The orchestra was formed in 1983 by Iván Fischer and Zoltán Kocsis, with musicians "drawn from the cream of Hungary's younger players," as The Times of London put it. Their aim, through intensive rehearsals and demanding the highest standards from musicians, was to make the orchestra's initially three or four concerts per year significant events in Hungary's musical life, and to give Budapest a new symphony orchestra of international standing.
Between 1992 and 2000, extending their work to a full season the ensemble operated under the aegis of the Budapest Municipality and the new BFO Foundation, formed by fifteen Hungarian and multinational corporations and banks. From the 2000/2001 season onwards the orchestra is operated by the BFO Foundation, which the Budapest City Council regularly supports under a contract renewable every five years. In 2003 the Ministry of Education and Culture declared the orchestra a national institution supported by the state.
The Festival Orchestra is nowadays not only a vital part of Budapest's music life (usually performing to capacity audiences) but also a frequent and much appreciated guest at the world's most important centres of musical excellence: Salzburg (Summer Festival), Vienna (Musikverein, Konzerthaus), Lucerne (Festival), Montreux, Zürich (Tonhalle), New York (Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall), Chicago, Los Angeles (Hollywood Bowl), San Francisco, Montreal, Tokyo (Suntory Hall), Hong-Kong, Paris (Théâtre des Champs-Elysées), Berlin, Munich , Frankfurt (Alte Oper), London (BBC Proms Festival, Barbican Centre, Royal Festival Hall), Florence (Maggio Musicale), Rome (Accademia di Santa Cecilia), Amsterdam (Concertgebouw), Madrid, Athens, Copenhagen, Prague (Prague Spring Festival), Brussels (Flamish Festival) and Buenos Aires (Teatro Colon), among others.
After having recorded on Hungaroton, Quintana, Teldec, Decca, Ponty and Berlin Classics, the orchestra signed an exclusive recording contract with Philips Classics in 1996. Its recording of Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin received the Gramophone Award, while Diapason and Le Monde de la Musique chose it as their recording of the year. Recordings of Liszt's Faust Symphony and Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra were chosen among the year's five best orchestral discs by Gramophone. In 2003 the BFO signed a cooperation agreement with the label Channel Classics. Their recording of Mahler's Symphony No.6. has been nominated for the Grammy Award, their Mahler 2. has received the Gramophone Award. International critics voted the orchestra in December 2008 among the ten best symphony orchestras of the world.
Numerous outstanding figures from the international music scene have performed with the orchestra: Sir Georg Solti (who was the orchestra's honorary guest conductor until his death), Yehudi Menuhin, Kurt Sanderling, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Charles Dutoit, Gidon Kremer, Sándor Végh, András Schiff, Heinz Holliger, Agnes Baltsa, Ida Haendel, Martha Argerich, Hildegard Behrens, Yuri Bashmet, Rudolf Barshai, Kiri te Kanawa, Radu Lupu, Thomas Zehetmair, Vadim Repin, Helen Donath, Maria-Joao Pires, Richard Goode and others.
Among the orchestra's more important projects, its opera productions have been widely acclaimed: The Magic Flute, Cosi fan tutte, La Nozze di Figaro, Idomeneo, Orfeo ed Euridice, Un Turco in Italia, the cycle of works marking the 50th anniversary of Bartók's death, the cycle of Mahler symphonies over several years, the series of performances for the centenary of Brahms' death, a Bartók-Stravinsky cycle and a Liszt-Wagner cycle in January 2004. In 2005 the orchestra launched its annual Budapest Mahlerfest, in 2008 its annual "marathon" featuring each year a different composer.
The ensemble places great emphasis on the performance of new music and has given many world and Hungarian premieres. The orchestra regularly commissions new works. In 2006 the orchestra was awarded - as first foreign ensemble - with the Dutch Music Prize.
To promote the artistic development of its members the BFO has developed regular chamber music and chamber orchestra series alongside its major orchestral concerts. The Sunday afternoon chamber music events, the "Cocoa Concerts" for young children, the "Haydn-Mozart plus" series, where soloists of the concertos are members of the orchestra, as well as their annual open-air summer concerts have all quickly become favourites of the Budapest music audience.
Ever since its foundation 26 years ago, the BFO's Music Director has been Iván Fischer.
Iván Fischer is founder and Music Director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Principal Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington D.C.
The partnership between Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra has proved to be one of the greatest success stories in the past 25 years of classical music. Fischer introduced several reforms, developed intense rehearsal methods for the musicians, emphasizing chamber music and creative work for each orchestra member.
Intense international touring and a series of acclaimed recordings for Philips Classics, later for Channel Classics have contributed to Iván Fischer's reputation as one of the world's most visionary and successful orchestra leaders.
He has developed and introduced new types of concerts, "cocoa-concerts" for young children, "surprise" concerts where the programme is not announced, "one forint concerts" where he talks to the audience, open-air concerts in Budapest attracting tens of thousands of people, as well as concert opera performances applying scenic elements. He has founded several festivals, including a summer festival in Budapest on baroque music and the Budapest Mahlerfest which is also a forum for commissioning and presenting new music works.
As a guest conductor Fischer works with the finest symphony orchestras of the world. He has been invited to the Berlin Philharmonic more than ten times, he leads every year two weeks of programs with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra where his last, highly acclaimed project was in April 2009 Beethoven's Symphony No. 8. Besides his contract with the NSO of Washington, he works regularly with leading US symphony orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra.