From the Stiftung Basler Orchester to the Sinfonieorchester Basel

In 1989 the newly established Stiftung Basler Orchester took over the BOG's two orchestras. The Basler Sinfonie-Orchester and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Basel continued their separate existences for nine years until 1997, when they were merged to form the Sinfonieorchester Basel. In 2012, following a reorientation phase, the Sinfonieorchester Basel severed ties with its long-standing event organizer AMG. Since then it has been entirely responsible for its own affairs, both artistic and commercial.


The Basel instruments war

The degree of obduracy between the opposing parties in the Basel world of music at this juncture is made clear by an episode that went down in history as the "instruments war". In the course of its history the BOG had accumulated an impressive stock of instruments – double basses, tubas, but first and foremost large or rare percussion instruments. When the orchestras were transferred to the foundation, nobody thought to clarify the question of who owned these instruments. The education department was of the opinion that they belonged to the foundation, because they had been purchased with cash received in subsidies. Not so, said the BOG: The instruments were either gifts from musical patron Paul Sacher, or had been acquired with profits generated. Following exchanges of blows conducted in public and by lawyers, the matter went to court – which found in favour of the BOG without reservation. In 1993 the Stiftung Basler Orchester bought the instruments from the BOG for around half a million francs. Picture: bells for Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique from the orchestra's stock of instruments, donated by Paul Sacher.

A foundation supersedes the BOG

In the late 1980s a series of problems put the BOG and its two orchestras under strain. The SRG, which provided the Radio-Sinfonieorchester with much of its funding, made its cost-cutting intentions clear - and the canton of Basel Stadt believed that the revenue from artists' rights should go to the orchestra's sponsor rather than the musicians. In the final analysis the canton was anxious to reduce its spending on culture. The city government suggested transferring the two orchestras to a quasi-public-sector foundation. The BOG put up vigorous resistance, but was not in a position to initiate the necessary reforms. For nearly two years an embittered dispute raged about the future of the orchestra's sponsors, its fault lines dividing political parties and the two orchestras alike. On 25 September 1988 a referendum decided - by a wafer-thin majority - in favour of the foundation option, since when the two orchestras have been funded by the Stiftung Basler Orchester. The BOG, which was in charge of the Basel orchestral scene for almost 70 years, was left with no orchestra at all.


Walter Weller

In his early years, Walter Weller (1939-2015) was leader of the Vienna Philharmonic, and his début as conductor came in 1966. He was subsequently the principal conductor of the Duisburg Symphony Orchestra, the Lower Austrian Tonkünstler Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and – after his engagement in Basel – the National Orchestra of Belgium. There were plans for Weller to renew his acquaintance with the Basel audience at a concert given by the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra in December 2015. Unfortunately this will not happen. Walter Weller died in Vienna on 14 June 2015.


When Horst Stein retired he was succeeded by Austrian violinist and conductor Walter Weller. Weller was also engaged for two productions a year at Theater Basel, but after just two years he was compelled to withdraw from that commitment on health grounds. A year later, in the light of the merger of the two Basel orchestras, the conductor also resigned from the post of artistic director of the AMG – though he retained his position as guest conductor of the Basel orchestra. Weller's programmes in Basel evidence his distinct preference for the music of Slav composers, Antonín Dvořák first and foremost.


Mario Venzago

Born in Zurich, Mario Venzago was initially a concert pianist before turning to conducting. He was General Musical Director of the city of Heidelberg, and his subsequent appointments included principal conductor of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Graz Opera, the Basque National Orchestra, San Sebastian and the Swedish National Orchestra, Göteborg. After resigning from his post in Basel, Venzago was musical director of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra from 2002 until 2009. He has been principal conductor of the Berne Symphony Orchestra since 2010.

Two become one: the Sinfonieorchester Basel

In the mid-1990s the canton of Basel-Stadt made it clear that it was determined to cut costs in the field of culture, and it focused primarily on the two orchestras of the Stiftung Basler Orchester. The foundation decided to amalgamate the two orchestras and institute gradual job losses. The merger took place in 1997: the new orchestra was called the Sinfonieorchester Basel. Swiss conductor Mario Venzago was entrusted with the difficult task of making it into a homogeneous orchestra. Like his predecessors before the merger, he was "only" artistic director of the AMG, not principal conductor of the orchestra as well. This was a situation that rapidly became onerous, and it was partly responsible for Venzago's departure in 2002. Despite all the difficulties, the artistic achievements of the Venzago era were inspiring: the repertoire was broadened, and Venzago gave the orchestra crucial impetus. Its recordings of the symphonies of Robert Schumann achieved international recognition.


Marko Letonja

Marko Letonja schloss seine Studien an der Musikakademie Ljubliana 1989 ab und wurde zwei Jahre später Musikdirektor der slowenischen Philharmonie Ljubliana. In den 90er Jahren begann seine internationale Laufbahn, unter anderem mit Engagements bei den Wiener Symphonikern und den Münchner Philharmonikern. Nach seiner Zeit in Basel leitete Letonja verschiedene australische Orchester. 2012 wurde er Chefdirigent des Orchestre philharmonique des Strasbourg.

A general musical director

After Mario Venzago's resignation as artistic director of the AMG, Slovene Marko Letonja became the first principal conductor of the Sinfonieorchester Basel to be simultaneously musical director of Theater Basel. He conducted new productions of Tannhäuser, La Traviata, Der Freischütz, Boris Godunov, Tristan und Isolde, Rigoletto and Don Giovanni at the theatre between 2003 and 2006. In the concert hall. The discographic legacy of his collaboration with the Sinfonieorchester Basel consists of the highly-regarded recordings of the symphonic works of his predecessor Felix Weingartner (see 1927). Letonja resigned from his positions in Basel after only three years.


The IMG Artists study

The repeated restructuring of Basel's orchestral landscape in 2007 was preceded by a study commissioned from IMG Artists by the Basel education department. It contained an unequivocal description of the state of health of the Sinfonieorchester Basel at the time: "A symphony orchestra whose artistic quality is capable of improvement, without an identity of its own, governed by outside forces (the theatre and AMG), with no appeal beyond the Basel city limits, unattractive to sponsors."

Joining forces

On 2 November 2006 event organizer AMG and the Stiftung Basler Orchester sponsor announced that the two institutions were joining forces: With effect from 2007 the AMG took over the complete operational and artistic management of the Sinfonieorchester Basel, thus accepting responsibility for the orchestra's positioning and for arranging recordings and external appearances. It was hoped that this would put an end to the many years of discord between the AMG and the Foundation. While the responsible member of the cantonal government spoke of a "breakthrough", others were sceptical. In a comment in the ProgrammZeitung, musicologist and journalist Michael Kunkel delivered a damning verdict: "Basel's cultural policy-makers have been thoroughly hoodwinked."


Dennis Russell Davies

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Dennis Russell Davies studied piano and conducting at New York's Juilliard School. Previous appointments included principal conductor of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and professor at the Mozarteum University of Salzburg. After his début at the Bayreuth Festival he conducted at the Salzburg Festival, the Lincoln Center Festival in New York, Houston Grand Opera, Hamburg Opera, the Bavarian State Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Metropolitan Opera New York, the Opéra National de Paris and the Teatro Real in Madrid. Dennis Russell Davies has been principal conductor of the Linz Bruckner Orchestra since 2002. In 2014 his contract with the Sinfonieorchester Basel was extended for two years.

An American in Basel

After three long years, the Sinfonieorchester Basel once more had a principal conductor: Dennis Russell Davies. This Austro-American pianist and conductor clearly set the tone from the outset. Contemporary music was important to him, especially that of American composers of the minimal music generation. This was not always appreciated by audiences and AMG. But the degree of acceptance began to increase when the orchestra's relationship with AMG as promoter was terminated (see 2012). Davies knew exactly how to turn the audience (and also the orchestra) into allies on his musical adventures. In terms of discography he and the Sinfonieorchester Basel specified important focal points: the complete symphonies of Franz Schubert and Arthur Honegger, Igor Stravinsky's great ballet music - and two CDs of symphonies by Philip Glass.


An orchestra that's going places

The termination of the orchestra's relationship with AMG as promoter had a liberating effect above and beyond the subscription concerts. Since then, several new concert formats have emerged (Cocktail concerts, In Black and White, Cube Sessions etc.), various own-label CD projects have been undertaken, and tours abroad are rapidly raising the orchestra's international profile.

Finally, a concert series of its own

Under Dennis Russell Davies the orchestra has developed an artistic profile that's impossible to ignore. Even four years after taking over overall responsibility (see 2007), conversely, AMG had not succeeded in strengthening the orchestra's regional and international positioning. When AMG announced that owing to declining audiences it would no longer be presenting repeated concerts with the Sinfonieorchester from the 2012/13 season, the Stiftung Basler Orchester (chaired since 2009 by Barbara Schneider, formerly a member of the Basel cantonal government) and the orchestra's management felt compelled to act. A decision was taken to organize future subscription concerts with no AMG involvement, taking full responsibility in both artistic and commercial terms. The snag here was that subscribers to Sinfonieorchester concerts were AMG's subscribers, so the orchestra had to rebuild its subscriber base from scratch. But it worked. After an initial lean period, the Sinfonieorchester Basel's symphony concerts are currently significantly better attended than they were prior to 2012.


The More than Minimal tour

In April 2014 the Sinfonieorchester Basel and its principal conductor Dennis Russell Davies undertook an extended tour of the United Kingdom. The repertoire was unusual, consisting entirely of works by Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, John Adams and Arvo Pärt. Three of the concerts took place as part of the Summer Music Festival at the Cadogan Hall, London, and four more were held elsewhere. Press reaction was enthusiastic: "Minimalist works maximise power" (The Guardian), "A fabulous ride" (The Telegraph), "The audience responded with rapture to the performance given by the excellent Basel Symphony Orchestra and its skilled conductor" (Classical Source).


Far East tour

In March 2015 the Sinfonieorchester Basel went on its third journey to Far East - this time with its principal conductor Dennis Russell Davies. They gave concerts in Beijing, Shanghai and Tongyeong. Fazil Say and Yumi Hwang-Williams performed as soloists, and the programmes included works by Mozart, Beethoven, Hindemith, Stravinsky, Bernstein, Isang Yun and Chén Yí. The Chinese and Korean audiences were ecstatic.


A trip around Basel - together with Ivor Bolton

Summer 2016 is a turning point for the Sinfonieorchester Basel: Together with its new Principal Conductor Ivor Bolton it meets the challenges that come with the renovations of the Stadtcasino Basel. The British conductor Ivor Bolton succeeds Dennis Russell Davies who was Principal Conductor from 2009 until 2016. First Principal Conductor is Michał Nesterowicz. The orchestra's main concert venue, the Stadtcasino Basel will undergo renovations. During the construction work, which is scheduled to last four seasons, the orchestra will hold its symphony concerts at the Musical Theater Basel, Basel Minster and Theater Basel. The content of the programmes will also make reference to the concert venues. From summer 2020 the symphony concerts will return to their usual home at Stadtcasino Basel.