The orchestra can trace its origins to 1842, when Otto Nicolai formed the Philharmonische Academie; which was a fully independent orchestra and which took all its decisions by a democratic vote of all its members. These are principles the orchestra still holds today. With Nicolai's departure in 1847, the orchestra nearly folded, and was not very active until 1860, when Karl Anton Eckert joined as conductor. He gave a series of four subscription concerts, and since then, the orchestra has given concerts continuously. From 1875 to 1898 Hans Richter was subscription conductor, except for the season 1882/1883 when he was in dispute with the orchestral committee. During Richter's tenure, the orchestra gave the premieres of the 2nd and 3rd symphonies of Johannes Brahms, and the 8th symphony of Anton Bruckner. Gustav Mahler held the post from 1898 to 1901, and under his baton the orchestra played abroad for the first time at the 1900 Paris World Exposition. Subsequent conductors were Felix Weingartner, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Clemens Krauss. Since 1933, the orchestra has had no single subscription conductor, but instead has a number of guest conductors. These have included a great many of the world's best known conductors, including Richard Strauss, Arturo Toscanini, Hans Knappertsbusch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, John Barbirolli, Carlo Maria Giulini, Georg Solti, Erich Kleiber, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Carlos Kleiber, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, Mariss Jansons, Daniel Barenboim and Valery Gergiev. Three conductors, however, were particularly associated with the post-war era: Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm, who were made honorary conductors, and Leonard Bernstein, who was made an honorary member of the orchestra. The orchestra made their first US tour in 1956 under the batons of Carl Schuricht and André Cluytens. Each New Year's Day since 1 January 1941, the VPO has sponsored the Vienna New Year's Concerts, dedicated to the music of the Strauss family composers, and particularly that of Johann Strauss II.
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