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ORCHESTRA HISTORY

Did you know? Orchestra Hall was completed in 1919 at the demand of then-Music Director, famed Russian pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch. The build took just four months from start to finish.


Starting America's Fourth Oldest Orchestra

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.


From Orchestra Hall...back to Orchestra Hall

   

Building Orchestra Hall


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.

The Roaring '20s & beyond


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..
 

The Paradise: Detroit's Apollo Theatre


After the Detroit Symphony Orchestra left Orchestra Hall in 1939, the stage was empty for two years, until Christmas Eve 1941, when new owners Ben and Lou Cohen reopened Orchestra Hall as the Paradise Theatre. The very place that Detroit audiences once went to hear Prokofiev, Gershwin and Horowitz began featuring contemporary talent such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Pearl Bailey.

The theater’s name was taken from Paradise Valley, the area just east of Woodward Avenue, home to a large percentage of Detroit’s African-American community and to the principal black entertainment district at St. Antoine and Adams streets. The Paradise became a celebrated club, offering the best in jazz, bebop and blues. The theatre was as important to Detroit as the Apollo Theatre was to Harlem.

This golden era came to a close in 1951 when The Paradise closed, another casualty of the waning big band era.  Today, the memory of the Paradise Theatre lives on through the Paradise Jazz Series and other jazz programs, which continue Orchestra Hall’s distinguished tradition of featuring the best jazz musicians from around the world.  The Paradize Jazz Series is currently led by Terence Blanchard, the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Jazz Creative Director Chair. 

A Temporary Home, A Growing Reputation


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.  In 1951 Detroit’s leading corporations each pledged $10,000, paving the way for the DSO to resume operations in celebration of the city’s 250th anniversary. Five years later, the DSO moved into its new riverfront home at Ford Auditorium.  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. Beyond the concert hall, the DSO’s signature sound could be heard in the backgrounds of dozens of Motown hits. Paray stepped down as Music Director in 1963 and was followed by a number of internationally renowned directors including Sixten Ehrling, Aldo Ceccato, Antal Dorati and Günther Herbig. .  

Saving and Restoring Orchestra Hall


Once an acoustical legend, Orchestra Hall fell into disrepair after the Paradise Theatre closed.  By 1970, the building was slowly but surely becoming a ruin—peeling paint, cracked and crumbling plaster, rotting carpet and draperies.  Few gave much hope that the hall could be saved.  When word came that this once venerable concert hall was headed for the wrecking ball so the lot could be used for a new department store, local citizens led by former DSO bassoonist (and current Trustee) Paul Ganson rallied to save the great concert hall. Following a series of marches and sidewalk benefit performances, musicians and friends of the DSO succeeded in saving Orchestra Hall from demolition.

The task of saving Orchestra Hall was anything but an overnight success.  With months of work, millions of dollars and the help of hundreds of skilled crafts persons, the hall underwent a major restoration and renovation. The replacement of decorative plasterwork required the reproduction of hundreds of delicate designs in many sizes, some of which, while appearing the same in all respects were actually configured differently for the left and right sides of the Hall. Additionally, the building’s exquisite architectural details and decorative painting were replicated.

Old photos and historical documents were studied and C. Howard Crane’s original notes and sketches were consulted in an effort to maintain the building’s integrity. Finally after 20 years of restoration, the expense of $6.8 million and thousands of donated hours, the DSO triumphantly moved back into its historic home in 1989.  On opening night, Yo-Yo Ma joined the DSO in front of a sold-out crowd. 

One year later, the DSO back in its home, acclaimed and jovial Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi began a fifteen year partnership with the orchestra. Maestro Järvi and the DSO made more than 40 recordings in their fifteen years together, embarked on multiple tours to Europe and Asia, and garnered acclaim from packed audiences and critics worldwide. .
 

A New Era: The Max M. Fisher Music Center


The Detroit Symphony Orchestra entered a new era on October 11, 2003 with the opening of The Max M. Fisher Music Center. “The Max” became a new music center complex combining the restored and modernized Orchestra Hall (the Orchestra's home once again since 1989) and a 135,000-square-foot facility that includes The Music Box  (a 450-seat second performance hall with variable configurations), the Jacob Bernard Pincus Music Education Center (which supports the DSO’s Civic Youth Ensembles and other educational activities), and additional performance, backstage, administrative, and rental spaces.

Directly behind The Max is the Detroit School of Arts, completed in 2005. This magnet public high school and broadcast technology complex also features the home of WRCJ 90.9 FM, Detroit’s classical and jazz music station managed by Detroit Public Television.

The opening of The Max sparked the development of Woodward Avenue and Detroit's Midtown neighborhood that continues today.  New commercial, residential, educational and cultural facilities are opening all around The Max at a pace unrivaled in modern Detroit history.

As The Max ushered in a new era, it also marked the end of another: acclaimed and jovial Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, Music Director of the DSO since 1990, stepped down from his post at the end of 2005. Esteemed conductor Leonard Slatkin, called "America’s Music Director" by The Los Angeles Times, became the DSO’s 12th Music Director in 2008 and conductor, trumpeter, and arranger Jeff Tyzik was appointed Principal Pops Conductor in 2012.

While the DSO's home remains at The Max and in Orchestra Hall, its commitment to accessibility brings it to venues all across southeast Michigan through its Neighborhood Residency Initiative and to music lovers worldwide via the free Live from Orchestra Hall webcast series at dso.org/live, the only such offering by any orchestra on the planet.  .
 

DSO Music Directors and Principal Conductors

  • Leonard Slatkin
    (2008 - present)

    Internationally renowned conductor Leonard Slatkin began his tenure as Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2008. In addition, Maestro Slatkin is the Music Director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, a position he has held since 2011. He is highly regarded for his historic leadership of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1996 and his tenure as Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra from 1996 to 2008. He has also served as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and held Principal Guest Conductor positions with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Philharmonia Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

    Neeme Jarvi
    (1991 - 2005)

    Upon the orchestra's return to Orchestra Hall in 1989, Järvi was charged with breathing new life into the DSO. He responded with alacrity and classical concert subscriptions doubled while broadcast syndication nearly tripled. Additionally, Järvi's highly praised CDs with the DSO and sold-out performances confirmed the opinions of international music critics, fellow musicians and audience members who considered him one of the most inspired conductors of his generation.

    Günther Herbig
    (1984 - 1990)

    Highly acclaimed in his early years, Günther Herbig continued Dorati's orchestra tours of the East Coast, recorded for RCA and resumed the DSO's coast-to-coast radio broadcasts. Perhaps his finest hour came in 1989 when, on a European tour of 14 cities, the orchestra was praised in all quarters for its sterling performances.

  • Antal Dorati
    (1977 - 1981)

    Antal Dorati was a regal, Hungarian-born American with an international reputation and a fiery personal style. Under his strengthening influence, the Orchestra began recording again with resounding success. Dorati's DSO recording of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was the first CD to win the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque. In 1979, Dorati took the DSO on its first European tour, garnering rave reviews and standing ovations along the way. He resigned in 1980 and became conductor laureate.

    Aldo Ceccato
    (1973 - 1977)

    Amid much fanfare, Aldo Ceccato succeeded Ehrling who left to become head of the orchestral department at The Juilliard School in New York. A young, glamorous Italian (and son-in-law-to-be of Victor de Sabata, one of the first to conduct the Orchestra upon its revival in 1952), his tenure was short-lived, but included the introduction of some 46 new works to the DSO.

    Sixten Erhling
    (1963 - 1973)

    A native of Sweden, multi-talented Sixten Erhling was saddled with the unenviable task of replacing the greatly respected Paray. He was a workhorse who conducted 722 concerts, the most by a DSO music director. Known for his expansive repertoire, he led the Orchestra through a period of enterprising and ambitious music-making, giving 24 world premieres and playing a total of 664 compositions.

  • Paul Paray
    (1951 - 1962)

    After two years of symphonic silence (1949-51), John B. Ford brought Paul Paray to Detroit to lead the orchestra's resurgence. Acclaimed in his native France, Paray proved to be the perfect choice as music director. Before long, the orchestra was back in the recording studio (which, ironically, was mainly Orchestra Hall, still prized for its remarkable sound), producing award-winning work for Mercury Records. The national radio broadcasts also resumed and a full slate of concerts was scheduled. In 1956, Paray took the DSO from Masonic Auditorium to Ford Auditorium – its new home.

    Karl Krueger
    (1944 - 1949)

    Wealthy DSO patron Henry Reichhold, who had personally resurrected the Orchestra after it briefly disbanded, installed Karl Krueger in 1944. Krueger, former assistant conductor of the Vienna State Opera, guided the DSO through its years in the Music Hall (the old Wilson Theater). Bickering between the "Old Guard" patrons and Reichhold marked Krueger's controversial, though largely successful tenure. Eventually overcome by "office politics," both Reichhold and Kruegar quit and the DSO disbanded again.

    Victor Kolar
    (1940 - 1942)

    As Gabrilowitsch's associate conductor, Victor Kolar was in the celebrated maestro's shadow for years. Still, his contributions were notable, particularly the plan he implemented for free concerts and symphony broadcasts for Michigan school children and his early recordings with the DSO.

  • Franco Ghlone
    (1936 - 1940)

    The colorful Franco Ghione came from an operatic background. Working with the major disadvantage of a language barrier (he didn't speak English), he would often explode in frustration when he was misunderstood during rehearsals. Ghione resigned in 1940 and returned to Italy.

    Ossip Gabrilowitsch
    (1918 - 1936)

    Ossip Gabrilowitsch was an internationally known Russian pianist whose presence gave the DSO instant credibility. Additionally, he inspired the construction of Orchestra Hall just as quickly. The building was erected in four months and 23 days after Gabrilowitsch threatened to quit unless he and his musicians had a permanent home. A friend to Mahler and Rachmaninoff, and son-in-law of Mark Twain, Gabrilowitsch himself possessed greatness.

    Weston Gales
    (1914 - 1917)

    Weston Gales was a 27 year-old church organist from Boston who had conducted in Europe. He was invited by Miss Frances Sibley, of a prominent Detroit family, to be the first full-time conductor of Detroit's modest municipal orchestra. Sibley and 10 young women from Detroit society families had each contributed $100 and pledged to find 100 subscribers in order to support their ambitious undertaking. Gales' first concert took place at 4 p.m., February 26, 1914, at the old Detroit Opera House. Not many would have guessed that this concert was a milestone in Detroit's tradition of supporting fine music, or that Detroit itself would soon shake the world with the mass production of the automobile.

  • Hugo Kalsow
    (1900 - 1910)

    Hugo Kalsow was trained as a violinist, composer and director.  He took over as director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at age 22 when he returned from formal studies at the Dresden Conservatory in Germany.  Son of the DSO’s first manager, Fritz Kalsow, Hugo Kalsow conducted the DSO for 10 years.

    G. Arthur Depew
    (1896 - 1899)

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    Johann H. Beck
    (1895 - 1896)

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  • Wilhelm Yunck
    (1894 - 1895)

    Rudolph Speil
    (1887 - 1894)

    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.

    .