The City of London Sinfonia is one of the best known of the several smaller and specialty orchestras that transformed London's concert life in the late 1900s.
Although London had five major full-sized symphony orchestras, interest grew in the 1960s for specialty ensembles, such as modern, avant-garde, period, or chamber orchestras. Richard Hickox founded his own orchestra, the Richard Hickox Orchestra, in 1971. It immediately commissioned a new work, Fancies by John Rutter. By 1973 its reputation had already grown so that it was invited to play in a performance of Handel's Messiah at a Royal Albert Hall Promenade concert, and in 1975 it made its first recording, a pair of J.S. Bach Masses, on the Argo label.
In the late 1970s, the City of London, a specific and rather small area in greater London that is its commercial center and has its own historic city government, made a decision to build a major concert hall, the Barbican Centre. To ensure its use and distinctive identity, the City made arrangements for permanent resident ensembles: the London Symphony Orchestra and the Hickox Orchestra were the two leading ones, with the latter taking the name The City of London Sinfonia (CLS) in 1979 and moving into the Barbican when it opened in 1982. The Barbican and its ensembles, subsidized by the City, opened with an innovative plan to integrate its operations artistically. The ensembles cooperate in presenting festivals and thematically interrelated concert series. Among the most successful Barbican series in which the CLS participated was "Mahler, Vienna, and the Twentieth Century." Such ideas, and alert marketing strategies based on them, have made the Barbican along with Royal Albert Hall and its long established Proms the most successful concert areas in Greater London.
In 1985, the CLS made its first major international tour with a trip to Germany. Since then it has made numerous tours, which included a tour of Australia in 1993. In 1989, it made its first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, and 1994 was notable in CLS history for its world premiere of John Tavener's The Apocalypse at the Proms. Since 1985 it has made at least one major international tour every year.
In 1990 it was invited to play at Sadler's Wells' production of Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream, a performance recorded in an acclaimed Virgin Classics release, and in 1995 again made a major Britten recording, a prize-winning rendition of Peter Grimes for Chandos. 1995 also saw a pair of extraordinary special concerts. One was the performance in the Houses of Parliament commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations Charter in the presence of the Queen, the Prime Minister, and the UN Secretary-General. The other was a special invitation by Patriarch Partherios of Alexandria to play a concert of John Tavener's music at a special symposium at the ruins of Ephesus in Turkey.
The CLS is a medium-sized symphony orchestra, listing as its permanent personnel 22 strings (divided 6-6-4-4-2) and winds in pairs, which is ideal for the Classical era and for numerous post-War modern works. The CLS has become the resident orchestra of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, and of the Otto Schiff Housing Association for victims of Nazi persecution. It also has residencies in the cities of Ipswich, King's Lynn, and High Wycombe. In 1997, the CLS won the Royal Philharmonic Society Large Ensemble Music Award for contributions to musical life in the United Kingdom, including the Education & Community Programme. Richard Hickox has continued as musical director, with Marin Alsop as principal guest conductor.