Last Tour with von Karajan

In November 1955 I went on a five week tour of Canada and the USA with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan.  It was by far the most strenuous tour I have ever done and I often shudder when I think of it.  We didn’t know when we embarked on it that it would be the cause of the Philharmonia’s disbandment. Much has been written about this incident, some of it untrue, but I was there, so I can give a true account of it.

Before the tour we all had to go to the US Embassy in Nightingale Square, London, for our clearance papers.  It was in the days of McCarthyism, and when I went I was ushered into the presence of a stern individual seated behind a huge desk with a US flag behind him.  He told  me to put my hand on a Bible and then asked  “Are you a communist?” I replied “No, sir” and he stamped my passport.

In those days planes were powered by propeller engines and were much smaller than nowadays, so to take such a big symphony orchestra  two planes had to be chartered.  We flew from London airport to Shannon airport in Ireland, then had to refuel in order to cross the Atlantic to Gander airport where we refuelled again and then flew to Washington where we were to give a concert.

At Washington airport we were sent into a room where there was an official seated at a desk.  We were asked up one by one and he went through the same rigmarole.  It came to the turn of a woodwind player and a lady violinist.  They had been having an affair and after a divorce  wanted to keep their new marriage secret, but McCarthyism thought otherwise.   Mr. and Mrs. …….. were called and they both had to step up to the desk in front of the whole orchestra.  The women especially enjoyed it.

We were invited to tour the White House, then on to New York where we played at the Carnegie Hall. It was warm in the hall but freezing outside and when the instruments were taken outside there were strange noises coming from them.  It was the glue coming apart causing some of the instruments to split.  One violinist owned a Strad and it had split right down the belly; he was in tears. Next day a reception was given us by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and later a grand dinner given by EMI/HMV recording company.

New York was unsafe in certain areas in those days, and in a later tour with the Philharmonia, Gareth Morris, the first flute, was mugged in Central Park.  He was struck in the mouth and he could never play the flute again.  He died recently aged 84.

After New York we played at Rochester, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. plus many smaller towns such as Kalamazoo,
Charleston South  Carolina, and Williamsburg Virginia.

I  boarded a public transit bus in Richmond,Virginia.  Apartheid was still in place and I remember all the African Americans being made to sit at the back of the bus.

We travelled everywhere in two buses.  Sometimes the journeys were long and we had a few rest stops on the way.  The drivers knew all the best diners that then dotted the highways..  I remember on one Sunday that was supposed to be a day off we were in the buses for over twelve hours, and when we arrived at our destination had to wait half an hour for our hotel room keys.  Next day we left at 8 a.m. to be in time for our concert that evening.

The instruments travelled in a separate van. Enough porters came from England with us to take care of the instruments, but the US unions insisted that US porters had to be hired as well, much to Legge, the director’s, alarm over the cost.  There was even an American “supervisor” who knew nothing about handling instruments but insisted in getting in the way.  This nearly led to blows.

Our last concert was in Baltimore and we were all very tired after a gruelling tour.  In the morning von Karajan called for a seating rehearsal and during a pause a violinist who had been an Air Force pilot during the war stood up and berated von Karajan, who was a rabid Nazi, telling him that he did not like the cursory way he performed the US and British Anthems, at which Legge called out “Sit down”, and then went up to von Karajan and said “I’m sorry, Herbert, but I will ensure that that young man doesn’t play tonight”. Von Karajan seemed somewhat mollified at this.

Came the concert.  Hitherto we had played to packed houses but at Baltimore there was a demonstration outside the hall by Jewish protesters against von Karajan’s Nazism. The hall was not full.  The orchestra came on stage, including the violinist who had been warned not to.  There was an embarrassing wait and the audience gave a slow handclap.

Von Karajan refused to go on stage unless the errant violinist was ejected, but Dennis Brain, the French horn player, Gareth Morris, the first flute, and some others refused to go on stage unless the violinist was allowed to play. This went on for some time but eventually von Karajan did come on stage and the concert commenced.

After the interval there was another pause and more slow hand clapping until von Karajan appeared and we commenced to play again.

Next day, tired and weary we arrived at Washington airport to board our planes, but von Karajan was not there.  He, Legge and Mattoni, his manager, elected not to travel with us.

We  had a few days off for a well deserved rest and then had a recording session at the Kingsway Hall.  The chairman of the orchestral committee, Bernard Walton, the first clarinet, stood up and read us a letter  that had been sent by von Karajan’s Viennese lawyer in pidgin English demanding  a written apology from the whole orchestra who refused, but instead voted to send von K. a card wishing him a Merry Christmas.   Legge had told him that it was only the violinist who had caused all the trouble, but von Karajan said “No, the whole orchestra applauded him,” which they had.

Some time later we were informed that von Karajan had declared that although he had signed a recording contract with EMI, it didn’t state the name of the orchestra, so henceforth he would only record with the Berliner Phiharmoniker.   This was a huge blow to the Philharmonia and heralded its decline.

I could see that there was going to be a big drop in the Philharmonia’s recordings. Meanwhile there was a vacancy in the BBC Symphony Orchestra (it was called ‘The Lifeboat’ in those days as its job was deemed to be so secure) and I was invited to join them.  The terms were good so I signed on.

My own personal opinion is that von Karajan had used the Philharmonia and Legge to get a name for himself.  He already had the conductorship of the Berliner Philharmoniker, the Vienna Staatsopfer and the Scala Milan so why would he want the Philharmonia anymore?  He was a good business man.

Shortly afterwards Legge declared that he was disbanding the Philharmonia ‘Due to the difficulty of finding suitable players’.

Bernard Walton and the committee then invited Dr. Otto Klemperer to be their permanent conductor, renamed the orchestra  the New Philharmonia Orchestra so as not to infringe Legge’s copyright to the name and the orchestra slowly regained  much of its work.

Klemperer was disgusted with Legge, always referring to him as ‘That man’, but to give Legge his due, he should go down in history as a great impresario who built one of the finest orchestras in the world and whose recordings are still on sale even to this day.

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Published in: on March 12, 2007 at 7:56 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] a more in depth account of Legge’s disbandment of the Philharmonia, read my blog on Herbert von Karajan. Published […]


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