In the last fifteen years of the 20th century, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders (= RFP; Royal Flemish Philharmonic; deFilharmonie; Het Koninklijk Filharmonische Orkest van Vlaanderen) began a rapid rise to attention among European symphonic ensembles.
The Orchestra is based in Antwerp (in Flemish Antwerpen; in French Anvers), a leading city of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking portion (Flemish) of Belgium. Antwerp had a long and rich musical history as a center of the Netherlands school of polyphony in the Renaissance and a major center of church music through the Baroque and Classical eras. As the region was under the domination of France at the end of the 18th century, the anti-clerical aspect of the French Revolution ended the domination of the Church in Antwerp's music. It became a center for musical education with the founding of the Royal Flemish Conservatory and an operatic center beginning in 1893 when the Flanders Opera was formed. (It is now known as the Royal Flemish Opera.)
For the most part, orchestral music was the province of various private organizations who brought in guest ensembles. This was the original activity of the Royal Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra, which was established in 1955 by a group of enthusiastic young musicians, their enterprise rewarded by subsidy from the Belgian government, from the province and from the city of Antwerp, where it is based. The orchestra embarked on an annual season of concerts, later adding to this a series of successful promenade concerts, while undertaking engagements throughout Belgium and in France, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Greece and the Netherlands. The smaller organization gave concerts primarily of standard romantic repertory.
In 1983 various changes in management and subsidy took place and the orchestra was enlarged to a full complement of ninety-six players. In this form it has assumed an important role in the Flemish community at home and has won distinction abroad, not least in the Linz Bruckner Festival, where its performances were enthusiastically received. The first conductor of the enlarged orchestra was the Bulgarian Emil Tchakarov, who served from 1985 to 1987. Since May, 1986, the orchestra has been under the direction of Günter Neuhold. He was succeeded by Muhai Tang, and Grant Llewellyn.
The building of a fine concert venue, the Queen Elisabeth Hall, in Antwerp was an impetus for founding a full-sized professional orchestra in 1985. At the same time, the Philharmonic made a policy decision to include more 20th-century music in its programs and to contribute to the future repertory of music by promoting the newest orchestral music.
In 1997, Philippe Herreweghe was named as the orchestra's Music Director, commencing in September 1998. Herreweghe, known primarily until then for his activities in the field of authentic or period instrument performances, surprised audiences with a powerful series of Bruckner symphony concerts in his first season. He also chose his assistant conductors with deliberation. While Philippe Herreweghe centers on music up to the late 1800’s, Michaël Schönwand specializes in late Romantic music and its transition into the 20th century, including the masterpieces of the early part of the century. Peter Rundel concentrates mainly on contemporary music.
A modern and stylistically flexible symphony orchestra, the Royal Flemish Philharmonic demonstrates an artistic flair which allows for a variety of styles - from classical to contemporary - in a historically authentic manner. Chief Conductor Jaap van Zweden is responsible for the orchestra’s main repertoire. Drawing on his vast orchestral experience, and as former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, he contributes to the unique character of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. He works in close co-operation with Principal Conductor Philippe Herreweghe, who makes use of his specific background in his readings of (pre)Romantic music. Martyn Brabbins is Principal Guest Conductor. From the season 2012-2013 Edo de Waart becomes Chief Conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. Jaap van Zweden’s affiliation with the orchestra continues as honorary conductor.
Thanks to its own series of concerts in large venues, the Royal Flemish Philharmonic occupies a unique position in Flanders. The orchestra has earned itself a recurring spot on the annual programmes of the Queen Elisabeth Hall and deSingel in Antwerp, the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels, de Bijloke Music Centre in Ghent and the Bruges Concertgebouw. Alongside its regular concerts, the Philharmonic attaches great value to developing educational and social projects, offering children, youngsters, and people with different social backgrounds the opportunity to get acquainted with the symphony orchestra from close quarters.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of Flanders tours in Europe regularly. It has visited all major European concert halls, including the Musikverein and Konzerthaus in Vienna, the Festspielhaus in Salzburg, London's Royal Festival Hall, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Philharmonie of Cologne and Munich, the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, the Palace of Art in Budapest, the Suntory Hall and the Bunka Kaikan Hall in Tokyo, and the National Grand Theatre of Peking. International concert tours through various European countries and Japan are a constant item on the yearly calendar.
Since 1994, the orchestra instituted a position of house composer. The first was the Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, who was succeeded by Robin Holloway of Britain and Magnus Lindberg of Finland.
The orchestra is becoming busy in the recording studio. It has recorded music of its resident composers Grant Llewellyn and Kancheli and such Flemish composers as August De Boeck, Peter Benoit, Jef Maes, Luc Brewaeyes, Wim Henderickx, and Karel Goeyvaerts on the ECM, Megadisc, Naxos, Cypres, Wergo, and Verdi record labels. Several of the orchestra's CD’s received acclaim by the professional press, including the recent recordings of L.v. Beethoven and Igor Stravinsky conducted by Philippe Herreweghe (PentaTone). The orchestra’s recent releases include Dmitri Shostakovich’ Fifth Symphony with Jaap van Zweden (Naïve) and recordings of Mortelmans and Vieuxtemps with Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion). In collaboration with the publisher, Lannoo, the Philharmonic is currently developing a series of audio books for children. The Royal Flemish Philharmonic is frequently broadcast on its media partner, Radio Klara, and on the digital television broadcaster, EURO1080.