From its humble beginnings as a radio orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra (= BBCCO) 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.
In The Beginning
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.
A Popular Brief...
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 September 1, 1952. The first Radio broadcast was made on September 11, 1952 on the BBC General Overseas service, with its domestic Radio debut taking place on September 14, 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 BBCCO 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 BBCCO's brief was 'that of a light music orchestra in the highest sense of the term'. The BBCCO 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 Malcolm 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.
After the War
1956 saw the appointment of Vilem Tausky as Principal Conductor, an association that was to last ten years and see the BBCCO's commitments continue to grow. Marcus Dods took over from 1966 to 1970; Ashley Lawrence from 1970 to 1989; with Barry Wordsworth, the current Principal Conductor appointed in 1989. The BBCCO 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 BBCCO which are still in use today. In 1972, the BBCCO moved into its new permanent home, The Hippodrome in Golders Green, North London, from its previous base at the Camden Theatre; and in 2004, began a move out to west London in preparation for the BBC's new Music Centre which is being built in White City.
Today the BBCCO still very much has the same brief and aims as it did when it first began, albeit with a much wider scope. As Barry Wordsworth says "The Orchestra is made up of musicians all of whom enjoy crossing the musical boundaries. It is a unit of people with incredibly wide-ranging tastes. It plays as broad a repertoire as possible in as stylish a fashion as possible." As well as continuing to appear every week on Friday Night is Music Night and in seasons of Melodies for You on BBC Radio 2, it 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 The Blue Planet, Walking with Dinosaurs, The Key, Wild Down Under and Peter Ackroyd's London.
Its diversity is also on display in its public concerts, the majority of which take place at the Royal Festival Hall in London, but also around the country in places such as Croydon, Buxton, Birmingham, Liverpool, Brighton, Llandudno, Falkirk, Blackpool, Manchester, Bexhill on Sea and Huddersfield. A new relationship with the Chichester Festival Theatre was begun in 2004. It continues to tour abroad to places such as Cyprus, Belgium, Hong Kong, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Germany, Greece and Turkey; the USA and Japan.
The BBCCO's repertoire has grown from providing light music, ballet and opera into performing full-scale musicals such as Guys and Dolls, Carousel, On the Town, Pal Joey and On Your Toes; fully staged operas including Madame Butterfly, Aida and Carmen; and concerts based on the music of ABBA, with jazz legend Ornette Coleman and with film composer Michael Nyman. Over the years it has performed with artists ranging from Dudley Moore, Shirley Bassey, Dionne Warwick, Tony Bennett, Jools Holland and The Corrs, to Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Andre Previn, Jose Carreras, Monseratt Caballe, Plácido Domingo, Maurice Jarre and Julian Lloyd Webber. The BBCCO is also continuing to commission and premiere new music - Composer in Association Anne Dudley has written four works for the BBCCO during her three year tenure, and devised Club Classical, arrangements of chill out club themes for orchestra. Jonny Greenwood has recently been appointed to take over Anne's role at the beginning of 2005 and will compose at least three new works for the BBCCO. The BBCCO has also premiered new works by Dave Heath, Mike Westbrook, Paul Patterson and Errollyn Wallen, amongst others.