St. Louis Symphony Orchestra History


The Grammy Award-winning St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, led by Music Director Stéphane Denève, is one of the world's preeminent orchestras, celebrated for its warm and engaging sound, prolific and acclaimed recording history, national and international touring activities, and distinctive commitment to educational and community outreach efforts. Now in its 143rd season, the current artistic leadership at the SLSO includes Music Director Stéphane Denève, Assistant Conductor Stephanie Childress, Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin, and IN UNISON Chorus Director Kevin McBeth. The SLSO has been led by President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard since 2015.

SLSO's origins

The nation's second-oldest orchestra, the SLSO traces its roots to 1880 with the founding of the St. Louis Choral Society by Joseph Otten, recognized as the SLSO's first Music Director. The St. Louis Symphony Society was formed ten years later when, in the spring of 1890, the St. Louis Choral Society absorbed the St. Louis Musical Union, a small symphonic group that was organized in 1881 by August Waldauer. Upon consolidation of these two groups, the name of the Choral Society was changed to St. Louis Choral-Symphony Society. In 1907, when Max Zach assumed the leadership of the orchestra, it became known as the St. Louis Symphony Society. Shortly after this change, musicians were first hired for a 20-week regular season. 

The SLSO has performed in five buildings since its founding in 1880: the first concerts took place in the Mercantile Library Hall; the St. Louis Grand Exposition Hall, at Olive and Thirteenth Streets, was its second home; near the turn of the century, the Odeon at Grand and Finney; and in 1934 the orchestra moved to Kiel Auditorium. In 1968, it moved to its first permanent home, Powell Hall in Grand Center, the current home of the orchestra. 

Over its 140-year-plus history, the SLSO has had 13 Music Directors. They include Joseph Otten (1880-1894), Alfred Ernst (1894-1907), Max Zach (1907-1921), Rudolph Ganz (1921-1927), Vladimir Golschmann (1931-1958), Eduard van Remoortel (1958-1962), Eleazar de Carvalho (1963-1968), Walter Susskind (1968-1975), Jerzy Semkow (1975-1979), Leonard Slatkin (1979-1996), Hans Vonk (1996-2002), David Robertson (2005-2018), and Stéphane Denève (2019-present). 

The SLSO Family

The SLSO family includes two resident choruses. Formed in the 1976/1977 season, the St. Louis Symphony Chorus is an audition-only, professional-level choral ensemble made up mostly of volunteers from the St. Louis region. Appearing with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra several times each season, the Chorus performs advanced repertoire from the entire classical canon. Recognized for its artistic excellence, the chorus has performed at Carnegie Hall to critical acclaim. The St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus is an all-volunteer, 120+-voice auditioned ensemble that performs a variety of musical styles, with a focus on the interpretation, performance, and preservation of Black American musical expression. Founded in 1994 by Robert Ray, the chorus performs with the SLSO annually at its Gospel Christmas and Lift Every Voice: Black History Month Celebration concerts, as well as at its free community concert and throughout the community. The chorus is under the direction of Kevin McBeth, who has led the IN UNISON Chorus Director since 2011.

Another key member of the SLSO family is the 52-year-old St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, a musical training ground for talented student musicians. Founded in 1970 by then-Assistant Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin, the Youth Orchestra presents three free concerts each season under the direction of Stephanie Childress, the Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. Recognized for its superb artistry, the Youth Orchestra performs professional-level repertoire and is composed of students from dozens of schools who travel from a 150-mile radius to play in the ensemble.

The entire organization is served by a dedicated group of volunteers. Over the past almost 100 years, the St. Louis Symphony Volunteer Association has actively supported the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a variety of ways, from unique education programs including Picture the Music/Express the Music and the Instrument Playground, to welcoming concertgoers, fundraising projects, and more. Originally founded in 1923 as The Women's Committee of the Saint Louis Symphony Society, the SVA currently has more than 130 active members whose efforts champion the mission of the SLSO: enriching lives through the power of music.

Education Commitment

Committed to nurturing the next generation of musicians and supporting music educators, the SLSO began concerts for schoolchildren in 1921 under Music Director Rudolph Ganz, one of the first orchestras to institute an education program in the country. Since then, inviting students to hear live music has been a cornerstone of the SLSO portfolio, emphasizing musical outreach across all age levels from Pre-K students to college level young musicians. In addition to inviting students to hear live orchestral performances through education concerts, SLSO musicians perform dozens of times each year at schools across the region and provide mentorship to young musicians.

As the SLSO marked 100 years of its commitment to music education, it has sharpened its focus on serving students and teachers through a robust library of resources, including an increasing portfolio of digital programs that reached more than 200,000 students and teachers in every state and on six continents in the 2021/2022 season.

America's Orchestra

Celebrated for its long and distinguished recording history dating back to Music Director Vladimir Golschmann's recordings made for the RCA Victor Red Seal label in the 1930s, the SLSO has made more than 100 recordings of much of the core classical repertoire. A revolutionary agreement in the 1980s gave the SLSO the largest recording commitment for an orchestra up until then, with RCA Records committing to 30 discs with the orchestra. The SLSO's recording profile has resulted in 60 Grammy Award nominations and nine wins, including wins for Best Classical Orchestral Recording in 1985 for Sergei Prokofiev's Symphony No. 5, conducted by Leonard Slatkin, and Best Orchestral Performance in 2015 for John Adams' City Noir, conducted by David Robertson. An eight-CD set of live recordings of Music Director Hans Vonk with the SLSO at Powell Hall received the Eddy Award in the Netherlands—the Dutch equivalent to a Grammy Award.

Situated in America's heartland, the SLSO has become known as a leading American orchestra, regularly recording works by American composers, including John Adams, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Wynton Marsalis, and Samuel Barber—a recording of whose Piano Concerto the SLSO and soloist John Browning won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Performance-Instrumental. When Leonard Slatkin became as Music Director in 1979, the orchestra's creative direction was further sharpened on American repertoire, while still maintaining a sterling reputation as a standard-bearer for European repertoire. In 1982, Time Magazine called the SLSO the second-best orchestra in the country. That commitment to America's Musical Spirit led to the creation of a composer-in-residence position at the SLSO, with influential American composers including Joseph Schwantner, Joan Tower, Donald Erb, Donal Fox, and Claude Baker creating new American works for the SLSO. The orchestra became known as the world's foremost proponent of contemporary American music.  

Aside from its vast touring portfolio to communities large and small throughout the Midwest, the SLSO has regularly toured nationally and internationally to critical acclaim. The orchestra's first performance in Carnegie Hall was in 1950. Regular performances at that venue have charmed critics and audiences alike ever since. Most recently, the SLSO performed John Adams' The Gospel According to the Other Mary at Carnegie Hall as part of the composer's 70th birthday celebration. International tours began in 1978 with the first European tour, including three concerts at the Athens Festival. In the more than 40 years since that first tour, the SLSO has given concerts in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

The SLSO places a high value on the music of today and tomorrow, introducing dozens of works into the repertoire through commissions and co-commissions. The emphasis on today's music is realized through a number of initiatives. The SLSO regularly commissions new works by talented composers of today, most recently including John Adams, Jeff Beal, Aaron Jay Kernis, Kevin Puts, and Christopher Rouse. The innovative St. Louis Symphony: Live at the Pulitzer Series, started in 2004, is an endeavor to identify and perform impactful chamber music works from the 20th and 21st century. Now in its second decade of concerts, performances take place in the intimate Tadao Ando-designed Pulitzer Arts Foundation building, with music programmed to connect with the current art exhibitions. The SLSO also nurtures young regional composers through a unique partnership with the Mizzou New Music Initiative, which gives young composers the opportunity to have their works performed by the SLSO. In 2022, the SLSO furthered its commitment to American composers with the start of an annual Composer Workshop, a multi-day immersive residency for composers pursuing post-graduate studies that includes performances by the SLSO and guidance from an annually appointed workshop mentor.

St. Louis Proud

A cultural pillar of St. Louis, the SLSO has a proud history of performing free concerts in the community. A tradition first begun in 1968, the SLSO welcomes thousands of people each September for a free concert on Forest Park's Art Hill, performed in memory of longtime supporter Mary Ann Lee. Also in 1968, the SLSO performed a free memorial concert following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Following the catastrophic flood of 1993, the SLSO played a free benefit concert for flood victims. When its 1991 tour of Europe was postponed due to the first Gulf War, the SLSO toured Missouri, giving free concerts under the theme "America's Musical Spirit." The SLSO also has performed under the Gateway Arch as part of Fair Saint Louis on several occasions. SLSO musicians have given free community concerts at its home in Powell Hall, including: EXTRA CREDIT—a biennial concert in partnership with area music educators; Joining Forces—a biennial concert in partnership with area military bands; and Equal Play—a yearly chamber concert celebrating women composers. Continuing that longstanding tradition of community engagement, SLSO musicians provide dozens of memorable musical experiences for free in public spaces, places of worship, healthcare centers, and cultural attractions including Forest Park's Jewel Box, the St. Louis Central Library, and the Missouri History Museum each season.

The SLSO is a proud member of the St. Louis community, regularly collaborating with many of the region's great institutions. Broadcast partnerships include those with St. Louis Public Radio and Classic 107.3, which broadcast the SLSO's Saturday night concerts live. Other recent collaborations include those with The Magic House, Forest Park Forever, Jazz St. Louis, the Saint Louis Zoo, The Muny, the St. Louis Childrens' Choirs, the Missouri History Museum, L.I.F.E. Arts, COCA-Center of Creative Arts, The Black Rep, Webster University, the University of Missouri—St. Louis, Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, Circus Flora, Tower Grove Park, St. Louis County Library District, Saint Louis Science Center, Missouri Botanical Garden, the Endangered Wolf Center, Japanese American Citizens League, Gateway Music Outreach, and the International Institute of St. Louis.

An orchestra for everyone, the SLSO redefined the scope of its mission with the creation of the IN UNISON program in 1992, supported since then by Bayer Fund. A revolutionary program designed to embrace the entire region, IN UNISON began with a partnership between the SLSO and African-American churches where musicians performed in houses of worship at no cost. In fall 1994, the IN UNISON Chorus formed and quickly became a permanent fixture in the SLSO family and the first resident chorus in the country to specialize in the performance and preservation of Black American musical expression. The IN UNISON program has become a flourishing, multi-faceted program that includes not only the initial church partnerships and chorus, but also the IN UNISON Academy—a support arm of IN UNISON dedicated to assisting young musicians achieve their musical, academic, and career aspirations.

The SLSO welcomes audiences where they are. That inclusive philosophy has resulted in fruitful media partnership that engage the community with SLSO performances. Additionally, the SLSO introduced the wide-ranging SLSO Invites initiative in 2019, created by Music Director Stéphane Denève. The initiative welcomes partner groups to Stéphane's Seats at each of Denève's concerts at no cost. SLSO Invites also introduces a more inclusive pricing structure and welcomes students and first responders at reduced rates. In 2021, the SLSO introduced Digital Concerts to its portfolio, breaking geographic and accessibility boundaries with high-definition digital performances available through the orchestra's website.

Today's SLSO

Now, the SLSO performs a 43-week season from September through June—about 120 concerts at its home in historic Powell Hall and dozens of additional performances throughout the St. Louis region each season.

The SLSO continues to reach audiences through its varied concert opportunities. The institution prides itself on the versatility of the orchestra, which performs a wide range of music from the Baroque era to music of today and popular and film music. A flourishing partnership for 45 years, the orchestra also serves as the resident orchestra of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, regularly introducing new music to the opera repertoire.

As the SLSO looks to the future, a renovation and 65,000-square-foot expansion of the orchestra's historic home, Powell Hall, will enhance the audience experience and facilitate greater engagement with the St. Louis community. With expected groundbreaking in 2023, the renovation and expansion will position the SLSO for the future, preserving the legacy of the second oldest orchestra in the country while opening new doors to the future.

The SLSO is always in season online. Follow the SLSO on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. SLSOStories.org, the orchestra's digital magazine, presents stories about the SLSO in Powell Hall, backstage, and in the community.