Orchestral manoeuvres

1912 LSO tour programme

While he was on tour with the London Symphony Orchestra to North America in 1912, timpani player Charles Turner kept a diary. A century on, his entry for Tuesday April 16 from St Louis has taken on a poignant tone. “We travelled 290 miles last night and are now 1,088 miles from New York,” he writes. “[We] see the hall we play in, the Coliseum. Just like our Olympia in shape, and seats 12,500 people. We hear here about the White Star line Titanic going down. It causes great concern.”

This tour seemed destined to make history. Founded in 1904, the London Symphony Orchestra was still in its infancy and its 1912 tour was the first made by a European orchestra to the US and Canada. In the company of legendary conductor Arthur Nikisch, 99 men and one woman (the harpist, with chaperone) set off for three weeks of concerts in 22 cities, from Boston to Washington and Toronto.

The original plan of then managing director Thomas Busby had been for the orchestra to sail into New York on the Titanic’s maiden voyage but fate intervened when a sister vessel of the White Star Line shipping company suffered an accident. The Titanic’s propeller shaft was purloined to mend the stricken ship and the launch of the world’s biggest liner had to be put back. The LSO rearranged its Atlantic crossing on another ship and, halfway round its US itinerary, heard the news of the sinking of the Titanic.

As the orchestra prepares to set out once more to New York, the story of 1912 will inevitably be retold. Transatlantic tours are commonplace today – the LSO has an annual residency at Lincoln Center, where it will be giving two concerts in October under its principal conductor, Valery Gergiev – and touring is big business. Even in a year that has included the first free classical concert in Trafalgar Square, and playing at the Olympics and Paralympics, the LSO has made time for tours to China, South Korea, and 12 European summer festivals.

Not that life in 1912 was necessarily slower. Although the sea crossing took a leisurely 10 days, once the players arrived in the US their schedule was punishing: on five consecutive days they gave two concerts per day, and on one occasion they gave a matinee concert, took a train to another city for an evening concert, and promptly left again by the overnight train.

Gareth Davies, the LSO’s principal flautist, has made a study of the surviving materials from the 1912 tour in the orchestra’s archive. The stakes for the tour were high. Nikisch had announced in advance that the LSO was “the greatest orchestra in the world”, and there would have been a lot of rivalry with the local US orchestras. But the reception seems to have been enthusiastic.

The New York Times described the LSO as “conquering invaders” and the players were received at the White House by President William Howard Taft – “an amiable splendid gentleman, with a dignified and pleasant bearing”, writes Turner in his diary.

Since then the LSO’s relationship with New York has grown into the annual residency at Lincoln Center that it has now. Sue Mallet, the LSO’s director of planning, says this is a more pleasant way of doing business than long tours to multiple cities (the LSO also has residencies at Salle Pleyel in Paris, the Aix-en-Provence festival and Suntory Hall in Tokyo). “We are there long enough to undertake other activities, such as our Discovery projects and working in the community.”

Even so, when they arrive home, the LSO’s musicians may still feel as Charles Turner did in 1912. The last entry in his diary reads: “Glad to get home after travelling perhaps over 12,000 miles in six weeks and one day.”

The LSO will perform at Lincoln Center, New York, on October 22 and 24

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