This world-class orchestra has a full symphonic component, but it began from a modest ensemble called the Cardiff Station Orchestra, which was formed in 1928. This group played from the first day BBC Radio began broadcasting in Wales until 1931, when funding problems forced its disbandment. Among the orchestra's achievements was the first British airing of all of the symphonies by Sibelius. The BBC Welsh Orchestra stepped in to fill the gap in 1935. This group of 20 players, under the leadership of the BBC Wales' director of music Idris Lewis, assisted and encouraged Welsh composers by scheduling performances of their work. This ensemble was kept together until the outbreak of war in 1939. In 1946, due to the recommendations of Adrian Boult, who had been touring Wales with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Welsh Orchestra, a group of 31 members, was established by the BBC and the Arts Council to perform as a national orchestra and make broadcasts on the Welsh Home Service. The orchestra quickly gained an excellent reputation for itself with performances of light music works under the conductorship of Rae Jenkins. The number of members was expanded to 44 in the 1960-1961 season. Under the direction of Erwin Hoffman, the BBC Welsh Orchestra gave its first performance at the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London in August 1971, playing music by Haydn, Mozart, Stravinsky, and Brahms. In 1982, the orchestra, now consisting of 78 performers, finally received a permanent home when it moved into St. David's Hall in Cardiff.
The orchestra was given its current name in 1993, a title that reflects its national status. The associated chorus was also updated to become the BBC National Chorus of Wales. The conductors of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, often referred to as the BBC NOW, are Thierry Fischer, principal conductor; Jac van Steen, principal guest conductor; and François-Xavier Roth, associate guest conductor. Since 2008, Simon Holt has held the position of composer in association. Although the orchestra has played light music and popular classical warhorses in the past, the BBC NOW encourages contemporary music by the performance and recording of the works of modern Welsh and British composers (for example, Lennox Berkeley, Michael Berkeley, Edmund Rubbra, Edward Elgar, Frank Bridge, Gordon Jacob, Elgar Howarth, and others) and of music by composers of other countries (for example, Schnittke, Toru Takemitsu, Carlos Chávez, Augusta Read Thomas, Edison Denisov, Sofiya Gubaydulina, and Elena Firsova).