Funded and administered by the British Broadcasting Company, the BBC Symphony Orchestra has, since its establishment in 1930, enjoyed freedom from the financial concerns that often plague independent orchestras. Because of this, it has been able to engage in more adventurous programming than many other major orchestras, focusing on new or less familiar compositions. In addition to its full schedule of broadcast performances for BBC Radio 3, the BBCSO performs more than 70 public concerts a year. With its affinity for contemporary compositions, this ensemble of approximately 100 musicians has earned its reputation as one of the foremost broadcasting orchestras in Europe.
Although it was not officially established until 1930, plans for a BBC Orchestra were hatched in 1927. Negotiations delayed the fruition of these plans until Adrian Boult was appointed director of music in January 1930. The orchestra offered its first performance in October 1930 at Queen's Hall playing Wagner, Brahms, and Ravel to enthusiastic reviews.
During its early years, the orchestra established its commitment to new and unusual repertoire by programming works by such contemporary composers as Schoenberg, Bartók, and Alban Berg, many of which were conducted by the composers themselves. Boult insisted that music by British composers be prominently represented in the orchestra's repertoire; to that end, the BBCSO presented broadcasts of works by Constant Lambert, Edward Elgar, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
In 1935, administrators began to express concern over the organization's programming policies; the ensuing tensions between the BBC and the artistic directors of the orchestra boiled over in 1936, and Edward Clark, who was a primary figure in forming the BBC's musical policy, angrily resigned. For the next 25 years, the orchestra's repertoire became considerably more focused on the works of Romantic and post-Romantic composers, temporarily leaving behind the ensemble's penchant for more contemporary music.
After Boult's retirement in 1950, Sir Malcolm Sargent was appointed chief conductor. His otherwise unremarkable tenure included the establishment of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts at Queen's Hall (and later at the Royal Albert Hall) and the opening of the Royal Festival Hall, which became one of the orchestra's permanent concert venues. Sargent was succeeded in 1957 by Rudolf Schwarz, who began once again to broaden the orchestra's repertoire. The BBCSO commissioned and premiered several pieces by composers such as Roberto Gerhard during the 1960s in an effort to elevate the international status of the orchestra. Unfortunately, financial constraints did not allow the BBCSO to blossom as was hoped, but the changes made by Schwarz helped the orchestra recover some of its former glory. Antal Doráti replaced Schwarz as chief conductor of the orchestra in 1963 and organized the ensemble's first American tour in 1965. Sharing the podium with Pierre Boulez, Doráti's adventurous choice of repertoire focused on works by distinguished contemporary composers, and this highly successful tour brought the orchestra its long-sought international recognition. Boulez's affiliation with the BBCSO was instrumental in bringing the orchestra's concert repertoire back to its original focus on new works.
While its broadcast and live performances are the main attraction for the BBCSO, it also has an extensive recording history. The orchestra has recorded with such labels as NMC, Warner Classics, and Chandos. On the latter, it released Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite; Spring Song; Suite from Belshazzar's Feast under Oramo in 2019.