In the year that sees the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra celebrate its centenary, we look back at the wonderful maestros and artists who’ve woven their lives into the very foundations of this institution and talk to chief conductor Gabriel Feltz about his vision for the new century of the Belgrade Phil
Any overview of the beginnings of the Belgrade Philharmonic simply must start with one of the most important Serbian composers and conductors, Stevan Hristić, who initiated and founded the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra, and soon became its artistic director and chief conductor. The first official concert was held on 13th June 1923, but this institution initially recorded modest results, though it was entirely dependent on the enthusiasm of volunteer musicians.
Hristić’s successor, conductor Lovro Matačić, contributed to raising the Belgrade Phil’s performance levels, and thus its reputation. During his tenure, the orchestra’s repertoire included Wagner’s Parsifal and works by Stravinsky, Shostakovich and other Slavic composers. It was also then that cooperation was established with orchestras in the region: the Zagreb and Slovenian Philharmonic, and the Belgrade audience received its first opportunity to hear the Philharmonic perform under conductors Dimitri Mitropoulos and Josef Krips, with pianists Alfred Cortot, Carlo Zecchi, Nikolai Orlov and Nikita Magaloff, violinist Georg Kulenkampff, cellists Pierre Fournier and Enrico Mainardi, as well as vocal artists Zinka Kunc, Bahrija Nuri Hadžić, Melanija Bugarinović, Nikola Cvejić and Josip Rijavec.
Following the halting of operations during World War II, the Philharmonic held its first postwar concert on 7th November 1944, just eighteen days after the liberation of Belgrade. Respected and influential composer and conductor Oskar Danon took over the leadership of the ensemble, and the Belgrade Phil’s repertoire reflected important events of the time – ceremonies, congresses, anniversaries, but also various formal state events.
A new page in history was inscribed in the year 1951, when the orchestra gained official autonomy, was renamed the Symphonic Orchestra of the People’s Republic of Serbia and received a new chief conductor in Krešimir Baranović. During the decade of his tenure as artistic and administrative director, the orchestra solidified itself as an ensemble, established regular performances and performed in cultural centres, schools, cinemas, and even factory halls nationwide throughout Serbia, as well as making guest appearances abroad. It was during this period, in 1958, that Zubin Mehta, great friend of the Belgrade Philharmonic, conducted the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time, as the laureate of that year’s Liverpool International Conducting Competition.
Baranović was succeeded by Živojin Zdravković, whose name is associated with some of the most successful years in the century of the Belgrade Philharmonic, when it became the country’s most important ambassador of culture and a bridge between East and West. It was during this period that the Belgrade Phil hosted great artists, such as conductors Rafael Kubelík, Igor Markevitch, Sir Malcolm Sargent, Karl Böhm, Leopold Stokowski, Kirill Kondrashin, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Zubin Mehta, John Barbirolli, Rudolf Kempe, Charles Dutoit, Neeme Järvi, Aaron Copland, violinists Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern, Henryk Szeryng, Leonid Kogan, Gidon Kremer, cellist Andre Navarra, pianists Arthur Rubinstein, Maurizio Pollini, Sviatoslav Richter, Aldo Ciccolini, Gina Bachauer, Emil Gilels, Yvonne Loriod, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and others. Next came more international guest appearances and tours, while significant recordings were made by the orchestra for local record labels, and subsequently for world-renowned record labels like Philips, Decca and Electrola.
Maestro Gabriel Feltz, Chief Conductor Of The Belgrade Philharmonic
I have been collaborating with the Belgrade Philharmonic for seven years and I’m very happy in Belgrade. As the chief conductor of this orchestra, I have one important message: the Belgrade Philharmonic is a cultural treasure of Belgrade and Serbia and it deserves all forms of support, at all levels. The orchestra’s musicians are special people who give their all, displaying every emotion and all of their talent in an effort to preserve their prowess that is of incalculable importance to the culture of a country. I also think the call to hire a new director of the Philharmonic should be implemented as soon as possible, because that will determine the future of this orchestra.
I am very proud of the concert season under the heading ZAuVek [FORaCENTURY / FOREVER], dedicated to commemorating the jubilee, during which we will celebrate the centenary from September 2023 to June 2024. It is particularly important that we will also be celebrating this century of the philharmonic’s pride in the most important European centres, because one of the main events of the centenary jubilee is a European tour of Austria and Germany. The Belgrade Philharmonic will perform in Vienna’s famous Musikverein, which is a great success and a privilege reserved for the best orchestras, then subsequently in Stuttgart, Viersen and Wiesbaden, from 4th to 10th November. At a time when even the greatest orchestras aren’t touring, this is a great success for the Belgrade Philharmonic and I joyously look forward to leading this tour, during which we are performing together with our wonderful Nemanja Radulović.
From the celebratory season, I would single out the first performance on 15th September – the concert “For Tasa” and the performance of Gustav Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 3, which runs for a hundred minutes. Ever since I arrived at the Belgrade Phil, I’ve wanted us to perform one great work in Belgrade, and that will happen on 19th January, 2024, with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor, the Hohe Messe, and the guest performer will be the famous Czech Philharmonic Choir of Brno. The Philharmonic performed an entire opera for the first time this season – Puccini’s Tosca – and next season, on 7th June, that will be Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Last year’s philharmonic marathon, during which we performed all Beethoven symphonies in Novi Sad and Dortmund in just one day, turned out to be a fantastic idea, which is why we will have mini festivals in the new season – all Rachmaninoff’s concertos for piano and orchestra will be performed by the Belgrade Phil on 15th December, together with pianists Marie-Ange Nguci, Olga Scheps and Anna Fedorova. Another exclusive is that the Belgrade Phil will perform all four Brahms symphonies, for the first time that’s been done in the world, on 5th April.
The wars of the ‘90s represented one of the darkest and most difficult periods in the history of the Belgrade Phil, but the new millennium brought this institution under the leadership of Ivan Tasovac, as director, who would soon elevate its status to that of a symbol of high artistic quality and modern organisation. His most important collaborators along the way were his chief conductors, firstly Uroš Lajović, then Dorian Wilson, Muhai Tang and, since 2017, Gabriel Feltz. Outdoor concerts, the highest-attended classical music concerts in the Balkans, have served to demonstrate that the modern, reformed ensemble of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra is one of the most successful institutions of culture in the country and around the region.
A large number of renowned international artists perform with the Belgrade Phil today, such as conductors Jiri Kout, Zubin Mehta and Bruno Weil, pianists Nikolai Lugansky, Denis Matsuev, Nicholas Angelich, Elisabeth Leonskaja and Barry Douglas, violinists Ivry Gitlis, Sarah Chang, Renaud Capuçon, Vadim Repin, Sergei Krylov and Nemanja Radulović, cellists Gautier Capuçon, David Geringas, Sol Gabetta, Mischa Maisky, Maja Bogdanović and Narek Hakhnazaryan, as well as many other artists, while the orchestra’s repertoire continues to be expanded and enriched constantly.