The Sinfonieorchester Basel, in various incarnations that date back to the 19th century and even earlier, has long had a strong international reputation and gave the premieres of several major works in the classical repertory. With the exception of Mario Venzago (1997-2003), all of its conductors since the orchestra took its current name have come from outside Switzerland.
The modern Sinfonieorchester Basel (known in German-speaking realms as SOB) was formed in 1997 from the merger of two orchestras, the Basler Sinfonie-Orchester and the Radio Sinfonieorchester Basel. The former of these dated back to 1876, when the group took up residence at the new Stadtcasino Basel, where the current orchestra still performs most of its concerts. That orchestra, in turn, had roots in the Collegium Musicum Basel, first formed in 1692. The Basler Sinfonie-Orchester's first conductor, Alfred Volkland, was succeeded in 1902 by Hermann Suter, whose tastes ran toward modern music and who programmed the premieres of works by Bartók, Bohuslav Martinů, and Arthur Honegger (Pacific 231), often in the face of audience opposition. Both Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler conducted their works with the orchestra in the early 20th century. The orchestra grew in size and professionalism under subsequent conductors Felix Weingartner and Hans Ziegler, who led the group for four decades. An orientation toward contemporary music remained; French modernist Pierre Boulez conducted the group in the 1960s.
The Basler Sinfonie-Orchester and the Radio Sinfonieorchester Basel, which had been formed by the same administrative bodies, were joined together in 1997 under financial pressure to form the new Sinfonieorchester Basel. Its first conductor was Venzago, who was tasked with managing the difficult transition. He was succeeded by Marko Letonja (2003-2006) and then Dennis Russell Davies, who turned the group in the direction of American music and new minimalist repertory generally, including the works of Philip Glass. The group continued to suffer financial difficulties resulting in part from its complex administrative structure; these are explored in unusual detail on the orchestra's website. However, in the 2010s, the orchestra has drawn consistently strong audiences to its concerts and its operatic and ballet appearances at the Theater Basel. Since 2016, the orchestra's conductor has been Ivor Bolton. The orchestra returned to a renovated Stadtcasino Basel in 2020.
The Sinfonieorchester Basel has a large recording catalog, much of it on Novalis, CPO, and, most recently, Sony Classical; the orchestra has also operated its own label. In 2019, the orchestra issued the album Luciano Berio: Transformation on Sony Classical.