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The KIROV ORCHESTRA, which celebrated its 300th anniversary in 2003, has 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 for the favorite daughter of Czar Nicholas I) since 1860, the Orchestra entered its true "golden age" during the second half of the 19th century under the direction of Eduard Napravnik (1839-1916). Napravnik single-handedly ruled the Imperial Theatre for more than half a century (1863-1916); 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.

As the home orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre, the orchestra has helped introduce such masterpieces of 19th- and 20th-century ballet and opera as Glinka's Life of a Tsar and Russlan and Ludmilla; Borodin's Prince Igor; Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina; Rimsky-Korsakov's Maid of Pskov, The Snow Maiden, and Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh; Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, Iolanta, Swan Lake, Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty; Prokofiev's The Duenna; as well as operas by Shostakovich and ballets by Khachaturian. The orchestra gave the world premiere of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony (conducted by the composer), Stravinsky's Scherzo fantastique and suite from The Firebird, and Wagner's Prelude und Liebestod (conducted by the composer). The Mariinsky Orchestra gave the first Russian performances of Verdi's La Forza del Destino, 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).

Renamed the Kirov during the Soviet era, the orchestra continued to maintain its high artistic standards under the leadership of Evgeni Mravinsky and Yuri Temirkanov. Since Valery Gergiev became artistic director in 1988, the Kirov has forged important relationships with the world's great opera houses, among them London's Royal Opera House, the San Francisco Opera, Paris' Opéra de la Bastille, and the Metropolitan Opera.

The Kirov Orchestra today is one of the world's most traveled orchestras, touring to Japan and China, and regularly in Europe, often with its own series or festival of concerts, as in London and Rotterdam. The Kirov Orchestra frequently visits London, Paris, Vienna, and Milan. The orchestra has toured the U.S. eight times since its 1992 debut at Lincoln Center.