The Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (Tonhalle Orchester Zürich in German) is the leading orchestra of Switzerland's largest city, and among the best of the major symphony orchestras of Europe.
Zurich was a leading music center throughout the Middle Ages. (Zurich manuscripts are the most important sources of information about German Minnesang.) Its important church tradition ended when Ulrich Zwingli became the pastor of the Grossmünster church in 1519. He banned all music in services. Although singing was reintroduced in 1598, there was no organ in the church until the nineteenth century.
Moreover, Zurich was never the seat of a royal or aristocratic establishment, which elsewhere in Europe became the basis for the development of opera houses and symphony orchestras. Instead, music in Zurich developed from three music societies of the seventeenth century, which in 1812 merged to create the Allgemeine Musikgesellschaft Zürich (Zurich United Music Society), which began to give regular concerts with an amateur orchestra (sometimes augmented by professionals). Richard Wagner was the conductor of this group from 1850 to 1855.
Wagner continually insisted that the city needed a regular permanent concert hall, rather than playing concerts in the Casino, which was their practice. The more practical conductor Theodor Kirchner, who took over the orchestra in 1862, worked to bring this about. In 1868 Friedrich Hegar became director, and the orchestral organization was renamed the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft (literally, Tone Hall Society), but the Tone Hall itself was the remodeled Corn Exchange, which opened as a concert hall in 1867.
Hegar remained the conductor of the Tonhalle-Gesellschaft's orchestra for over 40 years, until 1906. He built the Tonhalle Orchestra into a major ensemble and, in 1895, finally succeeded in getting a true concert hall built for it: The Tonhalle has two concert halls, including the acoustically splendid one where the full orchestra plays, and opened in 1895. The smaller hall is the home of recitals, chamber music concerts, and appearances by a smaller chamber orchestra drawn from the ranks of the Tonhalle Orchestra.
Hegar's successor, Volkmar Andreae, also had a 40-year tenure, retiring in 1949. Since then, such famous conductors as Hans Rosbaud (1950 - 1962), Rudolf Kempe (1965 - 1972), Charles Dutoit (1967 - 1971), and Gerd Albrecht have been its music directors. In 1995, the American conductor David Zinman took that position. The orchestra has also enjoyed the leadership of some of the world's most eminent maestros, appearing as guest conductors. In the 1990s alone these have included George Solti, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Genially Rozhdestvensky, Herbert Blomstedt, Mariss Jansons, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Kent Nagano, Kurt Sanderling, Armin Jordan, and Frans Brüggen. During the same decade, it toured Japan, the U.S., and all the musical centers of Europe.
In addition to playing its orchestral concert season, the Tonhalle Orchestra also functions as the orchestra for the Zurich Opera. As such, it plays in the city's Opernhaus. This building is contemporaneous with the Tonhalle, having been built in 1890 - 1891 and originally named the Stadttheater. It replaced the Aktientheater, the previous site of the opera, which burned down in 1890. Thus, the Tonhalle Orchestra participated in the first authorized staging of Wagner's Parsifal outside the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, given by the Zurich Opera in 1913.
The Zurich Opera is one of the most adventurous in Europe, and has given many of the greatest operas of the twentieth century. The main repertory of the Tonhalle Orchestra is the Classical and Romantic mainstream, but it includes a respectable amount of modern and contemporary music in its schedule.
Its relatively small catalog of recordings includes one of the best-regarded traversals of the complete Beethoven symphonies, under Zinman.