The first concert of Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra took place on November 5, 1901 in the newly built Philharmonic Hall. This inaugural concert was conducted by Emil Młynarski, co-founder, first music director and principal conductor of the Philharmonic. The soloist was the world-famous pianist, composer and future statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski. The program of this historic concert included Paderewski’s Piano Concerto in A minor and works by other Polish composers: Chopin, Moniuszko, Noskowski, Stojowski and Żeleński.
In its early years, the Orchestra relatively quickly achieved a high level of professionalism, attracting outstanding soloists and conductors from all over the world. Before World War I and in the inter-war period, Warsaw Philharmonic was the main centre of musical activity in Poland and also one of the major musical institutions in Europe. Almost all the outstanding conductors and soloists of the day performed in Warsaw with the city’s Philharmonic Orchestra, including Edward Grieg, Arthur Honegger, Otto Klemperer, Sergey Prokofiev, Sergey Rakhmaninov, Maurice Ravel, Artur Rodzinski, Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Horowitz, Wilhelm Kempff, Arthur Rubinstein, Bronisław Huberman and Pablo Sarasate.
The first three International Chopin Piano Competitions (1927, 1932, 1937), in which the Orchestra participated, were held in Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, as well as the first International Wieniawski Violin Competition (1935) and the first Public Festival of Polish Arts (1937). Those events demonstrated Warsaw’s active participation in European musical life.
After 38 years of prosperity, the outbreak of World War II brought the activities of the Philharmonic to a temporary halt. The Hall was bombed and partially burnt in the first days of September 1939 and completely destroyed by the end of the war. The orchestra lost 39 of its 71 players.
In the first years after the war, Olgierd Straszyński and Andrzej Panufnik were among the conductors of Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. In January 1950, Witold Rowicki was appointed director and principal conductor. He took it upon himself to organise a new ensemble. Despite the lack of its own hall (performances were organised in e.g. sports halls and theatres) and difficult working conditions, the Orchestra, due to Rowicki’s effort, became a leading Polish ensemble.
On 21st February 1955, the new (rebuilt) Philharmonic Hall in Jasna St. was re-opened. It contained a concert hall holding an audience of more than one thousand, and a chamber music hall with 433 seats. On that day, Warsaw Philharmonic was granted the status of the National Philharmonic of Poland. This represented the status which the Philharmonic had achieved in Poland as the leading institution of its kind in the country.
Their first concert abroad took place at the 1951 International Youth Festival in Berlin and was followed by a tour of Romania in 1952. In October 1952, a “Choir Studio” under the auspices of the Philharmonic was established. This studio was the origin of the mixed choir, which appeared for the first time in a symphony concert with the Orchestra in May 1953. Since then, the Choir has received the name of the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir with a status of a fully professional ensemble. Also at that time the Warsaw Philharmonic started to promote its own chamber music series, which it still does today.
From 1955 until 1958 Bohdan Wodiczko, an outstanding musician and enthusiast of modern music conducted the Orchestra. Arnold Rezler and Stanisław Skrowaczewski also worked with the Orchestra, and Roman Kuklewicz directed the Choir. It was a good period for the Philharmonic: the orchestra was enlarged, the hall gained an organ, and performances of modern music achieved great success leading to the establishment of the First International Festival of Contemporary Music, in October 1956, known as the Warsaw Autumn. With time, it became one of the world’s most important festivals of its kind.
In 1958 Witold Rowicki was again appointed artistic director and principal conductor of the Philharmonic, a post he held until 1977. Stanisław Wisłocki and Andrzej Markowski also worked with the Orchestra at that time as permanent guest conductors. It was under Rowicki’s direction that foreign tours and appearances in prestigious halls worldwide became a staple of the orchestra’s activity.
On 1st July 1977, Kazimierz Kord was appointed artistic director and principal conductor of the National Philharmonic and he directed the Orchestra till the end of the centenary celebrations in 2001. From the beginning of his work with the Orchestra, he emphasised broadening the range of repertoire. As a result, alongside symphonies, also oratorios and operas were included in the programmes for the following artistic seasons. A new venture was the series The National Philharmonic Presents recorded live and released on the Polskie Nagrania label. Presently Maestro Kazimierz Kord holds the position of Honorary Director of the National Philharmonic and maintains close contact with the Orchestra. At the beginning of the 1978/79 season, Henryk Wojnarowski took over the leadership of the choir while Tadeusz Strugała worked with the Orchestra as permanent guest conductor (1979 to 1990). Since January 2002, Antoni Wit has been General and Artistic Director of Warsaw Philharmonic – The National Orchestra and Choir of Poland.
Today both the Warsaw Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and the Choir enjoy world-wide popularity and recognition. The orchestra has made over 100 tours on five continents. It has performed in all the major concert halls, winning applause from the audiences and critics for their charismatic music making. It has taken part in many international festivals – in Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Bergen, Lucerne, Montreux, Moscow, Brussels, Florence, Bordeaux and Athens. The Orchestra regularly participates in the International F. Chopin Piano Competitions and the Warsaw Autumn Festival. It also makes recordings for the Polish Radio and Television, Polish and international record companies, and records film music. The artistic achievements of the Warsaw Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra have frequently been rewarded with prestigious record awards. Recently, the Orchestra won the “Fryderyk 2002” Record Academy Award in the special category of “The Most Outstanding Polish Music Recording” for its record with pieces by Lutosławski, Meyer and Penderecki.
The recording of Krzysztof Penderecki’s St Luke Passion, made in 2002 for NAXOS and performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic – The National Orchestra and Choir of Poland conducted by Antoni Wit, received the Classical Internet Award
and was nominated for the American Grammy Award in 2004.
The CD recording of Penderecki’s Polish Requiem by the same orchestral and choral forces (on Naxos) won another Grammy nomination in 2005, as well as the Japanese Record Academy Award 2005 (Record Geijutsu). In June 2005, Warsaw Philharmonic recorded Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 under the same label, winning the highest critical acclaim. Two other recordings by Warsaw Philharmonic – The National Orchestra of Poland received three Fryderyk Awards in 2005 (Chopin – Piano Concerto in E Minor op. 11, soloist: Rafał Blechacz – Chronicle of the 15th Chopin Competition – in the category “Orchestral Music” and Lutosławski – Concerto for Orchestra and Cello Concerto, soloist: Rafał Kwiatkowski – in two categories: “Contemporary Music” and “The Most Outstanding Recording of Polish Music”). 2007 brought another Grammy nomination, again for a composition by Penderecki – The Seven Gates of Jerusalem.
Most recently, Warsaw Philharmonic – The National Orchestra of Poland conducted by Antoni Wit has begun recorded the complete orchestral and vocal-orchestral works by Szymanowski for Naxos. The first two CDs in this series: I. Violin Concertos (soloist: Ilya Kaler), Nocturne, Tarantella and II. Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 – were selected in the Editor’s Choice of the British Gramophone magazine (in July 2007 and May 2008), while the third – containing Stabat Mater, Veni Creator, Litany to the Virgin Mary, Demeter and Penthesilea – was BBC Music Magazine’s Editor’s Choice in October 2008, and was nominated for Grammy. The Orchestra also recorded symphonic poems by Karłowicz for Naxos.
Apart from outstanding Polish artists, the Warsaw Philharmonic has hosted many eminent artists from all over the world, among them: Hermann Abendroth, Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Kathleen Battle, Joshua Bell, Teresa Berganza, Gary Bertini, Herbert Blomstedt, Alfred Brendel, Charles Dutoit, Philippe Entremont, Vladimir Fedoseyev, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Robert Holl, Marek Janowski, Nigel Kennedy, Aram Khachaturian, Evgeny Kissin, Gidon Kremer, Lang Lang, Felicity Lott, Lorin Maazel, Mischa Maisky, Igor Markevitch, Kurt Masur, Yehudi Menuhin, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Midori, Shlomo Mintz, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Kent Nagano, David and Igor Oistrakh, Murray Perahia, Maurizio Pollini, Svyatoslav Richter, Helmuth Rilling, Mstislav Rostropovich, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Arthur Rubinstein, Jordi Savall, András Schiff, Isaac Stern, Leopold Stokowski, Igor Stravinsky, Henryk Szeryng, Pinchas Zukerman and many others.