The roots of the orchestra date back to January 1, 1930, when a group of 80 musicians presented the first of three concerts in Washington. The next year was the official founding of the National Symphony Orchestra, with Hans Kindler as music director and Washington's Constitution Hall as its home. Although trained as a cellist, Kindler was adept at conducting, orchestra-building, and programming. Over a 19-year period, he honed the ensemble and included many works by American composers alongside the traditional orchestral canon. The NSO performed at the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932, and continued to play at presidential inaugurations through 1968. Kindler led the orchestra for its first recording in 1941, made for RCA. It was his own transcription of a toccata attributed to Girolamo Frescobaldi.
Kindler was succeeded by Howard Mitchell, who would also have a long tenure, remaining until 1969. He attracted artists such as Emil Gilels, Van Cliburn, and Byron Janis, and took the NSO on several successful tours, including a 1959 19-country South American excursion and a 1967 European tour. After a year of guest conductors, Antal Dorati took over, making some notable recordings with the NSO and helping it move into its new home, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Under Mstislav Rostropovich (1977-1994), the orchestra gained more prominence with several award-winning recordings — such as with Martha Argerich in Schumann's Piano Concerto — and its annual, nationally televised A Capitol Fourth concert, performed on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol building. Rostropovich was followed by Leonard Slatkin (1996-2008), with whom the NSO made an acclaimed recording of Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6; Iván Fischer (2008-2010); Christoph Eschenbach (2010-2017); and in 2017, Gianandrea Noseda. Singer/songwriter Ben Folds is artistic advisor, and Steven Reineke is principal pops conductor.
The NSO has nearly 100 musicians and performs approximately 150 concerts each year, including chamber music recitals, community outreach and education, and pops concerts. It continues to expand orchestral repertory by American composers with a fund dedicated to commissions of new music. It has also expanded its musical horizons by partnering with performers from other genres, such as Boyz II Men, Kendrick Lamar, Mason Bates, Zakir Hussain, Audra McDonald, and LeAnn Rimes, both in concert and on albums, such as Nas' Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center (2018).