after the War. Their presence on stage – primarily in the strings – served to define the distinctly European sound that began to resonate from the BPO during the late 40s and continued throughout the 50s and well beyond. To this of course was added Steinberg’s relentless demand for impeccable and dynamic performances. The timing and timbre of the Steinberg-era BPO are nicely preserved on the Orchestra’s first commercial recording, the Leningrad Symphony No.7 by Shostakovich on the Musicraft label. Moreover, several of the Orchestra’s performances were recorded for broadcast on the NBC radio network, beginning in 1947, and are currently preserved in the BPO Archive and at the Library of Congress.
By the time Steinberg resigned in 1952 to take over the Pittsburgh Symphony, the BPO was a mature and polished ensemble. Indeed, it was the remarkable talent here at Kleinhans that enabled the Orchestra’s Board of Directors to achieve an artistic coup in 1953 by stealing the new BPO music director from the podium of the London Symphony. It was none other than Josef Krips, the Viennese master who before the War had also been the music director of the Vienna State Opera. The Krips era witnessed a major expansion in the length of the season and the number of musicians employed, as well as the re-initiation of major tours in the eastern United States and Canada, including the Maritime Provinces. Although no recordings were made at this time, the dark, European timbre of the Orchestra matured like a fine vintage wine. The sound was mellow and sophisticated, with a nuance of tempo and robust phrasing that marked the great orchestras of the ‘old world’ European tradition.
But ‘tradition’ was in for a big surprise after Krips resigned in 1963 to take over the San Francisco Symphony. Indeed, creative lightning was set to strike at the downbeat of the 1963-64 season when American composer, conductor and piano virtuoso Lukas Foss took the helm as the new music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic. At the opening concert, the walls of Kleinhans were at once enchanted by Ives’ Unanswered Question, then thrilled for the first time with the flash and peal of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Little did anyone realize that even ‘Le Sacre’ would be ‘old hat’ in a hurry. Within three seasons under Foss’ direction, the BPO led the orchestra world in the performance of new music.
The Orchestra was invited to Carnegie Hall for the first of what became regular appearances there. Its first truly major recordings were made on the Nonesuch label featuring the music of contemporary composers including Sibelius, Cage, Penderecki, Xenakis, Ruggles, and Foss himself. Moreover, the BPO’s first nationwide TV appearances were broadcast on PBS with Stockhousen’s Momente and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, after which followed the initiation of several major tours, including two national tours with Arthur Fiedler and his ‘Pops’ repertoire. Buffalo and the BPO even received feature coverage in Life Magazine. Then, in a misty rain in 1970, Maestro Foss shared the dais with Governor Nelson Rockefeller at the ground breaking of Artpark, the declared permanent summer home of the BPO. They were heady times indeed.
When Foss resigned to take on the Jerusalem Symphony in 1971, he was followed by the 24-year old, American-born wunderkind Michael Tilson Thomas. Over the next several seasons with MTT, the BPO toured regularly with frequent appearances in Carnegie Hall (including a gala special there with jazz great Sarah Vaughan) and performances in Boston’s Symphony Hall and Washington’s Kennedy Center. Thomas also made two celebrated recordings with the BPO for Columbia Records, including a brilliant set of Gershwin show overtures – a recording which found a second life on the sound track of the Woody Allen film Manhattan (see the end of the film for the BPO credits). In July of 1974, MTT also presided over the BPO dedication concert at Artpark as the Orchestra’s intended summer home. With many demands for his time, Thomas resigned in 1978 after accepting an appointment with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In 1979 the podium was assigned to Julius Rudel, the highly-regarded maestro of the New York City Opera. Though faced with many financial constraints, Rudel’s tenure was marked with emphasis on the classical repertoire as well as gala performances with Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo. Rudel also took the BPO on a West Coast tour which produced rave reviews in the San Francisco and Los Angeles press, and made a commemorative recording with CBS Masterworks of music for the holiday season.
Rudel’s departure in the spring of 1984 was followed by the appointment of a dynamic and articulate young Russian émigré, Semyon Bychkov, who had been the BPO’s Assistant Conductor under Rudel. This was not an ordinary promotion, however, as Bychkov was already singled out by the European press as candidate No.1 for the helm of several great orchestras. Without skipping a beat, and with the support of an ambitious Board of Directors, Bychkov announced that the BPO would make its first tour of Europe. All of this was in addition to directing the BPO’s 50th anniversary season in 1985 and making a commemorative recording featuring soprano Roberta Peters of the Metropolitan Opera. Throughout the 1988 European tour, the BPO performed two sold-out concerts in Vienna’s great Musikvereinssaal, as well as concerts in Geneva, Zurich, Milan, Frankfurt, and other venues in Germany and Switzerland.
When Bychkov resigned to take over the Orchestre de Paris in 1989, a successor was found in Chilean maestro Maximiano Valdés, who rekindled the BPO’s reputation for program variety in both the standard and contemporary repertoire. Although the Valdés era encountered serious fiscal issues, the many extant tapes of local FM broadasts reveal Valdés’ inspired orchestral style with an alluring lyrical touch.
In 1998, following important administrative and fiscal advances, the Buffalo Philharmonic reaffirmed its progressive role when it captured a rising star and appointed JoAnn Falletta as its new maestro – the first woman ever named as Music Director of a major symphony orchestra in the United States. In addition to her mastery of the standard orchestral repertoire, Falletta reveals a keen enthusiasm for new and intriguing scores both from the international panorama and from American composers, very much in keeping with the distinguished history of the BPO.
Under Maestro Falletta’s direction, the BPO has become one of the leading recording orchestras for Naxos with a vast collection of albums, including two Grammy award-winning recordings from 2019 and 2021. Also with Falletta, the BPO has reinitiated a series of broadcasts on PBS and returned to Carnegie Hall after a long hiatus. Among the many celebrated soloists who have recently appeared with the BPO and Maestro Falletta are Renée Fleming, Sara Buechner, and André Watts.