The BBC Philharmonic, based in Manchester, is one of the most important orchestras in the United Kingdom, distinguishing itself by its sheer visibility and solid commitment to contemporary British music that has included the establishment of a composer/conductor position.
The orchestra's history is rather checkered, for it has had to endure numerous crises. In 1922, prior to the official establishment of the British Broadcasting Corporation, Manchester had a radio station known as 2YZ, housed on the premises of the Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Company. Early on, a small orchestra was established for broadcasts; they concentrated mainly on light music, but expanded on occasion for performances of symphonic repertoire and opera. The station gained a reputation for broadcasting British music, including the first radio performances of music by Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, and William Walton. When the BBC was established in 1927, the 2YZ orchestra was renamed the Northern Wireless Orchestra; later, it became the BBC Northern Orchestra. Its existence was always precarious, but the group's size and repertoire increased. During World War II, the orchestra gave concerts in various communities around the region, bringing it a wider public. The BBC Northern Orchestra continued to gain a strong reputation for performing and broadcasting British music, particularly works by living composers who were often invited to conduct the orchestra.
In 1961, the BBC Northern Orchestra made its first appearance at the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts under the direction of George Hurst. The regional identity of the ensemble began from that point to evolve into a national and international one. After a difficult strike in 1980, the BBC committed to supporting a full orchestra in Manchester, and, in 1982, the ensemble was given its current name. Its principal conductor at that time was Edward Downes, who was succeeded in 1991 by Yan Pascal Tortelier. In 2002, Gianandrea Noseda was named principal conductor (the title changed to chief conductor in 2006). In 2011, Noseda was named conductor laureate, and Juanjo Mena became the chief conductor. Mena served until the summer of 2018, and Omer Meir Wellber, following a successful guest conductor performance that same year, was named the chief conductor in 2019.
The ensemble's reputation for adventurous programming has expanded to an international scope as well, as composers from various countries have come to Manchester to conduct the orchestra. In 1991, the post of composer/conductor was created, with Peter Maxwell Davies being the first appointment. Davies composed several works for the orchestra, including several symphonies culminating with Symphony No. 7, premiered in 2000. Along the way, he has also recorded a number of his orchestral works for release. Composer James MacMillan was named his successor in 2001. HK Gruber succeeded MacMillan in 2009. In 2015, the BBC Philharmonic changed the title of this role to composer in association and appointed Mark Simpson to the position.
The people of Manchester and the north of England are rightly proud of their radio orchestra. With so much British culture and finance administered in London, there is an independent spirit driving the culture of the north. The BBC Philharmonic has not only survived, but it has thrived. It has developed a character distinct from that of the larger BBC Symphony Orchestra, based in London, more populist, perhaps, but also more adventurous and, with the orchestra's large recording catalog, generous outreach programs, and international tours, more entrepreneurial.