‘The formation of the BBC Concert Orchestra has created a worthy instrument, ready at hand to present a brilliant new era of 'entertainment music'' Sir Arthur Bliss
From its humble beginnings as a radio orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra has grown into one of the world's most respected and versatile orchestras, with an enviable reputation in the fields of light music, opera, ballet and musicals, on radio, television and in the concert hall.
The BBC Concert Orchestra was formed in 1952 from its predecessor the BBC Opera Orchestra. A direct descendant of this was the BBC Theatre Orchestra, formed in 1931 as ‘an auxiliary to dramatic production'. The first conductor, Leslie Woodgate, was replaced within the year by Stanford Robinson who remained as conductor until 1946. As well as providing incidental music for BBC plays, the orchestra performed its own light music concerts and appeared on variety and other programmes. By 1937 its work as the studio opera orchestra had become prominent and it was occasionally called the BBC Opera Orchestra. Then based at Bedford, the orchestra contributed greatly to wartime entertainment, giving many public concerts. In October 1943 it was decided to increase the number of players from 31 to 57 to be at the same time an 'opera-cum-second-symphony-orchestra' and 'an orchestra capable of putting over the finest light music to great effect'. This dual nature lead to difficulties over the balance of the orchestra's repertoire and in August 1949 the orchestra, augmented to 63 became the BBC Opera Orchestra, again under Stanford Robinson.
This new orchestra became known as 'the plain man's symphony orchestra'. It was intended to perform light music concerts, with emphasis on ballet and opera, as well as operatic performances on the Third Programme (forerunner of BBC Radio 3). The name of Opera Orchestra was insisted upon by Stanford Robinson to limit the amount of light music played but in fact the need of the BBC at this time was for a light music orchestra. Hence the decision in January 1952 to disband the Opera Orchestra and form from it a smaller light music unit, the BBC Concert Orchestra.
The number of players in the new BBC Concert Orchestra was reduced from 63 to 45. Stanford Robinson was retained as a regular guest conductor and a permanent conductor, Gilbert Vinter, was appointed on 1st September 1952. The first Radio broadcast was made on 11th September 1952 on the BBC General Overseas service, with its domestic Radio debut taking place on 14th September 1952. The music to be played was to be of 'proven popularity for' or 'likely to have an immediate appeal to' a mass audience. The orchestra started uncertainly and a general reconstruction took place in March 1953. Gilbert Vinter resigned and was not replaced by a permanent conductor until Sir Charles Mackerras was appointed in March 1954.
In 1955 the numbers again increased from 45 to 54. The orchestra's brief was 'that of a light music orchestra in the highest sense of the term'. The orchestra had many very popular and long running series; the most famous being Friday Night is Music Night (which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003). Its public concert commitments were greater than many other of the BBC Orchestras; it toured England and Wales, and also took part in short tours abroad. It participated for the first time in the lighter of the Proms, making its debut appearance conducted by Sir Malcom Sargent; regularly played in the Light Music Festival in London and in similar festivals abroad, and continued to accompany opera on Radio 3. The range of music played was very wide - from Wagner to Cole Porter - and adapted to suit current tastes.
1956 saw the appointment of Vilem Tausky as Principal Conductor, an association that was to last ten years and see the orchestra's commitments continue to grow. Marcus Dods took over from 1966 to 1970; Ashley Lawrence from 1970 to 1989; with Barry Wordsworth appointed in 1989. The Orchestra has also benefited from long and fruitful relationships with the great names of light music, including Robin Boyle, Stanley Black, Sidney Torch, Robert Farnon, Robert Docker, Gordon Langford, Ronald Binge, Malcolm Williamson and Eric Coates, many of whom wrote compositions and arrangements for the Orchestra which are still in use today.
Today the orchestra still very much has the same brief and aims as it did when it first began, albeit it with a wider scope. The orchestra's musicians are at home in a strikingly wide range of musical styles. Its performance credits span everything from Broadway and West End musicals to fully staged opera, including Madam Butterfly and Aida, and concerts based on the music of ABBA, with jazz legend Ornette Coleman and with film composer Michael Nyman. The orchestra is a regular at the BBC Proms, Electric Proms and Proms in the Park, and has worked with artists Dame Shirley Bassey, Maxim Vengerov, Kavita Krishnamurti, Pet Shop Boys, Nigel Kennedy, Bryn Terfel, and Burt Bacharach.
In addition to its weekly appearances on Friday Night is Music Night on BBC Radio 2, the BBC Concert Orchestra performs regularly on various BBC Radio 3 programmes, and has carved itself something of a niche on BBC Television, appearing on many shows including the Proms. They can also be heard providing the soundtracks to various BBC Television programmes, including Planet Earth, Walking with Dinosaurs, The Key, Wild Down Under, Peter Ackroyd's London and ZingZillas.
The Orchestra has also premiered new works by Dave Heath, Mike Westbrook, Paul Patterson, Errollyn Wallen, among others. Current Composer in Association Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood succeeded Anne Dudley in 2005. They premiered Greenwood 's Popcorn Superhet Receiver in 2005 and more recently Doghouse. In 2007 they teamed up with Will Gregory, one half of the electronica duo Goldfrapp, for a performance of his score to Victor Sjöström's 1924 silent-movie classic He Who Gets Slapped. Next year they will premiere Gregory's opera at the Southbank Centre.
The orchestra's understandable pride in its ambitious range is underlined by the recent appointment of Keith Lockhart as Principal Conductor and Johannes Wildner as Principal Guest Conductor, complementing Conductor Laureate Barry Wordsworth. Lockhart, who has been conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra for 15 years, has an eclectic repertoire from Broadway to core classical, while Wildner is a conductor borne of the Viennese tradition.