One of the oldest of all of Britain's venerable orchestral ensembles, the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester was formed in 1857 by Charles Hallé, a German conductor and pianist. Hallé was hired to conduct a large orchestra in daily concerts for five months during an art exposition. Hallé found he could not bear to break up the fine orchestra thus created and, at his own financial risk, established the Hallé Concerts on January 30, 1858.
The orchestra played 30 concerts a year, becoming known for high standards and a wide repertory, but eventually it became enmeshed in the great clash between pro-German and anti-German sentiments that marked the British musical scene at the end of the 19th century. After Hallé's death in 1895, three Manchester businessmen put up a financial guarantee to sustain the orchestra. They engaged Hans Richter as conductor, but also hired Frederic Cowen as interim conductor. When Richter finally arrived in October 1899, this aroused the anger of Cowen's supporters, who opposed Richter and his heavily Germanic programming. They remained unhappy when another German, Michael Balling, took over on Richter's departure in 1911.
World War I left the orchestra without a permanent conductor until 1920, when British conductor Hamilton Harty was appointed. He is credited with revitalizing the orchestra's spirits, standards, and repertory, but resigned in 1933 in a dispute over his outside engagements.
Malcolm Sargent was appointed conductor in 1939, but the outbreak of World War II prevented him from actually taking over. Meanwhile, in 1934 a deal had been struck to supply musicians for a new BBC Northern Orchestra, a studio ensemble. Soon the Hallé found it could not control its own schedule because the BBC had first call on these players, who were used extensively in wartime morale concerts. Matters got even worse when the Hallé's home, the Free Trade Hall, was destroyed by bombs.
The orchestra's board severed the BBC contract and announced a 200-concert-per-year schedule. Only four of the players formerly shared with the BBC stayed with the Hallé. British conductor John Barbirolli, finding New York uncongenial, returned home as conductor. Somehow, despite wartime scarcity and his own long absence, Barbirolli found 30 fresh players and drilled the orchestra to its highest level yet. He remained at the helm for 25 years, semi-retiring as conductor laureate for life in 1968.
His successor, James Loughran, maintained the ensemble's standards, but did not have the international star appeal of Barbirolli. Loughran was succeeded by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and, in 1991, by American conductor Kent Nagano.
At the end of the 20th century, the Hallé had once again had competition from its old rival. In 1973 the BBCNO started playing public concerts, and in 1980 it was renamed the BBC Philharmonic and enlarged to full orchestra size. Both orchestras share quarters in Manchester's new Bridgewater Hall. In 1998, the accounting firm KPMG reported to the Hallé board that chaotic management, huge debts, and an operating loss of 600,000 pounds in the prior financial year threatened the immediate demise of the orchestra. But its four biggest sponsors and another 11 corporations, called the Hallé Family, came to the Hallé's financial rescue.
Nagano improved the quality and international recognition of the orchestra, which received a Grammy award for its recording of John Adams' El Dorado. However, Nagano's contract was not renewed after its expiration in the summer of 2000. Mark Elder was selected as the next music director.