Russian Symphony Orchestra Society

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Russian Symphony Orchestra Society
Newspaper clipping giving the venue as "Cooper Union Auditorium 8th St. and 4th Av."
Advertisement for the orchestra's first performance on January 7, 1904
Founded 1903 (1903)
Disbanded 1918 or 1919
Location New York City

The Russian Symphony Orchestra Society (also known simply as the Russian Symphony Orchestra) was founded in 1903 (1903) in New York City[1][2] by Modest Altschuler, and functioned for fifteen years.[2]

Oscar Levant described the orchestra as having constituted "a school for concertmasters"; among its members were Frederic Fradkin (concertmaster of the Boston Symphony), Maximilian Pilzer (concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic), Ilya Skolnik (concertmaster of the Detroit Symphony), and Louis Edlin (concertmaster of the National Orchestral Association).[3] Film music conductors Nikolai Sokoloff, Nathaniel Shilkret[4] and Nat Finston were also Russian Symphony Orchestra alumni, as was trumpeter Harry Glantz.[3] The orchestra also formed the backbone of the New Music Society of America, founded in December 1905.

They performed the New York premieres of numerous pieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky and Alexander Scriabin, including Stravinsky's first symphony (the Symphony in E-flat) and The Firebird.[3]


The early years[edit]

The orchestra's debut public performance was at Cooper Union Hall on January 7, 1904, and, according to Leonard Slatkin, featured works by Mikhail Glinka, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Henryk Wieniawski, and the American premiere of Rachmaninoff's The Rock.[2] However, the New York Times of January 3, 1904 lists the program as consisting of the Overture from Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila, a baritone aria from Borodin's Prince Igor, an intermezzo from Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, a Russian dance by Eduard Nápravník and the symphonic suite Scheherazade by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov;[5] The Times of January 24 that same year mentions their second concert as including Wieniawski's Souvenir de Moscou[6] and reviewing a later concert in the series mentions a performance of "'The Cliff' by Rachmaninoff," presumably the same piece as The Rock.[7]

For the 1904–1905 season, the orchestra, now expanded to 85 musicians,[8] performed six concerts at Carnegie Hall, featuring a works by a broad range of Russian composers,[9][10] including a violin concerto by Julius Conus.[11] The Times summarized the season as "resplendent with novelties,"[12] and praised their "enthusiasm"[13] and the "absorbing interest" of their selected material,[12] but was critical of the technical quality of their performances, particularly in comparison with their initial series of concerts at Cooper Union.[12][14] That season, they were the first to use a celesta in concert performance in the United States.[15] Among many Russian pieces given their American premieres that season was Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tale of Tsar Saltan;[16] the fourth concert of the season consisted entirely of works that had never before been presented in New York: Vasily Kalinnikov's first symphony, Anton Arensky's suite "Silhouettes", and excerpts from Modest Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina.[17]

The next year, their six Saturday night concerts at Carnegie Hall were supplemented by three "popular price" concerts there on Sunday afternoons.[18] The orchestra formed a relationship with Vasily Safonov.[19] Rachmininoff was engaged as a guest conductor and piano soloist for concerts of his music performed on April 7–8, 1906, and Safonov's former pupil, pianist Joseph Lhévinne, was brought over to make his American debut;[18] both were in their early thirties at the time, as was composer Vasily Zolotarev, whose Rhapsodie Hébraïque was also performed that season at Safonov's suggestion. Rhapsodie hébraïque, presented on the last two days of 1905, was based on secular Jewish melodies that the Times characterized as "the musical equivalent of Yiddish."[20] Pianist Raoul Pugno also participated in the season as a soloist, playing Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto.[18][21] Now expanded to 90 musicians, the orchestra was becoming an increasingly professional affair with, as the Times put it, "soloists of the first rank."[9]

Another of those soloists was Giuseppe Campanari, a baritone associated with the Metropolitan Opera. The chaos of the Revolution of 1905 prevented sending scores from Russia for the orchestra to accompany Campanari on arias from Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Queen of Spades (Pique Dame), and the performances were almost canceled. The only known copy of even the texts of the arias that could readily be found in New York was a German translation. The situation was finally rescued by "a little music store on Canal Street" which had held the relevant scores in stock, unsold for about a decade after they had been purchased from a Russian tenor in need of cash.[22]

Pianist Josef Lhévinne likewise had an extremely difficult time escaping the turmoil of revolution in Moscow to come to New York to play with the Russian Symphony and others, facing danger from both the revolutionists and the government.[23] Although his troubles were compounded by an injury to a finger,[24] his January 27, 1906 performance featured Anton Rubinstein's Fifth Concerto, and drew a very favorably review from the Times.[25]

New Music Society of America - 1906 ad.jpg

In late December 1905, Altschuler and others announced the formation of the New Music Society of America, soliciting "serious new work" from American composers, with the Russian Symphony functioning as the group's orchestra.[26] A first Carnegie Hall concert originally scheduled for February 19 apparently never occurred, because the New York Times refers to a March 10 concert as the group's first; another concert took place April 2, 1906.[27][28] The most prominent pieces at that first concert Edward MacDowell's Indian Suite and Second Concerto (hardly "new": although only in his forties, MacDowell was already in his final illness at the time); the orchestra also performed Henry F. Gilbert's Salammbô's Invocation to Tänith and Arthur Shepard's Overture Joyeuse.[28] The second concert featured violinist Maud Powell as a soloist; works included George Whitefield Chadwick's Melpomene overture, the premiere of a violin concerto by Henry Holden Huss, and premieres of pieces by David Stanley Smith and Frederick Converse.[29][30]

That season, the March 17, 1906 concert featured the first American performance of the young Reinhold Glière's Symphony No 1 in E-flat major, Op. 8 (composed 1900) as well as American premieres of pieces by César Cui a Cossack dance by Alexander Serov, who had died 35 years earlier in an era when Russian music had little currency in America, and 'a new concerto for violin, by Mlinarski," presumably the Concerto in D minor (composed c. 1897) by the Polish composer Emil Młynarski.[31][32] However, the unrest in Russia at that time prevented Rachmaninoff from visiting America, scuttling his planned April 7 performance.[32] Instead, violinist and composer Émile Sauret was featured, performing Antonín Dvořák's Violin Concerto in A Minor.[33][34] The same concert included two pieces by composer Anton Arensky, who had died on February 25.[33]

An established orchestra[edit]

By the end of the 1906 season, the Russian Symphony Orchestra was an established part of the New York music scene. In all, the New York Times counted six New York premieres by the Russian Symphony Orchestra as such in 1906, and three more by the New Music Society.[35] On May 25, the Society announced that Altschuler would be retained as Director for three more years, with Russian Ambassador Baron Roman Rosen continuing as honorary president.[36] Looking forward to the 1906-1907 musical season, the Times counted them among the city's major orchestras, along with the New York Philharmonic, New York Symphony Orchestra, Peoples' Symphony Concerts, and Sam Franko's American Symphony.[37]

The orchestra toured extensively,[3] and their tours could involve large numbers of performances. For example, a newspaper from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania shows the orchestra performing four separate concerts (at 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.) on a single Wednesday in September 1911. The programs were each entirely different, and the music ranged from Beethoven through Richard Wagner, Verdi and Puccini to Sibelius and Scriabin.[38]


  1. ^ "Of Music and Musicians: Plans Outlined for the Coming Worcester Festival—Russian Symphony Society Incorporated—Notes Concerning Coming Events of Importance", New York Times, 9 September 1903, p. 21.
  2. ^ a b c Leonard Slatkin, Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro (2012), Amadeus Press, p. 32. ISBN 1574672045. Accessed on Google Books.
  3. ^ a b c d Oscar Levant, A Smattering of Ignorance (1940), Doubleday, pp. 27–28.
  4. ^ Shilkret, Nathaniel, ed. Shell, Niel and Barbara Shilkret, Nathaniel Shilkret: Sixty Years in the Music Business, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2005, p. 14. ISBN 0-8108-5128-8
  5. ^ "Of Music and Musicians: …Russian Symphony Concerts…", New York Times, 3 January 1904, p. 17.
  6. ^ "Of Music and Musicians: …Russian Symphony Orchestra…", New York Times, 24 January 1904, p. 17.
  7. ^ "Some Stageland Jottings: …Russian Symphony Orchestra…", New York Times, 29 January 1904, p. 9.
  8. ^ "Russian Symphony Orchestra, New York Times, 20 November 1904, p. 9.
  9. ^ a b "Russian Symphony Orchestra, New York Times, 5 November 1905, p. X1.
  10. ^ "Echoes from the World of Music: …Russian Symphony Orchestra…", New York Times, 16 October 1904, p. SMA6.
  11. ^ "Musical Notes", New York Times, 30 October 1904, p. 8.
  12. ^ a b c "The Russian Orchestra", New York Times, 2 April 1905, p. 9.
  13. ^ "Musical Notes", New York Times, 25 December 1904, p. 7.
  14. ^ "The Russian Symphony", New York Times, 22 January 1905, p. 5.
  15. ^ "Russian Symphony Orchestra", New York Times, 4 January 1905, p. X4.
  16. ^ "Russian Symphony Orchestra", New York Times, 15 January 1905, p. SMA4.
  17. ^ "Russian Symphony Orchestra", New York Times, 19 February 1905, p. X3.
  18. ^ a b c "A Season of Great Musical Activity… Russian Symphony Orchestra", New York Times, 5 October 1905, p. X1.
  19. ^ "Russian Symphony Concerts", New York Times, 29 July 1905, p. 7.
  20. ^ "Musical Notes: Concerts, Recitals and Church Choir News", New York Times , 17 December 1905, p. X1.
  21. ^ "Musical Notes: New York's Musical Public Increasing Rapidly", New York Times, 29 October 1905, p. X1–X2.
  22. ^ "East Side Junk Yields Music For Campanari", New York Times, 25 December 1905, p. 7.
  23. ^ "Lhevinne Risked Life In Flight From Moscow: Young Pianist Arrives with a Tale of Terrors in the City…", New York Times, 16 January 1906, p. 11.
  24. ^ "Lhevinne Hurt His Finger: Accident at the Piano Almost Prevented Him From Playing", New York Times, 28 January 1906, p. X2.
  25. ^ "The Latest Russian Pianist: Josef Lhevinne Makes an Excellent Impression at His First Concert", New York Times, 28 January 1906, p. 7.
  26. ^ "New Organization Will Have Aid of the Russian Symphony Society, New York Times, 27 December 1905, p. 9.
  27. ^ "Music and Music Makers", New York Times, 7 January 1906, p. X1.
  28. ^ a b "Music by Americans: The First Concert of the New Music Society in Carnegie Hall", New York Times, 11 March 1906, p. 9.
  29. ^ "Musical Notes", New York Times, 25 March 1906, p. X4.
  30. ^ "American Music Heard", New York Times, 3 April 1906, p. 9.
  31. ^ "The Russian Symphony", New York Times, 11 March 1906, p. X1.
  32. ^ a b "New Russian Works", New York Times, 18 March 1906, p. 11.
  33. ^ a b "Russian Symphony Orchestra", New York Times, 1 April 1906. p. X3.
  34. ^ "Emile Sauret Heard Again"", New York Times, 8 April 1906. p. 9.
  35. ^ "Music and Music Makers", New York Times, 22 April 1906. p. C4.
  36. ^ "Modest Altschuler Re-elected", New York Times, May 26, 1906. p. 11.
  37. ^ Richard Aldrich, "In the World of Music: Prospects of the Season", New York Times, October 28, 1906. p. X6.
  38. ^ Symphony Programs Cause Enthusiasm, The Gazette Times (Pittsburgh), 6 September 1911, p. 16.