In the '60s, at the peak of RCA Records' promotion of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the company's PR department devised the catchphrase ''The Aristocrat of Orchestras.''
It may not have been entirely true. But it was an attempt to put in words that which has made the BSO so very special virtually throughout its history.
When music director Seiji Ozawa raises his baton tonight for a free concert performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in a special band shell on Boston Common, it will have been exactly 100 years to the day since Georg Henschel began the BSO's very first concert in the Boston Music Hall, Oct. 22, 1881.
The symphony long has been one of the finest in the world. Since 1900 it has resided in one of the world's finest concert halls - Symphony Hall, designed expressly for the orchestra by the distinguished firm of McKim, Mead & White.
The BSO operation today is a far cry from the organization Henry Lee Higginson created in 1881. But the purpose remains the same - to provide an orchestra of the finest available musicians with the best possible circumstances under which to offer music to a paying public. This still means keeping the musicians on a salary at least commensurate with what they would be making in the open market. Then, the salaries were $1500; now the minimum is $34,800, and many musicians earn more.
In a century the BSO has grown from a 22-concert season led by one enlightened, self-facing millionaire to a year-round, corporate-style organization seeking to make money to pay the bills. Gone are the days when Higginson would pick up the annual deficit without meddling in musical matters. Gone are the days when the more affluent patrons would bid for season seats at hundreds of dollars more than their actual worth. Gone are the days when Bostonians frowned on too excessive a show of enthusiasm for something great. Gone, even, are the days when the BSO music directors were in the vanguard of the new, or were at least keeping abreast of it.
The history of the orchestra is one of almost continuous artistic progress. It is the story of a reserved, conservative Boston public brought into the forefront of sophisticated American musical tastes by the good services of conductors of distinct musical profiles and strong personalities. It is a story which includes charisma, jingoism, strikes, union blacklisting - the story of a predominantly European orchestra evolving into a predominantly American one.
Within recent years it also has become the story of high-pressure selling refined to an artform, of the promotion of image (that of music director Seiji Ozawa) over product, and of mass marketing as the means to sustain the financial base of what remains America's most special symphonic ensemble.
In 1881 Mr. Higginson was prepared to commit $2 million to the setting up and endowing of the orchestra. Tickets were to be 25 cents and 50 cents; there were to be winter concerts of a serious nature and a summer series in a lighter vein. Everything Mr. Higginson did represented a commitment to excellence - albeit an excellence based exclusively on the Viennese style of music-making he had come to cherish during his years in that city.
As the BSO's first music director Mr. Higginson hired Georg Henschel - a remarkably versatile, talented, composer-singer-pianist new to conducting. What Henschel lacked in skill with the baton he made up in sheer personality, winning the favor of audience and orchestra player alike.
It took another few conductors continuing Henschel's building work before the BSO was honed into the sort of group famous enough in Europe to land one of Germany's finest conductors, Dr. Karl Muck; he was to have two separate terms as conductor.
During Dr. Muck's tenure the BSO became the first American orchestra to be recorded. Those early RCA Victor records are ghostly indicators of the sort of strong, smooth ensemble Muck sustained, one ideally suited to Wagner and the entire Middle European tradition.
Unfortunately, during his second term the First World War broke out; through a bit of rampant jingoism Dr. Muck was incarcerated as a hostile alien.
In 1919 Pierre Monteux became music director. During his term smouldering pro-union sentiments erupted that threatened to scuttle Higginson's beloved project; the resultant strike left in its wake half an orchestra.
Monteux turned to Paris, his artistic home, to rebuild the BSO; that rebuilding maintained the orchestra's European fame - even in Paris, where Serge Koussevitsky was leading concerts with his own orchestra.
Monteux was replaced in 1924, before he could get his BSO into the recording studios, so no document exists of this by-then quintessentially French ensemble. He was told tradition limited terms to five years; the board then turned to Koussevitsky who stayed 25 years, retiring reluctantly in 1949 to make way for Charles Munch.
By the time of Koussevitsky, radio and recordings were an increasing part of the scope of the orchestra.
Ironically, the recordings made - an aural document of a great ensemble - are not generally available. But collectors know what extraordinary things Koussevitsky accomplished musically. His was an exciting personality (when such a thing was expected of musicians).
As a double-bassist, he had a string player's sensitivity to sound. In the recordings of his orchestra time and again one is struck by the sumptuous, velvety depth of the strings, as each section digs deeply for sound. The winds are characteristically bright and biting in the French tradition, and the brass holds its considerable own. Koussevitsky inherited a great orchestra and he kept it great, adding his own very personal touches. His track record in the championing of the best of new music may be unique in the annals of music directorships. His commissions, world and US premieres, boast some of the staples of today's repertoire - including Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, and Ravel's orchestration of Moussorgsky's ''Pictures at an Exhibition,'' to mention two obvious works.78s were the backbone of the Koussevitsky years, and the 33-1/ 3 disc spread the fame of the BSO, Munch, and his successors throughout the Western world. In fact, a good portion of this country's record-buying public learned the French repertoire from BSO/Munch discs, many of which are still available, and most of which have yet to be surpassed interpretively. Munch's calling card was visceral excitement, and an electric thrill that suffused his entire musical animus. But it was gained at the expense of ensemble; Munch was not much of a rehearser, so when Erich Leinsdorf took over, he was charged with the virtual retraining of the orchestra. In the long run he failed because of a personality clash with the proper-Bostonian board and even his players. Some say he tried to recast this still-French group into something more Germanic. He surely tried to internationalize the sound, and in the Leinsdorf BSO records the beginning of an all-purpose glow begins to suffuse the playing.Ozawa was brought in after three years of William Steinberg in the hopes that his sort of excitement would spark the BSO to new heights - and to the sold-out houses it was finding increasingly elusive. It was at this point that the present hard-sell first was introduced - vaunting star-conductor over star orchestra: ''Ozawa wants you at Carnegie Hall,'' ''Hear Ozawa's 'Sacre du Printemps','' and so forth. Ozawa has been under increasing fire as an interpreter. But no one questions his accomplishment in restoring the orchestra's astonishing level of perfection, even if that glossy, shimmery perfection is the end-all of Ozawa's music making. It is a perfection without character, the current ideal in major symphonic ensembles. Because today's music directors do so much travelling they seem to prefer that all ensembles sound basically alike. It means less readjustment time for the maestri. And whereas the technical level of the BSO has never been more impressive, the BSO sounds more or less like any of the great European ensembles, and that is also clearly Ozawa's doing. The BSO no longer is recorded by a single record company, nor is it recorded as often as once it was - and recordings are a crucial source of income for any orchestra today. The orchestra's flashy tours have included a highly publicized trip to China in '78 just after the normalization of relations with that country. Last spring the BSO took a 3-week, cross-country tour as part of its 100th anniversary celebrations. Later this month it undertakes an around-the-world tour - including to Japan, Paris, and London. As for the summer, Mr. Higginson's original concept of lighter concerts has survived in the form of the Boston Pops. But Tanglewood, the summer music-festival home of the BSO, is something he never even dreamed of. This was Koussevitsky's special fantasy, and he saw it through to fruition. The Pops, which the late Arthur Fiedler made a household word, seems to be holding its own under the direction of John Williams (although whether he will sign a contract to remain its conductor is under negotiation.) Management used to take that side of the BSO's operation for granted. But were it to falter the whole BSO would be in serious financial trouble. For in spite of its large budget and extensive revenue-generating activities like Tanglewood, the BSO works on a very slender profit-margin, as do other arts organizations in the country.. Elements of the fiscal challenge the BSO now faces include the current cutbacks in arts funding; and the ever-rising costs of union contracts, of facility maintenance - and of the refurbishing and new construction that goes with it. A large endowment drive has led to establishment of a $15.7 million fund that will generate revenue, but ticket prices cannot rise much further.It is hard to say in which direction the BSO is heading. Right now management seems intent on continuing its PR blitz, to keep the institution in the news so it can catch the attention of affluent corporations looking for first-rate cultural institutions to support with their profits. Ozawa will not stay forever, and there are fewer high-quality choices than there once were for the job of music director of so prestigious an institution. New music is still in search of a public, so the idea of using the orchestra as a forum for new ideas receives less and less support. Under Ozawa the once-splendid record of commissions, US and world premieres has eroded badly - despite the 12 new works requested specifically for the centenary celebrations. The imminent advent of new video and digital audio technology could revolutionize entertainment at the expense of so unwieldly an institution as a symphony orchestra. That the BSO has retained such a preemminent slot in our musical history, with relatively few low points, bodes well for its future well being. As long as it remains true to the basic principles Mr. Higginson used to found it, the orchestra will continue to enjoy an appreciative public's acclaim for its technical and musical excellence. And that segment of the public which listens in Symphony Hall in Boston, also will continue to enjoy one of the world's finest concert halls - a legendary building housing a legendary ensemble.