50 years at Glyndebourne

On 21 May 1964 the musicians of the London Philharmonic Orchestra settled into their seats in the Glyndebourne pit for a performance of Verdi's Macbeth and prepared for the conductor's entrance. Half a century later, they're still here.

Glyndebourne Opera

In summer 2013 the LPO took its place at Glyndebourne as the Festival's resident orchestra for the 50th consecutive year. A relationship that began under the baton of John Pritchard has brought forth productions of operas by Mozart, Janáček, Strauss and Ravel, to mention just a few.

Today, it's hard to imagine the Glyndebourne Festival without the LPO – but it wasn't always that way. Although opera is today part of the LPO's lifeblood, the Orchestra of the early 1960s was more used to performing symphonies than arias. When it first came to Glyndebourne it was under the banner of the 'Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra', and its musicians quickly had to adapt to a repertoire and style with which most of the players were unfamiliar. Yet opera is in the Orchestra's DNA: although the players in the Glyndebourne pit this summer were not even born when Thomas Beecham's fledgling London Philharmonic Orchestra made its first appearance at his international opera season at Covent Garden in 1933, 30 performances were given that season, including two cycles of the Ring, and nine other operas.

That first summer in 1964 must have been an eye-opener: as well as Macbeth, the season included productions of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte and Idomeneo, Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, Rossini's La pietra del paragone and Strauss's Capriccio. But the Orchestra clearly impressed: it was invited to return the following year – under its proper title – and has been one of the resident orchestras ever since.

Glyndebourne's reputation for adventurous repertoire, stunningly performed is synonymous with that of the LPO. A case in point was director Peter Hall's staging of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1981. While Hall's fairies delighted the eyes, it was Bernard Haitink, Glyndebourne's Musical Director and erstwhile Principal Conductor of the LPO, who captivated the ears. The production won over critics and audiences alike. The press hailed a 'perfect realisation of a fairy tale' and the audience enthusiasm was such that the production has been revived four times, most recently in 2006.

Glyndebourne's audiences have always relished the new and the unusual, and when Andrew Davis arrived as Music Director in 1989, that meant Janáček. The Cunning Little Vixen aside, the Czech composer's work hadn't previously been seen on the Glyndebourne stage, but Davis and the LPO set out to change that. A production of Jenůfa was staged, starring the brilliant German soprano Anja Silja in the role of the Kostelnička, and it proved so popular that it has been revived four times and twice taken on Tour.

'The opera that gave me one of the best musical experiences of my whole career was Porgy and Bess. That sort of music, when it's done well, can be electrifying and at Glyndebourne it was breath-taking.'

Keith Millar, LPO Percussionist

Five years later, the Orchestra had the chance to show off its versatility when Sir Simon Rattle conducted the first professional British production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. The performance – starring baritone Sir Willard White and soprano Cynthia Haymon – was captured on disc three years later and recently named one of the 50 greatest recordings of all time in BBC Music Magazine.

Millar, who's been with the orchestra for 40 years, has got to know Glyndebourne better than most. Of the conductors he has worked with he says 'one of my stars was John Pritchard, and Bernard Haitink has always been a favourite of all of ours. But I personally have a very high regard for Vladimir Jurowski (Glyndebourne's Music Director and the LPO's Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor). He has this enormous intensity and so much to give. He is part of the new breed of young conductors, who all seem under 30!'

 'Glyndebourne was offering me the unique opportunity of having a theatre of one's own with really luxurious rehearsals and a brilliant symphony orchestra. It's an offer that was difficult to refuse.'

Vladimir Jurowski

Jurowski became the Festival's youngest ever Music Director when he was appointed in 2000 at the age of 29, and he'll be handing over to Robin Ticciati (now 30) at the end of this season.

But having accepted, he was faced with an intimidating opening night: 'It was Britten's Albert Herring and it was quite frightening because this audience knew the opera inside out – it's a Glyndebourne classic. So although they were reacting vividly to all the jokes and were very welcoming, I couldn't help feeling that I was being examined!'

If he had been sitting an exam, Jurowski would have passed with flying colours. Highlights of his 13-year tenure have included acclaimed performances of Don Giovanni, the world premiere of Peter Eötvös's Love and Other Demons and productions of neglected masterpieces including Rachmaninov's The Miserly Knight.

'This orchestra feels equally comfortable in the pit and on stage. It's probably the most versatile orchestra in the world because when you do opera it opens your ears, it makes you more aware and that helps you in symphonic playing.'

Pieter Schoeman, Leader of the LPO

Looking back, Jurowski explains that working at Glyndebourne has had a profound effect both on him and the character of this historic orchestra. 'The LPO is flexible in style, vividly interested in what's going on in the staging department and it cares for the singers – you can actually hear it in the way they accompany in concerts.'

The scale, style, flexibility and ambition of the LPO has followed that of the the Festival and together they have really stretched their wings, staging operas like Britten's Billy Budd and Wagner's epic Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. But talk to the players and there's something else about the Orchestra's annual summer trip that sticks in their minds...

'For me, I consider the Glyndebourne season the reward for playing all year long in London and on our busy international tours. It's a chance to sort of recharge your batteries and play beautiful music in a fantastic environment.'

Pieter Schoeman, Leader of the LPO

And for newer members of the Orchestra, playing at Glyndebourne quickly becomes a cherished part of the job. Violinist Ilyoung Chae has only played in one Glyndebourne season and didn't even know where the opera house was before she joined the LPO: 'Members of the Orchestra had said to me "This is the best part of the job", and I agree with them. You get the whole afternoon off before the performance and can enjoy the countryside, practise, and socialise with colleagues.'

Back in the auditorium, it's Vladimir Jurowski's final year at the helm. Since 2001, he's treated audiences to new productions of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, Rossini's La Cenerentola, Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen and revivals of Verdi's Otello and Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. And there's no sense that he's resting on his laurels this year. As his farewell, Jurowski is taking on the challenge of conducting his first fully staged Strauss opera: Ariadne auf Naxos, a work last seen at Glyndebourne in 1981. 'I haven't done any Strauss in my life operatically and I thought this was a Glyndebourne piece in every sense. Glyndebourne has a very rich tradition of Strauss, but it was a missing link for me.'

Strauss's librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, wrote in a letter to the composer: 'Of all our joint works, this is the one I never cease to love best ... the music is as enchanting in the memory as anything could be; like fireworks in a beautiful park, one enchanted, all too fleeting, summer night'. What could be more appropriate for the Glyndebourne Festival?

Elizabeth Davis, Staff Writer, BBC Music Magazine

This article originally appeared in the Glyndebourne Festival Programme Book 2013 and is reproduced with permission.