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National Philharmonic Orchestra (Great Britain) (Symphony Orchestra)

Founded: 1964 - London, England as RCA Orchestra
Renamed: 1970 as National Philharmonic Orchestra (of London)
Disbanded: Late 1990’s

The National Philharmonic Orchestra (of London) was a British orchestra created exclusively for recording purposes.

The orchestra grew out of the eponymous RCA Orchestra based in London that producer-arranger-conductor Charles Gerhardt (1928-1999) and orchestra leader / contractor Sidney Sax assembled after 1960 (probably in 1964). After several years at American RCA as an engineer and editor, Gerhardt had been sent to England by George Marek, then the director of Red Seal artists and repertoire, to produce recordings for the Readers Digest label, an RCA ally at the time (as was Decca/London). For these recordings, Gerhardt engaged Kenneth Wilkerson as his recording engineer, and the late Sir Thomas Beecham's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. His conductors in the early 1960’s included Fritz Reiner, René Leibowitz, Sir John Barbirolli, Jascha Horenstein, Massimo Freccia, and on occasions Gerhardt himself (whom Arturo Toscanini had admired and encouraged in his last years).

For projects of lighter music, however, Gerhardt and Sax assembled freelance musicians along with players from various London orchestras - always a plenitude in the UK capital, where stringent U.S. union restrictions did not apply and salaries were cheaper, with fewer permanent jobs available nationwide. By way of example, the violin section would routinely be peppered with leaders / concertmasters of all the major London orchestras, past and present, such as John Ronayne, Bela Dekany, Lionel Bentley, John Ludlow, John Brown, Donald Weekes, Irvine Arditti, Charles Meinardi, Hans Geiger, etc. Early on he called these recording orchestras the London Promenade (basically London Philharmonic Orchestra personnel), the the RCA Symphony Orchestra or the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra was incorporated as the National Philharmonic Orchestra in 1970.

In addition to concert, concerto, and bon-bon repertoire, Gerhardt arranged and conducted ten stereo LP’s of film music for the Digest that were released in two volumes. Their quality so impressed Marek's successor, R. Peter Munves, that he commissioned Gerhardt to make an LP of “The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold” for RCA's own Red Seal label. This evolved into a series of 15 “Classic Film Scores”, conducted and arranged by Gerhardt, of motion picture music by Max Steiner (numerically the all-time champ), Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, Dmitri Tiomkin, John Williams (all three Stars Wars scores), Alfred Newman, Victor Young, John Barry, and Leonard Rosenman. Gerhardt's producer was the late George Korngold, son of the composer, to whom concertmaster Sidney Sax had introduced him.

Subsequently Chesky Records leased some of the earlier Readers Digest material for a superbly remastered and custom-pressed series of discs, on one of which the name National Philharmonic first appeared, dated 1967. The actual year of origin, however, seems to have been 1972, starting with the RCA Korngold collection. That trailblazing film series was completed by 1985, although Gerhardt himself recorded a Wagner collection with the National Philharmonic Orchestra for Chesky as late as 1995.

The orchestra ceased to be an exclusive RCA recording organization at the same time that Gerhardt replaced Sax as the concertmaster, feeling that his playing had deteriorated beyond repair. Decca Records began using the orchestra in March 1974. This was for a Phase 4 Stereo recording of the Yellow River Piano Concerto conducted by Elgar Howarth. Columbia Records began using the orchestra in 1975. Richard Bonynge conducted the National Philharmonic Orchestra extensively for Decca/London recordings of opera and ballet (including all three of Tchaikovsky's ballets); so did Riccardo Chailly, Bernard Herrmann, Nicola Rescigno, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, even Sir Georg Solti. James Levine led operas and recital discs for RCA and Sony. Also for Sony, Leopold Stokowski led the National Philharmonic Orchestra in final-period recordings till the day before his death in 1977, at the age of 95. Michael Kamen recorded Eric Clapton's orchestral sessions from the 24 Nights concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in 1990 and 1991 for Duck Records.

The orchestra has been featured on the soundtrack of many films (particularly those scored by Jerry Goldsmith) as well as a selection of Star Wars suites from the John Williams catalogue. Bernard Hermann regularly used the orchestra for recordings of his film work. Some of the film scores recorded in England and performed by The National Philharmonic Orchestra: Justine (1969), Supergirl (1984), Alien (1979), The Omen (1976-1981), Grizzly (1976), Legend (1985), Link (1986), Outland (1981), The Secret of N.I.M.H. (1982), Total Recall (1990), The Boys from Brazil (1978), Not Without My Daughter (1991), The Wicked Lady (1983), The Dead Zone (1983), License to Kill (1989), Barry Lyndon (1975). Kenneth Schermerhorn conducted the orchestra on the soundtrack of Baryshnikov's production The Nutcracker, a staging of Tchaikovsky's ballet which became a television classic, after being presented live onstage. The orchestra also provided the music for the stage production.

After his farewell Wagner CD, Charles Gerhardt retired to California, where he died four years later. From the available evidence, his informal National Philharmonic Orchestra also gave up the ghost after 25 years, when the classical market went soft worldwide in the later 1990’s, and London players with permanent posts clung to them like becalmed sailors, waiting for a breeze to rescue them from irrelevance as a professional breed.


There is also a National Philharmonic based in Washington, D.C., founded and conducted by Piotr Gajewski, currently in residence at the Music Center at Strathmore (Maryland). It was formerly known as the National Chamber Orchestra.


Source: Wikipedia Website (September 2010); All Music Guide (Author: Roger Dettmer)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (October 2010)

Recordings of Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works




Martin Neary


Selections from BWV 140, BWV 208 [sung in English]

Links to other Sites

National Philharmonic Orchestra (Wikipedia)

National Philharmonic Orchestra (AMG)

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Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


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