History of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra


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 141st season, the SLSO builds on the institution's current momentum on all fronts, including artistic, financial, audience growth, and community impact, as it begins this new era with Denève.

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.

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. Additionally, the SLSO boasts 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 chorus is directed by Amy Kaiser, who celebrates her 25th season leading the ensemble in 2020. 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 the music of African-American and African cultures. 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.

Another key member of the SLSO family is the now 50-year-old St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, a musical training ground for talented student musicians. Founded in 1970 by SLSO Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin, the Youth Orchestra presents three free concerts each season under the direction of its Music Director. Recognized for its superb artistry, the Youth Orchestra performs professional-level repertoire and is composed of students from more than 35 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 exciting volunteer opportunities, 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.

Committed to nurturing the next generation of musicians, 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. In addition to inviting students to hear live orchestral performances through education concerts, SLSO musicians perform dozens of times per year at schools across the region, exposing students to classical music, many for the first time. In 2018, the SLSO launched its College Connections program to create bridges between area middle and high school music students and post-secondary educational opportunities. In 2021, the SLSO will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first SLSO education concerts. The orchestra also provides training to music educators year-round and a peer-to-peer mentorship program for younger musicians and members of the Youth 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 assiduous recording profile has resulted in 60 Grammy Award nominations and nine wins, including wins for Best Classical Orchestral Recording in 1985 for 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. Recent recordings include collaborations with pianists Kirill Gerstein and Orli Shaham, and violinist Leila Josefowicz.

Situated in America's heartland, the SLSO has become known as the quintessential American orchestra, regularly recording works by American composers, including John Adams, Copland, Ives, William Bolcom, Gershwin, Bernstein, and 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.

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. Continuing that longstanding tradition of community engagement, SLSO musicians provide dozens of memorable musical experiences for free at area churches, healthcare centers, and cultural attractions including Forest Park's Jewel Box, the St. Louis Central Library, and the Missouri History Museum each season. More than 90 percent of the orchestra's musicians participate in the SLSO's community and education outreach initiatives.

The SLSO is a proud member of the St. Louis community, regularly collaborating with many of the region's great institutions. The orchestra serves as the resident orchestra of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, a relationship now in its 44th year as of spring 2021. It also hosts a yearly National Anthem contest with the Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues hockey club. Broadcast partnerships include those with St. Louis Public Radio and the Nine Network of Public Media. Other recent collaborations include those with The Magic House, 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, and the Saint Louis Science Center.

An orchestra for everyone, the SLSO redefined the scope of its mission with the creation of the IN UNISON program in the early 1990s, 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 the fall of 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 preservation and performance of music with African and African-American origins. 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 and academic aspirations.

The SLSO welcomes audiences where they are. That inclusive philosophy has resulted in weekly broadcasts of Saturday night concerts for 10 years on St. Louis Public Radio and a monthly television program that airs on the Nine Network. 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, as well as providing a block of tickets open to more community partners, also at no cost. SLSO Invites also introduces a more inclusive pricing structure and welcomes students and first responders at reduced rates. Additionally, the SLSO makes music resources available online at no cost through a variety of platforms: activities accessible online; stories, videos, and photos through SLSO Stories, the digital magazine of the orchestra; video performances, interviews, and stories through YouTube; and exclusive content through social media.

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.

The SLSO continues to reach new audiences through its main series: Classical; Live at Powell Hall, which presents film scores and special performances with exciting guest artists; Holidays at Powell, which offers heartwarming musical experiences from Thanksgiving through the popular New Year's Eve concert; Family Concerts; Education Concerts; St. Louis Symphony: Live at the Pulitzer concerts; Summer at the Symphony; and SLSO Crafted, an innovative series introduced in 2019 that keeps the spirit of classical concerts in a casual atmosphere with food, drinks, and conversation, inspired by Music Director Stéphane Denève.

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 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 current artistic leadership at the SLSO includes Music Director Stéphane Denève, Conductor Laureate Leonard Slatkin, St. Louis Symphony Chorus Director Amy Kaiser, and IN UNISON Chorus Director Kevin McBeth. The SLSO has been led by President and CEO Marie-Hélène Bernard since 2015.