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Origins

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra performed the first concert of its first subscription season at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 19, 1887 at the Detroit Opera House. The conductor was Rudolph Speil. He was succeeded in subsequent seasons by a variety of conductors until 1900 when Hugo Kalsow was appointed and served until the orchestra ceased operations in 1910.

Then in 1914 ten young Detroit society women each contributed $100 and pledged to find 100 additional subscribers to donate $10 to support the symphony. They organized quickly, hiring Weston Gales, a 27-year-old church organist from Boston, as music director. The orchestra's first concert took place at the old Detroit Opera House on February 26, 1914.

Gales left his position in 1917 and was succeeded the following year by renowned Russian pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch. A friend to composers Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and son-in-law of famed American writer Mark Twain, Gabrilowitsch brought instant credibility to the DSO.

Orchestra Hall - Building an Acoustical Masterpiece 

On April 22, 1919, readers of The Detroit News learned that the old Westminster Presbyterian Church had been purchased by the Detroit Symphony Society.  Then suddenly, the old church was gone.  From the space created by its demolition–and even upon some of its foundations to save time – Orchestra Hall rose to new life in only four months and twenty-three days during that extraordinary summer of 1919.

The Society had offered Ossip Gabrilowitsch, famed Russian pianist and music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, an extension of his contract, but Gabrilowisch agreed to accept the position only on the condition that a concert hall worthy of the orchestra be built.  Designed by noted architect C. Howard Crane, Orchestra Hall celebrated its inaugural concert on October 23, 1919.

As noted in the program for the last concert of the 1918-1919 season:  “The new hall not only fills a demand, but marks a new era in the annals of musical history in Detroit.  It will be the center of Detroit’s musical life.”  And for the next twenty years, Orchestra Hall, the DSO and Gabrilowitsch enjoyed an artistic golden era in which the hall played host to the world’s most famous composers, conductors and performers. But by 1939, three years after Gabrilowitsch’s premature death, wracked by the Great Depression and encumbered with debt, the Orchestra left the Hall for the economy and promise of Masonic Auditorium.

During the early 1920s, the DSO fast became one of the finest and most prominent orchestras in the country. Over the next two decades, the orchestra performed with spectacular guest artists such as Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Marian Anderson, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, Jascha Heifetz, Pablo Casals and others.

In 1922, Gabrilowitsch led the orchestra and guest pianist Artur Schnabel in the world's first radio broadcast of a symphonic concert on WWJ-AM. The DSO performed at New York's Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1928 and, also that year, made their first recording. In 1934, the DSO became the nation's first official radio broadcast orchestra, performing for millions of Americans over the airwaves on the Ford Symphony Hour national radio show until 1942.

Following Gabrilowitsch's death in 1936, the DSO entered into a troubled time in which financial difficulties forced the orchestra to disband twice and move from Orchestra Hall to a succession of three different Detroit venues. The final move, in 1956, was to Ford Auditorium, which remained their home for the next 33 years. By this time, Paul Paray was Music Director and the orchestra was enjoying a golden era in which they had become one of the country's most recorded orchestras, making 70 records over 11 years, many award-winning, for the Mercury label.