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Remembering Paul Ganson

The Heartbeat of Orchestra Hall

The beginning of it all is Paul. ”

Peter Cummings, DSO Chairman Emeritus

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is grief-stricken to learn of the death of former Assistant Principal Bassoon and Director Emeritus Paul Ganson. Paul’s extraordinary impact on the DSO cannot be overstated—he stands with Ossip Gabrilowitsch and very few others as a giant in the history of our orchestra.

We literally would not be where we are today without Paul. In 1970, just one year after winning his audition, Paul joined a small circle of Orchestra Hall champions and quickly took the reins of the effort to rescue our historic home from the wrecking ball, forming Save Orchestra Hall. For the next 20 years he worked tirelessly to promote and raise funds for the preservation and restoration of Orchestra Hall. Paul’s efforts led to the hall’s addition to the National Register of Historic Places, the DSO’s return in 1989, the Orchestra Place development, and the creation of the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center in 2003.

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Assistant Principal Bass Stephen Molina remembers Paul as “a kind and respectful colleague who pursued great performances on stage with his DSO colleagues. He had an inner drive and belief that the citizens of Detroit and the State of Michigan deserved the finest orchestra in the country and worked towards that throughout his career.”

After retiring from his orchestra post in 2004, Paul continued to serve as the DSO’s unofficial historian, co-authoring the book The Detroit Symphony Orchestra – Grace, Grit, and Glory, released in 2016 by Wayne State University Press. During Orchestra Hall’s centennial celebration, we were so pleased to able to welcome Paul back and feature his voice in Destiny as well as the documentary on Detroit Public Television, the exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum, and to have him join us at the anniversary concert on October 23, 2019. See below for excerpts from Destiny that feature more about Paul and his remarkable contributions to the DSO.

In the preface to Grace, Grit, and Glory, Paul wrote of the DSO that “there lives an inextinguishable musical pulse that survives when every other reason for establishing and promoting an orchestra succumbs to the ceaseless ebb and flow of human caprice.” Paul will be greatly missed, but we take solace knowing that his memory and all that he accomplished on behalf of the DSO and Orchestra Hall reside within that inextinguishable pulse.

Our condolences go out to Paul’s wife Astrid and his entire family. Once we are all back together, we will share plans to truly celebrate Paul’s legacy. In the meantime, if you would like to share a remembrance of Paul, please email stories@dso.org.

Excerpts from Destiny: 100 Years of Music, Magic, and Community at Orchestra Hall in Detroit, by Mark Stryker:

By 1970, Orchestra Hall had sat abandoned and rotting for nearly 15 years and was slated for demolition to make way for a chain restaurant. When it was on the literal brink of being bulldozed, a young DSO bassoonist named Paul Ganson organized Save Orchestra Hall. The group bought the building, launching what turned out to be one of the first successful historical architecture rescue missions in a city steeped in the auto industry psychology of planned obsolescence. 

Ganson had spent the 1960s working his way up the orchestral ladder. He took a circuitous route into the field. He was born in Detroit and majored in English literature at the University of Michigan, where he wrote a senior thesis on John Keats. But Ganson had also studied the bassoon since he was 13, and when he took a post-graduate fellowship at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he took along his instrument for kicks. When he happened to win an audition for the City of Belfast Orchestra, the tail of his hobby began wagging the dog of his career. He returned home and won the principal bassoon job at the Toledo Symphony. He later moved to the Dallas Symphony for three seasons before winning his post in Detroit. 

Ganson knew of Orchestra Hall’s reputation for first-rate acoustics, partly from talking to musicians and patrons who experienced the hall firsthand and partly because he knew the sound of the Paray-DSO recordings and had always been charmed by the liner notes that said they had been made in “old Orchestra Hall.” In the spring of 1970, a small circle of Orchestra Hall champions formed, among them DSO musicians Robert Pangborn (percussion) and Mario Di Fiore (cello), and Dick Magon, the leasing director, who saw Orchestra Hall as a key to stabilizing the neighborhood.

Pangborn suggested calling a new guy in the orchestra named Ganson, who seemed like a go-getter. “Paul had such enthusiasm,” Pangborn told the Detroit Free Press in 2003. “He speaks so well, he was bright, young, knew a lot about Orchestra Hall and the history of the city and could organize.”

Ganson walked through Orchestra Hall for the first time in late summer 1970. Plaster had fallen off the walls, the roof leaked, the seats were destroyed, the draperies were rotted, there was standing water everywhere, and there were live birds in the balcony and dead rodents in the aisles. He was both horrified at what he saw but also intrigued by the possibilities. “There was a spirit to the building,” he said.

The DSO launched a new era with a Homecoming Festival that stretched over two weeks in September 1989 … with performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3:

Paul Ganson, the man who more than anyone else was responsible for the survival of Orchestra Hall, was on stage in his familiar seat in the bassoon section for those Mahler concerts. The composer’s heroic Third Symphony offers a meditation on all of creation, from the primordial shifting of tectonic plates, to the birth of the natural world, and the emergency of animals, man, and angels. The sixth and final movement concerns the transcendence of divine love. As he readied himself on stage, Ganson thought of Mahler and his friend Ossip Gabrilowitsch, the father of Orchestra Hall. Ganson’s agile mind connected the dots between the theme of the final movement of the Third Symphony and the charming way Gabrilowitsch would correct mispronunciations of his name: “Gabril-LOVE-itsch, with the emphasis on love.”

What did it feel like to be onstage that first night back at Orchestra Hall? “I felt great joy as we played that night,” remembered Ganson. “Overwhelming joy.”