History of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester

Akademiekonzert im Nationaltheater (Foto: Wilfried Hösl)
Akademiekonzert im Nationaltheater (Foto: Wilfried Hösl)

The Bayerisches Staatsorchester performs in the orchestra pit as well as on stage. Carlos Kleiber, a regular guest on the conductor’s rostrum from 1968 to 1997 and a close friend of the orchestra, attests to the orchestra’s exceptional ability to handle symphonic challenges with aplomb, alongside a huge opera repertoire: “For those able to sense the vibrancy in music, we do things that no other orchestra plays quite as brazenly or with as much relish and spirit as this orchestra does.” It is no coincidence that in Opernwelt magazine’s annual survey, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester has been voted Orchestra of the Year multiple times in succession by fifty international critics.

As one of the oldest orchestras in the world and rich in tradition, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester began life as the Munich court orchestra. Its origins can be traced back half a millennium to the year 1523. The ensemble’s first well-known director was Orlando di Lasso from 1563. While the focus of their artistic expression consisted initially of church music, as the 17th century progressed more secular concerts and opera performances were added to the programme. In the mid-18th century, operas began to be performed regularly. Today, playing opera is one of the main responsibilities of Bayerische Staatsoper’s in-house orchestra. World premieres of Mozart’s La finta gardiniera (1775) and Idomeneo (1781) were soon counted among the orchestra’s major milestones.

In 1811, the members of the court orchestra founded the Musical Academy, authorised by cabinet order from King Max Joseph I. With its symphony concerts, the Musical Academy hosted Munich’s first ever concert series. Today, it continues to influence the musical life of the city and the state of Bavaria with its symphonic and chamber music, as well as with its educational activities. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester has borne its current title since 1918. It regularly cements its status among the greatest orchestras in the world with guest performances and tours of the world’s most important music venues.

Among the many great composers with whom the orchestra has been affiliated, it is perhaps Richard Wagner who is the most eminent. In 1865, Hans von Bülow conducted the world premiere of Tristan und Isolde at the Nationaltheater. Three further Wagner operas were also premiered in Munich: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1868), Das Rheingold (1869) and Die Walküre (1870).

Many of the most significant musical personalities of their time have fronted the orchestra as chief conductor: from Richard Strauss, Hermann Levi, Felix Mottl, Bruno Walter and Hans Knappertsbusch to Sir Georg Solti, Joseph Keilberth, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Zubin Mehta, Kent Nagano and Kirill Petrenko. From the 2021/2022 season onwards, Vladimir Jurowski will take the reins of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester as music director.


At Home Both in the Pit and on Stage

The Nationaltheater in Munich means both home and obligation to the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. This venue of the Bayerische Staatsoper allows over half a million people annually to enjoy more than 250 performances of around forty operatic works. With the sheer number of performances and size of the repertoire, the orchestra has to convey presence and strength, but above all, passion and quality. As with every opera orchestra, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester constitutes the largest cog within the gigantic mechanism of the Staatsoper. Far beyond the realm of instrumental technique it literally sets the tone and provides the musical energy for each and every opera performance. Despite this, however, it rarely becomes the centre of attention. Hidden away in the orchestra pit, it is not merely out of sight of the audience. Much of the time it also operates under the radar of its listeners’ conscious perception and only occasionally lifting its head to become a protagonist. But night in, night out it acts as companion and support, sometimes even to goad the singers. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester has dedicated itself to this task with a tradition spanning almost all of European musical history. The instinct for drama and arcs of suspense is rooted deep within its being. Its members view themselves not only as highly-specialised instrumentalists but also as theatre people through and through.

Owing to the particular attention and accolades it receives as an opera orchestra, it almost feels like a well-kept secret that the Bayerisches Staatsorchester is equally adept as a symphonic ensemble. Performing concerts is a vital component of the orchestra’s identity and tradition. While, in opera, the challenge is to achieve coordination and balance between the orchestra and the action on stage, the symphonic repertoire offers the orchestra the opportunity to exist as an artistically self-contained unit. Technical precision, tonal brilliance and musical cohesion are the noticeable consequences. Performing concerts not only fosters the members’ sense of artistic interconnectedness, but also sharpens their self-confidence as a collective. On stage, the orchestra finds itself, along with its conductor, in the limelight. Guest performances and longer tours drive this ambition, due to the requirement at festivals and concert series to hold one’s own within the ranks of great symphony orchestras and win over new audiences. In addition, touring offers a valuable opportunity to explore the artistic depths of a musical programme with every concert, to adapt to the particular acoustic characteristics of the venue from location to location and to experiment with different interpretations of the same parts. In recent years, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester has enhanced its presence as a symphonic orchestra thanks to concert performances in musical centres such as New York, London, Paris, Lucerne, Vienna, Berlin, Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester can thus count itself lucky to be at home in the world of opera as well as that of concert performances, embracing both within its essence. For, though the two worlds may differ, they also complement one another. The exactitude and cohesion gained in the concert hall make their presence felt from the orchestra pit during opera performances, too. Equally, spontaneity and agility, as well as an instinct for drama and affect are so deeply rooted within the soul of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester that they manifest with the same intensity on stage.

Guido Gärtner