past and present
Throughout the long history of the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne many developments in the musical life of the city converge. Its roots go back to the town musicians of the 15th century and the cathedral orchestra. In 1827 the Cologne Concert Society, which was composed of well-to-do, music-loving citizens, took over the sponsorship of the orchestra. Thirteen years later the Society appointed Conradin Kreutzer, the first municipal music director to receive a fixed salary, to conduct the numerous orchestral and choral concerts and opera performances. Beginning in 1857 the Society's concerts were presented in a late Gothic trading room and banquet hall known as the Gürzenich.
From Ferdinand Hiller, Franz Wüllner, Fritz Steinbach, Hermann Abendroth and Günter Wand to Markus Stenz – although the music directors who followed Conradin Kreutzer set different priorities, they all sought a balance between the classical canon and new works of their day. François-Xavier Roth will follow as new Gürzenich-Kapellmeister in season 2015/2016. Robert and Clara Schumann appeared with the Gürzenich Orchestra in Cologne, and Hector Berlioz, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner conducted their latest works there. Johannes Brahms conducted the world premiere of his Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra himself. Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (1895) and Don Quixote (1898) were performed for the first time in Cologne, and Gustav Mahler entrusted the orchestra with the premiere of his Fifth Symphony. The list continues with Paul Hindemith, Olivier Messiaen, Hans Werner Henze and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Concert at the Gürzenich 1924
Opening concert of the Kölner Philharmonie in 1986: The Gürzenich Orchestra Colgne, led by Gürzenich-Kapellmeister Marek Janowski, plays Gustavs Mahler's 8th Symphonie .
The great soloists and conductors of their day have invariably included the orchestra on their itineraries – Ferruccio Busoni and Vladimir Horowitz, Edwin Fischer and Claudio Arrau, violinists from Joseph Szigeti, Adolf Busch and Jascha Heifetz to Frank Peter Zimmermann and Anne-Sophie Mutter. The orchestra came under the aegis of the city in 1888, and the 53 orchestra members were engaged to perform in the theatre. To this day the Gürzenich Orchestra also serves as the orchestra for the Cologne Opera. The university assembly hall was the main performance venue until the Gürzenich reopened ten years after the end of the Second World War. Günter Wand, honorary conductor of the Gürzenich Orchestra, was the ensemble's music director from 1945 to 1974. In addition to expanding the Classical and Romantic repertoire, he devoted himself to the contemporary composers Ernst Krenek, Wolfgang Fortner, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, Paul Hindemith, Hans Werner Henze and Olivier Messiaen. From 1975 to 1986 Yuri Ahronovich augmented the repertoire with works by Tchaikovsky, Musorgsky, Shostakovich, Dvořák and Sibelius and the late Viennese Romanticism of Schreker and Korngold. Marek Janowski opened the Cologne Philharmonie in 1986 with Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 8, the 'Symphony of a Thousand'. The Gürzenich Orchestra now makes its home in one of the world's most beautiful concert halls. Under James Conlon, who led the ensemble from 1989, the orchestra expanded its presence on the international music scene with concert tours and awarding-winning CD recordings.
Markus Stenz conducted the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne 2003 to 2014, combining traditional repertoire and innovative programming during his concerts. He was honoured by the German Music Publishers' Association for the 'Best Concert Programme of the Season' during his first year – among other things, for introducing 'Act 3', a work at the close of the concert which is not announced beforehand. In 2005 the Gürzenich Orchestra launched 'GO live!' on the initiative of Markus Stenz – a project that is unique worldwide. The orchestra's concerts in the Cologne Philharmonie are recorded live and can be taken home immediately after the concert on CD or MP3 player or purchased on iTunes. More than 22,000 CDs have been sold to date. The project has received numerous awards, including the Live Entertainment Award for 2006, and was named a 'Selected Landmark for 2010' by the initiative Germany – Land of Ideas, under the patronage of the German President.
In addition to GO live! the orchestra also produces many recordings for the regular CD market. Award-winning recordings of the complete symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev have been made with Dmitri Kitaenko, who collaborates closely with the orchestra on Russian repertoire and was named an honorary conductor in 2009. The orchestra is currently working on a Tchaikovsky cycle with Dmitri Kitaenko and a recording of the complete Mahler symphonies under Markus Stenz. Four recordings have been released in the SACD format, the first of which – Mahler's Fifth Symphony – was selected for the Critics' Choice list of the German Record Critics' Award Association. The Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne is frequently invited to appear on the major international concert stages, including Vienna, Athens, Thessaloníki, Amsterdam, the Edinburgh International Festival, London's BBC Proms and China, with concerts in Beijing, Shanghai, Macao, Suzhou und Guangzhou. The Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne not only enjoys an excellent reputation abroad but throughout Germany as well and is one of the country's leading ensembles. The news magazine FOCUS selected it as one of Germany's ten best symphony orchestras in 2008.
In 2015 François-Xavier Roth will take on the position as Gürzenich-Kapellmeister (Chief Conductor) and General Music Director of the City of Cologne.