The Lucerne Festival Orchestra is generally regarded as the finest ad hoc orchestra in the world. It is made up of members of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra as well as some of the leading soloists, chamber groups, and orchestral principals in Europe. It assembles every August for the three weeks of festival activities. The LFO also tours regularly and has appeared on many acclaimed recordings.
The LFO was founded in 2003 by conductor Claudio Abbado and the LFO's artistic and executive director Michael Haefliger. The orchestra serves as the resident performing ensemble at the annual Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, held every August; during festival events, the LFO performs at the KKL Luzern Concert Hall. Though its founding was relatively recent, the ensemble's roots go back to 1938 when Arturo Toscanini established an orchestra for the festival made up largely of Swiss musicians. It disbanded in 1993 and a second forerunner of the LFO followed shortly afterward, but it didn't survive, either. After leaving the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 2002, Abbado, with the aid of Haefliger, was able to assemble a roster of renowned players for the festival's 2003 activities. He led them annually in performance until his death in 2014. The LFO was without a music director for the 2014 & 2015 seasons, but several conductors lead the orchestra, chiefly Andris Nelsons. Riccardo Chailly was named the music director beginning with the 2016 season.
Shortly after its creation, the LFO began making tours to major concert venues, including in Rome and Tokyo. In 2007, the LFO debuted at the London Proms and Carnegie Hall, but with an indisposed Abbado replaced by David Robertson and Pierre Boulez. Highly successful tours to Beijing and Vienna followed, and the orchestra's reputation was in meteoric ascent. By 2009, more than a few prominent reviewers were calling the LFO the greatest orchestra in the world. Critically acclaimed concerts in Madrid and Paris in 2010 further bolstered its stock. Among the more distinguished members of the orchestra have been clarinetist Sabine Meyer, violist Wolfram Christ, cellist Natalia Gutman, flutist Emmanuel Pahud, horn player Bruno Schneider, various members of the Berlin Philharmonic and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras, and the entire Leipzig String Quartet.
Recordings of the LFO are available on such labels as EuroArts, Deutsche Grammophon, and EMI. Among the first recordings of the newly formed LFO was a 2004 Deutsche Grammophon release of Mahler's Second Symphony and Debussy's La Mer, derived from festival concerts given in 2003. Among its more lauded recordings are the 2010 EuroArts DVD of the Mahler Symphony No. 1 and the Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto, with soloist Yuja Wang. In 2019, the LFO could be heard on albums of Richard Strauss' music on Decca and Bruckner's first and ninth symphonies on Accentus.