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The Detroit Symphony Orchestra Leads with Purpose

Legacy Defining Moments in Orchestra Hall's History

Musicians play so beautifully when they're on the Orchestra Hall stage, because everyone can hear each other. You could drop a dime and hear it in the back corner. It's a live, warm sound, and it's gorgeous. ”

Maritza Garibay, Conductor, DSO Detroit Community Orchestra
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Detroit remains a topic of conversation because of its rich and complex history spanning economic eras and a stylish arts scene known for its music—from Motown, to jazz, to techno, and all points in between. 

From the beginning, the people of Detroit and southeast Michigan have been integral in sustaining the belief that a vibrant city requires a first-rate symphony orchestra and a premier concert hall to call its home. Their support has been evident for more than 130 years: from the initial drive to build and support an orchestra in 1887; to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s revitalization in 1914; through the fight to save Orchestra Hall amid the financial struggles and civil unrest of the 1960s and ‘70s; and up to the present day.

Over the years, the DSO has been championed by philanthropists, business leaders, artists, and civic leaders who amplify the appreciation of the symphony as a crucial aspect to civic life. There is a resilient nature among the people of this city that mobilizes a way to make things happen, when odds are stacked—this is Detroit’s superpower.

Despite obstacles and economic challenges, and as is true in Detroit, it’s the people who keep this organization unified and energized to elevate.

Here, we honor DSO legacy makers—those who left their mark on the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and laid the groundwork for their home on 3711 Woodward Avenue to be a Detroit community gathering space that delivers essential musical experiences for all.

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1914: Four years after the dissolution of the DSO’s first iteration and before the orchestra had a permanent performance home, Frances Eliza Sibley, a high society woman who advocated for women’s independence, thought it critical for the city to have a symphony orchestra. Sibley, a direct descendant of Jacques Campau, an officer and secretary to Detroit founder Antoine Cadillac, and nine other women raised thousands of dollars to support the formation of the orchestra as we know it today. With the funds, they appointed Weston Gales as music director and held concerts at the Detroit Opera House. The timing was aligned with the birth of the auto industry and Detroit’s rebirth as one of the top industrial regions in the country.  

Sibley's activism forged a path for the creation of the Women’s Association of the DSO in 1928. The association was instrumental in the symphony’s structure and raised funds for the orchestra by hosting teas, parties, fancy balls, and fashion shows. Among their top responsibilities was selling 1,000 tickets to DSO concerts each year. The women also established and incorporated an endowment fund for the DSO and committed themselves to the “reflowering of musical interest and activity.” By the mid-1980s, the group, along with its junior division (formulated in 1939 to attract younger members) had sustained an endowment that grew close to $500,000. 

In 1989, a new iteration of the association was formed as the DSO Volunteer Council, with the established mission to promote and support the artistic excellence of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, attract community involvement in the orchestra through fundraising projects, education, and audience development.  

1919: For the first time, the orchestra has a place to call their own, and it was built just for them. New music director Ossip Gabrilowitsch’s vision of a permanent home for the DSO resulted in the construction of Orchestra Hall, an acoustically pristine and immaculate concert hall. The effort was supported by patrons of the DSO who raised close to $1 million to fund the project. When you’re in the hall, look up to the ceiling and you’ll see the faces of some of the top investors: lumber baron and DSO president William H. Murphy, as well as automotive giant Horace Dodge and his wife Anna. It was the first concert hall designed by noted theater architect C. Howard Crane, who later designed the Fox Theatre and Detroit Opera House 

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1941-1951: Harlem, New York had the Apollo; Detroit, Michigan had the Paradise Theatre

Robust musicality and jazz are distinctively embedded in Detroit’s artistic DNA, and Orchestra Hall is a vibrant part of its history. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the hall operated as the Paradise Theatre—a performance venue that attracted local and national talent and served as an artistic extension of the Paradise Valley, the epicenter of Black life, business, and entertainment in Detroit.  

After the DSO left Orchestra Hall in 1938 due to financial considerations, the building caught the attention of members from the Paradise Valley Business Association (PVBA): Andrew “Jap” Sneed, owner of 666 Club; Everett Watson, real estate owner and developer; Rollo Vest and Chester Rentie, PR agents and entertainment bookers; and Walter Norwood, partner in a hotel one block east of Paradise Theatre. Because of the discriminatory policies that restricted Black people from owning property outside of a few segregated neighborhoods—including anything on the west side of Woodward Avenue—when the businesspeople tried to buy Orchestra Hall, they were denied. Though undocumented, it’s possible that they formed a side deal with the owners of the Paradise: Ben and Lou Cohen, Jewish brothers and Detroit theater moguls.  

Audiences at the Paradise grooved to headliners from Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington to Sammy Davis Jr. and Cab Calloway. Stage shows featured comedians, dancers, and movies that energized the city’s social scene and set the tone for Detroit as a premiere big-band jazz incubator and cultural destination. The DSO would not return to Orchestra Hall until 1989…and they returned as owners of the building.

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I never felt the kind of excitement in my life that I felt at the Paradise Theatre. ”

Dell Pryor, Detroit gallerist known as the “grand dame” of Detroit’s arts scene

1970: Save Orchestra Hall 

Orchestra Hall was sold to an East Coast food chain, Gino’s Hamburgers, and plans to demolish the building were two weeks away, until Paul Ganson, "the heartbeat of Orchestra Hall” entered the picture.  

Paul Ganson, DSO bassoonist (19692004), founded Save Orchestra Hall Inc., a campaign to preserve and restore the historic Orchestra Hall. A Detroit native, he had been with the orchestra for just a year but had heard DSO recordings with Paul Paray and descriptions of the acoustics of Orchestra Hall in its glory days. Ganson organized performances on the roof and inside the hall, even in its dire state, as a demonstration of how important the music and space were for the city. The movement acquired allies in real estate developer Sam Frankel and other community and business leaders who played important fundraising and leadership roles for Save Orchestra Hall. It also maintained relationships with the Black community resulting in the expansion of classical programming to include presentations of jazz concerts in a Paradise Theatre-like fashion.  

Mobilized and persistent, supporters marched in front of the building with signs that exclaimed, “Detroit Needs Orchestra Hall,” “Save Great Acoustics,” and “Orchestra Hall Lives, if you say so!” Ganson and DSO donors worked with city officials to restore the property, and through Save Orchestra Hall Inc., were able to buy the building. During this time, the DSO and Save Orchestra Hall were two separate entities, but when they merged, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra became owners of the concert hall for the first time in its history.

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1989: Musicians and DSO administration felt a strong need to return to Orchestra Hall. Board chairs Robert “Steve” Miller and Alfred Glancy III played significant roles in restoring the institution’s financial health and aiding in the transition back to the orchestra’s home on Woodward Avenue.  

The DSO returned to Orchestra Hall in September after performing at Ford Auditorium for 33 years; a true relief for patrons, donors, and musicians. Though conditions were rough in and around the hall, the high-quality sound and musicality the DSO had been known to produce kept audiences excited and supportive.  

“There was an incredible feeling at those concerts. Many local music lovers had caught on to Orchestra Hall. The Friday series at the hall distilled a subscriber base of the area’s most discerning listeners, those who loved music and were willing to put up with inconvenience to hearing it at its best. A typical comment would be: ‘I would never go back to Ford Auditorium now that I know what you really sound like.’” –Haden McCay, DSO Cello 

A new era for the DSO was launched and celebrated with a Homecoming Festival that stretched over two weeks.  

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2003:  Welcome to the Max. M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center

Max Fisher’s message: THINK BIGGER. This was the fuel that motivated his son-in-law Peter Cummings and former DSO Executive Director Mark Volpe to return to the drawing board and expand their vision for Orchestra Hall. The goal was to not only present music, but also to make an impact in Detroit, which had decreased in population due to decline in industrial activity. The city needed revitalization. With a plan that started in 1994, Cummings presented a revamped design that ultimately transformed 3711 Woodward Avenue into the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, the modern performing arts and music education center enjoyed today. He coined the phrase: people, place, and purpose as a conceptual compass to the synergy that surrounds The Max, and the Peter D. and Julie F. Cummings Cube—the DSO’s black-box performance venue designed to be accessible and relevant to communities the DSO serves through curated arts programming that spans musical genres.  

The evolution of Orchestra Hall and its expansion to a multidisciplinary arts, music, and education complex came full circle when Peter Cummings was honored at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s 2023 Heroes Gala, held at The Max in June.

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This is a really unique place. When people come into the William Davidson Atrium for the first time, I think they're floored by it. You can walk around the sides. Then, from above the different floors, look down at it. It's truly inviting. One of the things I always love to see, mostly when we play on a Sunday afternoon in the hall, is families coming in with kids. That's fantastic. ”

Stephen Molina, DSO Assistant Principal Bass, 1976- Present

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