Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Detroit Symphony Orchestra

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is the fourth oldest symphonic organization in North America. On December 19, 1887, the DSO began its first subscription season. The program, presented at the Detroit Opera House, consisted of Lindpaintner’s Overture to Goethe’s Faust, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, Gottschalk’s Last Hope and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. The Symphony in this iteration continued through 1910 when financial difficulties temporarily halted concerts. Four years later, ten prominent Detroit women raised the money to hire young organist and conductor Weston Gales, and the Orchestra returned on February 26, 1914 to the Detroit Opera House.

The Orchestra quickly rose to prominence after the 1917 appointment of Ossip Gabrilowitsch. The famed Russian pianist counted among his friends Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff. His prominence in the field and personal connections helped the DSO attract preeminent performers like Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, and Rachmaninoff. Furthering the national reputation of the orchestra, the DSO performed the world’s first radio broadcast of a live symphony in 1922 in partnership with WWJ-AM.

Upon his hiring, one of Gabrilowitsch’s conditions was that a proper venue be built for performances. Famed Detroit architect Howard Crane designed the building, construction began in the summer of 1919, and four months later the acoustical marvel Orchestra Hall was ready. The inaugural concert took place on October 23, and the DSO remained in its Woodward Avenue home until 1939, when concerts were moved to Masonic Auditorium. The Symphony later settled at the Ford Auditorium in 1956, before returning to Orchestra Hall in 1989.

The DSO has had seventeen music directors or principal conductors. Notable among them are Paul Paray, Antal Dorati and Neeme Jarvi. Paray, a master of French repertoire, revived the organization after World War II with a series of recordings for Mercury Records that remain highly respected. Dorati elevated the orchestra to world class status with a European tour and the first Grand Prix du Disque awarded to a Compact Disc – a spectacular recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Järvi further enhanced the DSO’s profile with tours, community outreach, and award winning recordings of unsung American repertoire.

Despite artistic successes, the DSO is still vulnerable to the larger economic forces facing Detroit. During the 2010 and 2011 seasons, in the midst of a serious recession, the orchestra’s musicians went on strike in response to management demands for a 33% wage cut, along with other changes. The difficulties of the strike as well as the new contract led to significant turnover among musicians.

Under current music director Leonard Slatkin, the orchestra is again gaining national attention. With the opening of the Max M. Fisher Music Center in 2003 (today the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center), adjacent to Orchestra Hall, the DSO now boasts a world class facility for performance, rehearsal, recording and events. In harmony with this complex, the DSO has partnered with the neighboring Detroit School of Arts and WRCJ-FM 90.9, Detroit’s classical and jazz radio station, and are once again offering live broadcast performances to audiences around the globe.

Developed by Jordan Lawrence. Edited by Joel Stone.

For more history of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra refer to the article written by Paul Ganson in the Grove Dictionary of American Music, published in 2013 by the Oxford University Press.