The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is one of the oldest permanently-established orchestras in the United Kingdom. It is internationally known for its performances of British music.
Located on the coast in southwest England, Bournemouth became a leading English resort town in the late nineteenth century. Its city government, the Bournemouth Corporation, decided to found an orchestra, which it named the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra, in 1893. It contracted with a bandmaster's son, Dan Godfrey (later music director of the BBC) to organize and lead an ensemble.
Initially the Municipal Orchestra was what the British call a military band of thirty wind players. In 1895 Godfrey added string players and began playing orchestral music. In 1896, the Municipal Orchestra as an organization was taken over by the Bournemouth Corporation. This makes the orchestra the oldest permanently salaried orchestra in the United Kingdom. In addition to directing the orchestra, Godfrey ran the Winter Gardens, and often ran concerts where popular variety acts performed between concert works.
Godfrey was an excellent orchestra-builder who also was involved in the early years of the present-day BBC Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He remained with the Municipal Orchestra until 1933, when he took up his BBC position full-time. He strongly supported British music, and played over 840 performances of British works, booking British composers to conduct the orchestra 160 times.
The orchestra was, at first, controversial, for it was a rather expensive budget item for a small city government to take on. But the musical success of the orchestra, its rising national reputation as a "splendour of the South," and its role in bringing visitors to the resort town helped it survive. One of the major events establishing the value of the Municipal Orchestra to the city was the Bournemouth Easter Festival of 1923, an ambitious series of thirty-four concerts. The alert Godfrey became one of the first major conductors to organize a concert of music entirely by British women composers, in 1927.
During the 1930s the orchestra's national reputation increased as it made regular radio broadcasts under its new music director, Richard Austin. He resigned when the war required reductions in the size of the orchestra, but the orchestra continued by giving Sunday concerts under Montague Birch. Under Rudolf Schwarz the orchestra was essentially rebuilt from scratch as a sixty-piece ensemble, and regained its reputation as a champion of British music. Charles Groves, music director from 1951 to 1961, continued this tradition.
In 1954, it was renamed the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the new name reflecting a change in its organization, as it now came under the control of the newly-formed Western Orchestral Society. In 1958, an organization called the Western Authorities Orchestral Association (WOS) was established and joined the Bournemouth Corporation and the Arts Council of Great Britain in providing the financing for the Orchestral Society until 1972, when the South and West Concerts Board took over the financing of the WOS. Under its aegis it gives annual series of concerts in Plymouth and Portsmouth.
Constantine Silvestri, director from 1961 to 1969, expanded the orchestra's international reputation. He has been succeeded as music director by Paavo Berglund, Andrew Litton, Yakov Kreizberg, and, in 2002, Marin Alsop. Litton, an American (who served form 1988 to 1996), took the orchestra to the U.S. for a triumphant centennial tour in 1994.
The orchestra has frequently toured, and has made numerous recordings on EMI and Naxos; the latter includes a complete Vaughan Williams symphony cycle.
In 1970, the WOS organized a second ensemble, the Bournemouth Sinfonietta, to complement the Symphony in the small-orchestra repertory.