A history of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in 10 key dates

In 2017, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France celebrated its 80th birthday. From its origins with Eugène Bigot, through the Second World War, to today, here are 10 key dates that have shaped this fascinating musical ensemble.

A history of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France in 10 key dates
The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, © Radio France / Christophe Abramowitz

After 8 decades of concerts, tours and name-changes, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France celebrated in 2017 its 80th birthday. The prestigious orchestra has lived through many of the important moments of the 20th century, notably the Second World War, becoming one of the most important orchestras in the French musical landscape. Here are 10 key dates in the orchestra's history that helped forge the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.

1937: The birth of an orchestra

Three years after the creation of the Orchestre National, the first permanent national radio ensemble, the minister Robert Jardillier announced the creation of four permanent orchestras: a symphonic and lyrical orchestra, and two other ensembles for the lunchtime and afternoon radio concerts. Amongst these four ensembles, the Orchestre A, later known as the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, set about taking part in the daily radio shows and programmes, broadcast live from the Paris studios.

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1947: Eugène Bigot, first permanent conductor

In 1947, the Orchestre A, now known as the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, welcomed its permanent conductor, Eugène Bigot. This collaboration resulted in numerous exceptional concerts, such as in 1948 with Roman Palester's Violin Concerto conducted by Nadia Boulanger, and one year later the French premiere of Richard Strauss's Friedenstag.

1959: A new name

After moving to the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in 1954, the orchestra's name was changed yet again. The word "philharmonique" was added for the first time in 1959 following lengthy negotiations. The musical ensemble was now officially known as: "Orchestre Philharmonique de la Radiodiffusion Télévision Française".

1965: The death of Eugène Bigot

The death of the conductor Eugène Bigot in 1965 resulted in the nomination of Charles Bruck as the orchestra's new director. The passing of such an important figure was a great loss for the ensemble. Eugène Bigot conducted his last concert in 1964, 37 years after his first collaborations with the French public radio's orchestras. 1965 marked not only the passing of Bigot but also the death of another legendary conductor: Désiré-Émile Inghelbrecht.

1975: A geometrically-variable orchestra

Following the dissolution of the ORTF (Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française), the Orchestre Philharmonique's principal role narrowed and grew more precise. The orchestra was now "geometrically-variable", a first in French music history, with the aim of bringing the Orchestre Philharmonique closer to the lyrical and chamber orchestras in order to widen the performed repertoires and allow the musicians a certain flexibility.

1976: Yet another name-change

The orchestra's new role bore fruit and a new name was conceived in order to underline the novelty of the idea of a "geometrically-variable" orchestra. Responsibility for the Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique was given to Gilbert Amy, then the musical advisor to Jacques Sallebert, the radio corporation's president. Under his management, the orchestra was able to ensure the performance of four major cycles of the classical repertoire: symphonic, sacred, baroque/classical, and 20th-century works.

1987: The first Proms

The ensemble began to forge an international reputation, and performed for the first time at the famous London festival, the Proms, conducted by Marek Janoswki, principal conductor for 4 years. An orchestra of 138 musicians, the Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique was able to divide itself into 2 or even 3 separate ensembles according to the needs of its programme.

1989: One final change

In 1989, a new name was given to the orchestra (the last of eight names in total): the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France was born. The ensemble's "variable geometry" was abandoned, and thus a more generic was required. That same year, the "Philhar" returned to the Proms to perform Dutilleux's Métaboles, with Marek Janowski as the ensemble's newly-named musical director.

2000: The Philhar becomes a UNICEF ambassador

After 10 years at the helm of the orchestra, the conductor Janowski gave his final concert in January 2000 with Bruckner's Symphony no.8, to be replaced by Myung-Whun Chung. Under the direction of their new conductor, the Orchestre Philharmonique became a UNICEF ambassador in 2007.

2003: Mikko Franck's first concert

Mikko Franck conducted the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France for the first time in 2003, several years before becoming the ensemble's musical director. In September 2015, he became the orchestra's principal conductor, in time to celebrate the ensemble's 80th birthday with Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.