The National Orchestra of Lyons is one of the oldest and most respected orchestras in France. With the implementation of a French government policy establishing a system of national orchestras in the major regions of the country, it has gained a strong international reputation as well.
Lyons is an ancient city, founded by the Romans at the confluence of the Rhône and Saône Rivers in southeastern France as the capital of Gaul. For more than the first millennium of the Christian era it was the site of the primate of France. It voted for direct rule of the French crown in 1271, but retained considerable independence for five hundred years. All this made it a musical center in the region. According to its tax records of the seventeenth century, the city routinely supported over a hundred instrumentalists.
In 1713 the town council established a permanent opera house and an academy for arts and concerts. The academy's concerts continued to be successful through most of the century. The academy ended upon the revolution, but under the Directory concert life resumed, with "revolutionary" works such as those of Grétry being played by an amateur orchestra. The 1800s saw a succession of concert societies. These were the Concerts Symphoniques (f. 1833), the Concerts Populaires Symphoniques (1873), the Concerts Symphoniques du Grand Theâtre (1898).
In 1903, another of these groups was founded: The Societé Symphoniques des Grands Concerts, which gave its first concert in 1905. Subsequently renamed the Societé des Concerts Philharmoniques, it was a semi-professional orchestra, but over the years it enjoyed the guest leadership of such distinguished conductors as Ernest Ansermet, Charles Munch, André Cluytens, Pierre Monteux, and Paul Paray.
In 1969 the city stepped in to support the orchestra in its efforts to become a permanent professional ensemble and the name was changed again, to the Société Philharmonique de Lyon. At that time Louis Frémaux was appointed its resident conductor; he was succeeded in 1971 by Serge Baudo, who remained until 1986.
His era saw the orchestra obtain its permanent concert hall. The Lyon Auditorium is a modernistic, 2090-seat hall, named the Maurice Ravel Auditorium. (It was acoustically less than perfect, with most defects cured by a renovation begun in 1996.) One of its attractions is a historical organ originally built in 1878 by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll for the Palais du Trocadéro at a World Fair.
French national policy resulted in a change in the orchestra's government support and its renaming to the National Orchestra of Lyons. It is now a permanent organization of 102 musicians, which gives a full concert schedule at home and frequently tours and records. Its tours have taken it to the United States, Japan, and Germany and it frequently performs at international festivals. It does not function as the orchestra of the Lyon Opera, which has its own orchestra.
In 1987, Emmanuel Krivine replaced Baudo on its podium, remaining until the beginning of the 2001-2002 season, when he was to be replaced by David Robertson. Both Baudo and Krivine had strong interest in contemporary music, a tradition shared by the orchestra, which claims the only composer in residence on the staff of any French orchestra. Perhaps as a result it is one of the few symphony orchestras in the world whose audience is growing consistently younger.