The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) has held a prominent place in British music-making for more than seven decades. With a wide reach across Britain in addition to its regular concerts in London's Cadogan Hall, including concerts in places where access to orchestral music is limited, the RPO can lay claim to the title of Britain's national orchestra.
The RPO's broad contemporary appeal, which has included appearances with popular music stars and on film, television, and game soundracks, would have been lauded by its founder and first conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, who set up the RPO in 1946 and helped lead a vital revival in the UK’s orchestral life after World War II. The new orchestra prospered, beginning a long summer residency at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1948 and touring the U.S. (becoming the first English orchestra to do so since 1912) in 1950. Rudolf Kempe became principal conductor upon Beecham's death in 1961. The orchestra hit a rough patch in the early 1960s under the leadership of Beecham's widow; Kempe departed (and then returned), and the orchestra temporarily lost the right to use the "royal" designation. That was restored by Queen Elizabeth II in 1966, and several strong conductors — including Antal Doráti (1975-1978), André Previn (1985-1992), and Vladimir Ashkenazy (music director, 1987-1994) — built the orchestra artistically. Later conductors have included Daniele Gatti, Yuri Temirkanov, Charles Dutoit, and Vasily Petrenko, who was given a contract running through 2022.
The RPO is especially notable for the depth and variety of its recording program, which already in the first few years of its existence had topped 100 items. The orchestra's many hundreds of recordings stretch from pop (disco enthusiasts will remember it as the orchestra featured on the Hooked on Classics recordings of the 1980s) to new avant-garde music. The orchestra's RPO Records, formed in 1986, is thought to have been the first recording label owned by a symphony orchestra; such an arrangement is now commonplace. The orchestra has also recorded for Tring (with which it signed a 125-album contract), EMI, Somm, and many other labels. In 2019, the RPO released Animal Requiem, by rocker Pete Townshend's collaborator and marital partner, Rachel Fuller. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra incorporates the pops-oriented Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and the avant-garde Sharp Edge group.