The Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra's roots go to 1879, when Edvard Grieg and Johan Svendsen founded the Christiania Musikerforening (Christiania Musical Association), as a successor of The Philharmonic Society (Det Philharmoniske Selskab, 1847).
The orchestra was later conducted by Ole Olsen, Johan Selmer, Iver Holter and Otto Winter Hjelm. Under Holter, the orchestra was merged with the Christiania Theatre Orchestra, which was on the verge of reductions. Holter suggested the founding of a city orchestra which could play at municipal festivities, concerts and in the theatre, and as a result of this, the orchestra gained municipal support from 1889.
In 1899 the Nationaltheatret, which was to present both theatre and opera, was opened. Here the orchestra expanded to 44 musicians, and it was conducted by Johan Halvorsen.
The orchestra served the Nationaltheatret in two roles: providing music for the new theatre, and symphony concerts for the Music Society. During World War I, the desire for symphonic music grew, along with inflation, leading to a dispute between the orchestra and the Nationaltheatret and a temporary collapse of the Musikerforening's concerts. Thus, in 1919, the orchestra was reformed as the Filharmonisk Selskaps Orkester (Orchestra of the Philharmonic Company) by private shareholders and initiative. The first season was shared by three conductors; Johan Halvorsen, Georg Schnéevoigt and Ignaz Neumark.
Filharmonisk Selskaps Orkester's first concert took place in Logen (Store Sal) on September 27, 1919, with 59 musicians on stage and with Georg Schnéevoigt as conductor. On the repertoire was Rikard Nordraak's Ja, vi elsker dette landet, Johan Svendsen's Fest polonaise, Christian Sinding's Symphony No. 1, Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor, and finally Landkjenning, with the singer Erik Bye as baritone soloist.
Among the guest musicians this first season were the conductor Arthur Nikisch, the pianists Eugen d'Albert, Edwin Fischer, Wilhelm Kempff, Ignaz Friedman and Artur Schnabel, and the violinists Bronisław Huberman and Carl Flesch. Between September 1919 and May 1920, the orchestra gave 135 public concerts, most of which were sold out.
The next decades featured various economic problems, which led to the resignation of 15 musicians in one season. In spite of this, the orchestra continued to attract notable musicians and conductors, such as Richard Burgin, who later became concertmaster for Serge Koussevitzky in Boston; Max Rostal; Ernst Glaser; Robert Soetens, for whom Sergei Prokofiev's 2nd Violin Concerto was written; and others who were driven out of Germany by the Nazi regime - Igor Stravinsky, Fritz Busch, Erich Kleiber, and Bruno Walter.
The first Norwegian radio broadcast took place in April 1923, and shortly after, the first radio concert with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. From 1925, there was a contract between the orchestra and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK), ensuring weekly live broadcasted concerts. This contract with NRK saved the orchestra from bankruptcy in the 1930’s. Issay Dobrowen joined the orchestra in 1927; when he left in 1931, the position of chief conductor was divided between two Norwegians: Odd Grüner Hegge and Olav Kielland. After 1933, Kielland became sole chief conductor until 1945.
In 1953 Oslo hosted the ISCM Festival, which brought further international contacts in the awareness of new repertoire, which many of the Scandinavian countries had been deprived of during the years of World War I and World War II. The first performance of the Oslo Philharmonic outside Scandinavia took place in 1962. Since then, the orchestra has much international acclaim.
In 1979, the orchestra formally changed its name to the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1996, an act of the Norwegian parliament made the orchestra an independent foundation.
Although the orchestra has maintained high standards of quality since its inception and under various renowned musical directors, many consider that it saw its largest leap forward during the tenure of Mariss Jansons from 1979 to 2002. During this time the orchestra recorded readings of Tchaikovsky's symphonies, and went on international tours. The Oslo Philharmonic won international acclaim with its Tchaikovsky cycle and a very successful series of recordings for EMI. In 2000 the orchestra completed a cycle of Béla Bartók for Simax. Other awards won by the Oslo Philharmonic include Grand Prix du Disque, Diapason d’Or, and the German Classical Music Award.
The current music director of the Oslo Philharmonic is the Finnish conductor Jukka-Pekka Saraste, since 2006, for an initial contract of 5 years. In June 2009, his contract was extended through the 2012-2013 season. Jukka-Pekka Saraste is scheduled to conclude his tenure at the end of his contract. In February 2011, the orchestra announced the appointment of Petrenko as its next chief conductor, as of the 2013-2014 season, with an initial contract of 4 years.