Soon after it was founded by Eugen Jochum in 1949, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks developed into an internationally renowned orchestra, its fame ongoingly expanded and fortified by its intensive touring activities. The orchestra owes its extraordinarily wide‑ranging repertoire and sound spectrum to the program preferences of its previous chief conductors as well as to the great flexibility and solid stylistic security of each individual musician.
Fostering new music has an especially long tradition at the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks with appearances in conjunction with the “musica viva” series, founded in 1945 by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, as one of the orchestra’s main assignments right from the start. At these concerts, Munich audiences have witnessed legendary performances of contemporary works at which the composers themselves generally stood on the podium of the orchestra. These included Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Paul Hindemith, Pierre Boulez, as well as, more recently, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel, Luciano Berio, Peter Eötvös, Helmut Lachenmann, Wolfgang Rihm and Jörg Widmann.
Over the past few years, the Symphonieorchester has also pursued new approaches to early music and now collaborates regularly with such experts in historical performance practice as Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Giovanni Antonini and Thomas Hengelbrock.
Many renowned guest conductors, such as Clemens Krauss, Erich and Carlos Kleiber, Charles Munch, Ferenc Fricsay, Otto Klemperer, Karl Böhm, Günter Wand, Sir Georg Solti, Carlo Maria Giulini, Kurt Sanderling and Wolfgang Sawallisch have left indelible imprints on the Symphonieorchester in the past. Today Bernard Haitink, Riccardo Muti, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sir Simon Rattle, Franz Welser-Möst, Daniel Harding, Kent Nagano, Andris Nelsons and Yannick Nézet-Séguin number amongst the significant partners who regularly mount the podium in Munich. The Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks was also the only German orchestra with which Leonard Bernstein regularly collaborated for many years.
Besides the many performances and recordings in Munich and other cities in the station’s broadcast range, extensive concert tours are today central components in the everyday life of the orchestra. Tours have taken the orchestra to virtually every European country, to Asia as well as to North and South America. It makes regular appearances in New York’s Carnegie Hall and in the renowned concert halls in Japan’s musical capitals. Since 2004, the Symphonieorchester under the direction of its current Chief Conductor, Mariss Jansons, is additionally the orchestra in residence at the Easter Festival in Lucerne.
A further special feature is the encouragement of up-and-coming young musicians. In conjunction with the ARD International Music Competition, the Symphonieorchester accompanies young musicians both in the final rounds as well as in the symphonic closing concert featuring the prize winners. Since October of 2001 the Academy of the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks has been doing valuable educational work by preparing young musicians for their later careers and thus building a solid bridge between education and professional activity. Beyond this, the Symphonieorchester maintains an encouragement program for young people with many activities designed toward the worthy goal of bringing the younger generation closer together with classical music.
The history of the Symphonieorchester is closely intertwined with the names of its previous chief conductors, who were always concurrently chief conductors of the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks. The founder, Eugen Jochum, led the orchestra for eleven years (from 1949 to 1960.) He built up the orchestra completely with top-grade musicians and established it´s world-wide reputation on its initial foreign tours. Munich audiences have him to thank for incomparable interpretations of the symphonies of Anton Bruckner. Besides Bruckner Eugen Jochum devoted special attention to the performance of sacred music, and also made regular appearances on the podium of musica viva.
Rafael Kubelík, who headed the orchestra for eighteen years (1961 to 1979), and beyond that period remained closely associated with the orchestra as a guest conductor. He expanded the repertoire to include works by Slavic composers like Smetana, Janáček and Dvořák, as well as spearheading the cause of 20th century composers such as Karl Amadeus Hartmann and conducting the first Mahler cycle with a German orchestra, which was then recorded. His impulsive, emotion-laden approach to music won the hearts of all the musicians and made the Kubelík era one of the most fruitful ones in the history of the ensemble.
When his already designated successor Kyrill Kondrashin, unexpectedly died in Amsterdam, the orchestra turned to Sir Colin Davis, thus gaining a recognized Berlioz specialist as chief conductor (1983 to 1992), who likewise proved an excellent advocate for the Viennese Classical Era as well as the works of English composers, especially Edward Elgar, Michael Tippett and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
From 1993 to 2002 Lorin Maazel led the Symphonieorchester. He set new styles of programming by performing cycles of symphonic works by Beethoven (1995 and 2000), Brahms (1998), Bruckner (1999) and Schubert (2001). He took his leave of his orchestra with a Mahler cycle in 2002.
A new and mutually pleasurable chapter in the history of the Symphonieorchester began in October of 2003 when the acknowledged favorite candidate of all the musicians, Mariss Jansons, assumed his post as the new Chief Conductor of the Chor and the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks. In no time, he succeeded in creating an atmosphere of the highest artistic standards and a close emotional tie with the orchestra. He regularly receives enthusiastic reviews both for his concerts and Munich and the many guest appearances in the leading musical capitals of Europe, America and Japan. Mariss Jansons conducts a wide repertoire, covering the classical and romantic eras and continuing on to 20th century music and works by contemporary composers. He regularly earns enthusiastic reviews for his concerts in Munich as well as the numerous guest appearances in virtually all the major European musical capitals.
In a number of different surveys of music critics, the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks has numbered among the top ten orchestras in the world, most recently in the 2008 orchestra ranking by the British music magazine “Gramophone”, (6th place) and in the Japanese music magazine “Mostly Classic” in 2010 (4th place).
With a goodly number of CD releases on major labels and – since September of 2009 – also on Bavarian Broadcasting’s own label – BR-KLASSIK, the BRSO obtains regularly national and international awards. Like the Grammy in 2006 for Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony as the “Best Orchestral Performance” with Mariss Jansons, in November 2016 – the “Diapason d’Or” for the recording of Gustav Mahler’s 6th Symphony conducted by Daniel Harding – or as the latest ones – in April 2018 the BBC Music Magazine’s Award “Recording of the Year” for Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in April 2018 with Bernard Haitink. In the same year the CD with Bruckner’s 8th Symphony conducted by Mariss Jansons received the German Record Critics’ Prize.