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Funded and administered under the government sponsored British Broadcasting Company, the BBC Symphony Orchestra has, since its establishment in 1930, enjoyed a freedom from significant financial concerns which often plague independently funded orchestras. Because of this, the BBC Symphony Orchestra has been able to present a large body of new or lesser-known works that might be considered too avant-garde for many of the world's other major orchestras. In addition to its full schedule of broadcast performances for BBC Radio 3, the BBC Symphony Orchestra performs more than seventy public concerts a year in its main concert venues at Barbican Concert Hall and the Royal Festival Hall as well as in other London concert halls. With its affinity for contemporary compositions, this ensemble of approximately one hundred musicians has earned its reputation as one of the foremost broadcasting orchestras in Europe.
Although not officially established until 1930, plans for a BBC Orchestra were begun in 1927 but long and contentious negotiations delayed the fruition of these plans until Adrian Boult was appointed director of music in January 1930. The orchestra offered its first performance in October 1930 at Queen's Hall playing Wagner, Brahms and Ravel to enthusiastic reviews. Boult was appointed chief conductor in early 1931 and continued in that position until his retirement in 1950 although he relinquished his post as director of music in 1942. During these early years, the orchestra established its commitment to new and unusual repertoire by programming works by such contemporary composers as Schoenberg, Bartok, and Alban Berg; many of which were conducted by the composers themselves. Boult insisted that music by British composers be prominently represented in the orchestra' s repertoire. To that end, the BBC Symphony Orchestra presented many premier performances and broadcasts of works by Constant Lambert, Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams and offered several all-British programs. Boult also believed that the presence of world-renown guest conductors on the podium would improve the orchestra's international reputation and invited such gifted conductors as Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini to lead the ensemble.
The orchestra moved into its new headquarters at Maida Vale Studios in North London in 1934. A critical review of BBC was made in 1935 when its charter was due for renewal and concern over the adventurous nature of the orchestra's repertoire was expressed. The ensuing tensions between the governmental administration and the artistic directors of the orchestra boiled over in 1936 and Edward Clark, who was a primary figure in forming the BBC's musical policy, angrily resigned. For the next twenty-five years, the orchestra's repertoire became considerably more traditional with an emphasis on the works of Romantic and post-Romantic composers, temporarily leaving behind the ensemble's penchant for more contemporary music.
During World War II, the orchestra performed in Bristol and Bedford broadcasting concerts on Wednesdays and Sundays and offering monthly concerts to invited audiences. The orchestra began performing in London again in the 1943-44 season but did not return permanently to London until 1947. These were difficult years for the ensemble because postwar hardships were made more difficult by competition from the new Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra that drew not only audiences but musicians away from the BBC Symphony. Not one to be discouraged, Boult set about revitalizing the BBC Symphony Orchestra with a broadcast consisting entirely of British music on the newly created BBC Radio 3 channel in September 1946 and by taking the orchestra on a European tour in 1947.
After Boult's retirement in 1950, Sir Malcolm Sargent was appointed chief conductor. Known for his choral conducting, Sargent's choice of repertoire was largely traditional and the programs offered by the orchestra became a bit stale and unfocused. His tenure with the orchestra was not without its highlights, however. These included a tour of Scandinavia in 1956, the growth in popularity of Sargent's favored Henry Wood Promenade Concerts at Queen's Hall and later at the Royal Albert Hall and the opening of the Royal Festival Hall which was to become one of the orchestra's permanent concert venues.
Sargent was succeeded as chief conductor by Rudolf Schwarz in 1957 who, along with the BBC controller of music William Glock, began to broaden the orchestra's repertoire to again include works by contemporary composers. The BBC also commissioned and premiered several pieces by composers such as Roberto Gerhard during the 1960s in an effort to elevate the international status of the orchestra. Unfortunately, financial constraints did not allow the BBC Symphony to blossom as beautifully as was hoped, but the changes made by Schwarz and Glock helped the orchestra recover some of its former glory.
Antál Doráti replaced Schwarz as chief conductor of the orchestra in 1963 and organized the ensemble's first American tour in 1965. Sharing the podium with Pierre Boulez , Doráti's adventurous choice of repertoire contained only works by distinguished contemporary composers and the brilliance of this highly successful tour brought the orchestra its long-sought international recognition. Boulez's affiliation with the BBC Symphony was instrumental in bringing the orchestra's concert repertoire back to its original focus on new and contemporary works. Under his energetic leadership from 1971 to 1975, the ensemble played an ever-broadening array of innovative twentieth-century works to appreciative audiences at home and abroad. His tenure was the spark the orchestra needed to regain its reputation as one of Europe's most musically progressive ensembles.
Following Boulez in the role of chief conductor were Rudolf Kempe, whose brief time with orchestra ended with his untimely death in 1976 and then Gennady Rozhdestvensky, whose affinity for British composers was well received by the orchestra and its audiences. John Pritchard was appointed to the chief conductor's position in 1982 and continued the orchestra's work in the area of contemporary music. In 1989, Andrew Davies replaced Pritchard, continuing the BBC Orchestra's long line of notable conductors and ably leading the organization into the twenty-first century.
While the principal orchestra is based in London, regional BBC orchestras are resident in Manchester (BBC Philharmonic), Glasgow (BBC Scottish Orchestra) and Cardiff (BBC National Orchestra of Wales).