The orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre enjoys a long and distinguished history as one of the oldest musical institutions in Russia. Founded in the 18th century during the reign of Peter the Great, it was known before the revolution as the Russian Imperial Opera Orchestra. Housed in St. Petersburg‘s famed Mariinsky Theatre (named after Maria, the wife of Czar Alexander II) since 1860, the Orchestra entered its true "golden age" during the second half of the 19th century under the music direction of Eduard Napravnik (1839-1916). Napravnik single-handedly ruled the Imperial Theatre for more than half a century (from 1863-1916) and under his leadership, the Mariinsky Orchestra was recognized as one of the finest in Europe. He also trained a generation of outstanding conductors, developing what came to be known as "the Russian school of conducting."
The Mariinsky Theatre was also the birthplace of numerous operas and ballets which are meanwhile regarded as masterpieces of the 19th and 20th century. World premiere performances include Glinka‘s Life of a Tsar and Ruslan and Liudmila, Borodin‘s Prince Igor, Musorgsky‘s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, Rimsky-Korsakov‘s Maid of Pskov, The Snow Maiden and Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, Tchaikovsky‘s The Queen of Spades, Iolanta, Swan Lake, Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, Prokofiev‘s The Duenna, as well as operas by Shostakovich and ballets by Khachaturian.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was closely associated with the Mariinsky Theatre, not only conducting the orchestra but also premiering his Fifth Symphony there, as well as the fantasy overture Hamlet and the Sixth Symphony. Sergey Rakhmaninov conducted the Orchestra on numerous occasions, including premieres of his Spring Cantata and the symphonic poem The Bells. The Orchestra also premiered the music of the young Igor Stravinsky, such as his Scherzo Fantastique and the suite from The Firebird ballet.
Throughout its history, the Mariinsky Theatre has presented works by Europe‘s leading opera composers. In 1862, Verdi‘s La Forza del Destino was given its world premiere at the theatre in the presence of the composer. Wagner was a favorite at the Mariinsky Theatre, where his operas were frequently performed from the 19th through the beginning of the 20th century, including the first Russian performances of the complete Ring cycle, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger and Parsifal. The Ring cycle was conducted by Hans Richter, who was the first to conduct the complete Ring in Bayreuth and at Covent Garden.
The Mariinsky Orchestra also gave the first Russian performances of Richard Strauss‘ Elektra, Salome and Der Rosenkavalier, and Berg‘s Wozzeck in a production that took place two years after its world premiere in Berlin and twenty years before its premiere in Vienna.
By 1917 the orchestra‘s name had changed to the Royal Imperial Theatre Orchestra, and was regarded as St. Petersburg‘s leading symphony orchestra. Its repertoire - operatic and orchestral - has traditionally included not only music of Russian composers, but also of European composers. Numerous internationally famous musicians conducted the Orchestra, among them Hans von Bulow, Felix Mottl, Felix Weingartner, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Otto Nikisch, Willem Mengelberg, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter and Erich Kleiber.
On two occasions, in 1847 and 1867, Hector Berlioz conducted performances of his own works, including The Damnation of Faust, Romeo and Juliet, Symphony Fantastique and Harold in Italy. Berlioz wrote in his memoirs "Such an orchestra! Such precision! Such an ensemble!". And in a letter dated December 1867, he stated: "I don‘t think Beethoven ever had a better performance of his compositions!" In March and April 1863, Richard Wagner visited St. Petersburg and led the Royal Imperial Theatre Orchestra in six programs of Beethoven Symphonies and his own compositions, including the world‘s first concert performance of Prelude und Liebestod. Gustav Mahler appeared with the Orchestra in both 1902 and 1907, conducting five concerts, including a performance of his Fifth Symphony. In 1912, Arnold Schoenberg conducted the premiere of his symphonic poem Pelleas and Melisande.
Renamed the Kirov Opera during the Soviet era, the orchestra continued to maintain its high artistic standards under the leadership of Evgeni Mravinsky and Yuri Temirkanov. In 1988, Valery Gergiev was elected artistic director of the opera company and in 1996 the Russian Government appointed him as Artistic and General Director of the Mariinsky Theatre. Soon after the city of Leningrad was renamed St. Petersburg, the Kirov Theatre reverted to its original title of the Mariinsky Theatre, home to the Kirov Opera, the Kirov Ballet, and the Kirov Orchestra.
Under the leadership of Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Theatre has forged important relationships with the worlds‘ greatest opera houses, among them the Metropolitan Opera House, London‘s Royal Opera House, the San Francisco Opera, the Theatre Chatelet in Paris La Scala in Milan just to name a few. Besides extensive touring of the opera and the ballet company, the Kirov Orchestra has performed throughout world and has become one of the outstanding orchestras. The success of the orchestra‘s continual travelling has lead to the reputation of, what a journalist called, "the world‘s first global orchestra".
In 1998, the orchestra made its debut tour of China, an historic first, with a performance in the Great Hall in Beijing, broadcast to 50 million people, in the presence of President Jiang Zemin. It was the first time in 40 years that a Russian orchestra had been in China.
Under the baton of Valery Gergiev, the orchestra has recorded exclusively for Phillips Classics since 1989. Releases include the complete operas Khovanshchina, War and Peace, Sadko, Prince Igor, The Queen of Spades, Ruslan and Lyudmila, Iolanta, Fiery Angel (winner of the 1996 Gramophone "Opera of the Year‘ award), La forza del destino, Boris Godunov (1869 and 1872 version), Mazeppa, Betrothal in the Monastery, Love for Three Oranges and Semyen Kotko. In addition the orchestra recorded the complete ballets Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.
In July 2000, the orchestra and chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre recorded Verdi‘s Requiem and other releases of orchestral music include Shostakovich‘s Symphony No 8, Rakhmaninov‘s Symphony No2, Stravinsky‘s Firebird¦and The Rite of Spring, Skriabin‘s Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus as well as the complete Piano Concerti by Prokofiev.