Considered one of the most distinguished chamber orchestras in the world, the English Chamber Orchestra was formed in 1948 by Arnold Goldsborough for the purpose of performing Baroque music. Similar in musical philosophy and organization to the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the ensemble is financially self-supporting and has no permanent home venue. The orchestra presents an annual concert series in London and also tours internationally. Over its history, the ensemble has expanded its repertoire to include a wide range of chamber music from various musical periods and is flexible in size, ranging from 24 to 38 musicians.
Originally named the Goldsborough Orchestra, the ensemble changed its name to the English Chamber Orchestra (ECO) in 1960, in accordance with the needs of the group's growing reputation. At the same time, the English Chamber Orchestra and Music Society was formed as the promotion arm of the organization.
Like many other chamber orchestras, the ECO employs no full-time musicians but hires its players on a contractual basis. This allows the orchestra to be flexible in size and structure according to the needs of its repertoire and concert venues, and also gives the musicians the opportunity to work in a variety of other situations. The freedom this provides is key to the fresh approach this orchestra takes in its performances through its use of a system of co-principal groupings of players. Under this system, two principal players share each chair and are contracted to play a set number of performances in a given season.
The ECO has performed for numerous important occasions including a command performance before Queen Elizabeth II at the Queen Elizabeth Hall inaugural concert in 1967. Other performances of note are the first color television recording of music for the BBC and the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1981. The ensemble has been associated with the music of Benjamin Britten since it became resident orchestra at the 1961 Aldeburgh Festival.
Until 1985, the orchestra chose to work without a principal conductor, instead inviting a series of talented guest artists to lead the ensemble. The ECO has a reputation for giving young conductors important opportunities. Among those who have benefited from this policy are Colin Davis, Daniel Barenboim, and Pinchas Zukerman. During the orchestra's Silver Anniversary celebration in 1985, it was announced that Jeffrey Tate had been chosen to fill the newly created position of principal conductor, and in 2000 he was succeeded by Ralf Gothóni. As of the 2009-2010 season, Paul Watkins has served as music director, and Roy Goodman has been the orchestra's principle guest conductor.
Tremendously versatile and musically polished, the English Chamber Orchestra is fully deserving of its reputation as one of the finest chamber orchestras in the world.