In 1882, with the backing of two wealthy businessmen, Robert Kajanus founded the orchestra as the Helsinki Orchestral Society and served as its chief conductor for 50 years. It was the first permanent orchestra in the Nordic countries. In 1914 it merged with its bitter rival the Helsinki Symphony Orchestra and acquired its present name. Until 1962, it also served as the orchestra for the Finnish National Opera.
Leif Segerstam was chief conductor of the orchestra from 1995 to 2007, and is now its chief conductor emeritus. John Storgårds became principal guest conductor of the orchestra in 2003, and took up the chief conductorship of the orchestra in the autumn of 2008, with an initial contract of 4 years.