The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1920, becoming the first British orchestra to be funded by a city council.
Its opening concert was conducted by British composer Edward Elgar. Since then, the orchestra has thrived as a bastion of musical culture in the Midlands. It has also gained a reputation for adventurous programming, underlined by the long, fruitful appointment of Simon Rattle as music director.
Birmingham is located to the northwest of London. It is one of the nation's major cities, but as with other urban centers such as Liverpool and Manchester, it has often been eclipsed by the capital in cultural matters. The centralization of British culture and power in London has nonetheless provided impetus for a competitive spirit out in the "regions," and Birmingham is no exception. The City of Birmingham Orchestra was founded by, among others, Neville Chamberlain, a prominent citizen who later became prime minister of the U.K. The orchestra's first conductor was Adrian Boult, who was quickly snapped up by the newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra in London. Boult was replaced by one of his pupils, Leslie Heward. In 1932, Harold Gray, was named associate conductor, a post he held for nearly 50 years. In 1944, the musicians were hired on a full-time basis, and George Weldon was appointed music director to replace Heward, who had succumbed to tuberculosis.
In 1948, the orchestra was renamed City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), the name it retains to this day. It began to expand its dominion with tours and London performances, including a debut at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1951. An interesting appointment came in 1957 when Polish ex-patriot composer, Andrzej Panufnik, was named principal conductor. He lasted until 1960, when he returned to composing, but the emphasis on new music took hold. In 1962, the CBSO gave the first performances of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at nearby Coventry Cathedral. This piece, which includes vocal soloists and choirs, is considered one of the major musical achievements of the post-war era in Britain.
In 1969, Frenchman Louis Frémaux was named principal conductor, and he led the orchestra through a series of well-received recordings for EMI. In 1980, Simon Rattle, just 25 years old but already a major talent, was appointed as Frémaux's successor, and he remained with the CBSO for almost 20 years. In that period, Rattle established himself as one of the world's top conductors, and the orchestra solidified its international reputation through tours and an impressive series of recordings. Rattle oversaw a number of interesting innovations during his tenure. One was the establishment of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), a subset of the orchestra dedicated to performing the music of its time. In 1990, British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage was appointed composer in association, and he created a series of successful scores (such as Three Screaming Popes). In 1995, he was succeeded by Judith Weir, who followed up Rattle's knighthood (still in his thirties!) with her own Companionship of the British Empire. Along with new British music, the CBSO commissioned works by international composers such as Luciano Berio, Tristan Murail, and Toru Takemitsu.
As Rattle moved on to the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002, the CBSO continued its reputation as a forward-looking, world-class orchestra, rooted in a community proud of its independence. Finnish conductor Sakari Oramo led the orchestra into the new millennium with enthusiasm and dedication. Since 2008, the CBSO's music director has been Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons.