The National Symphony Orchestra (= NSO), founded in 1931, is an American symphony orchestra that performs at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.
For the first period of its history, the orchestra performed in Constitution Hall. During the tenure of the first music director, Hans Kindler, the musicians received a salary of US$40.00 per week, for three rehearsals and one concert, for five months of the year.
Hans Kindler and the orchestra made several 78-rpm recordings for RCA Victor, including the two Roumanian Rhapsodies by George Enescu; much later, in 1960, the orchestra would perform the first of these works under the baton of the visiting Romanian conductor George Georgescu, a close associate and favored exponent of the composer. One of the more unusual RCA recordings with the orchestra was of the complete ballet music from the opera King Henry VIII by Camille Saint-Saëns, one of the very few recordings conducted by Walter Damrosch. Years later, Howard Mitchell made a series of stereophonic recordings with the orchestra for RCA. Antal Doráti recorded with the orchestra for Decca Records. Mstislav Rostropovich made recordings for Teldec, Sony Records, and Erato. The orchestra returned to RCA Victor under Leonard Slatkin, until RCA abandoned new classical recordings.
In 1986, the NSO became the artistic affiliate of the Kennedy Center, the national center for the performing arts, where it has presented a concert season annually since the Center opened in 1971.
The NSO regularly participates in events of national and international importance, including performances for state occasions, presidential inaugurations and official holiday celebrations. Through its tours of four continents and performances for heads of state, the National Symphony also fills an important international role.
The NSO itself numbers 100 musicians, presenting a 52-week season of approximately 175 concerts each year. These include classical subscription series, pops concerts, and one of the country’s most extensive educational programs. In addition to these activities, small groups of NSO members develop education programs designed at age levels from pre-kindergarten through high school. Collectively these ensembles present as many as 100 additional performances a year during the American Residencies and at the Kennedy Center.
The NSO has a strong commitment to the development of America’s artistic resources. Through the John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works, the NSO has commissioned more than 50 works, including cycles of fanfares and encores. To nurture new generations of conductors, Leonard Slatkin founded the National Conducting Institute in 2000. Also of note is the Kennedy Center Summer Music Institute. For more than a decade, scholarships provided by the National Trustees of the NSO have enabled high school students from throughout the country to come to the nation’s capital for several weeks of study with NSO musicians.
Another important project is the National Symphony Orchestra American Residencies for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This venture encompasses sharing all elements of classical symphonic music with a specific region of the United States, exploring the diversity of musical influences, and giving the region a musical voice in the nation’s center for the performing arts through exchanges, training programs, and commissions. Established in 1992, the project has taken the NSO to fifteen states.
In November 2004, the NSO announced that Leonard Slatkin would conclude his tenure as the orchestra's music director in 2008. One report spoke of tensions between the conductor and the orchestra, and mentioned criticisms of Leonard Slatkin's programming and rehearsal styles.
With the 2006-2007 season, Iván Fischer became the principal guest conductor of the NSO. The current concertmaster/leader of the orchestra is Nurit Bar-Josef. On April 13, 2007, the NSO announced the appointment of Iván Fischer as the orchestra's principal conductor as of the 2008-2009 season, for 2 seasons. This interim position is for two years. On September 25, 2008, the orchestra announced the appointment of Christoph Eschenbach as the orchestra's 6th music director, effective with the 2010-2011 season, for an initial contract of 4 years.