The Detroit Symphony Orchestra performed the first concert of its first subscription season at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 19, 1887 at the Detroit Opera House. The conductor was Rudolph Speil. He was succeeded in subsequent seasons by a variety of conductors until 1900 when Hugo Kalsow was appointed and served until the orchestra ceased operations in 1910.
Then in 1914 ten young Detroit society women each contributed $100 and pledged to find 100 additional subscribers to donate $10 to support the symphony. They organized quickly, hiring Weston Gales, a 27-year-old church organist from Boston, as music director. The orchestra's first concert took place at the old Detroit Opera House on February 26, 1914.
Gales left his position in 1917 and was succeeded the following year by renowned Russian pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch. A friend to composers Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff, and son-in-law of famed American writer Mark Twain, Gabrilowitsch brought instant credibility to the DSO. Insisting the orchestra needed a home of its own, Gabrilowitsch oversaw the building of Orchestra Hall, which was designed by noted architect C. Howard Crane. The hall opened on October 23, 1919.
During the early 1920s, the DSO fast became one of the finest and most prominent orchestras in the country. Over the next two decades, the orchestra performed with spectacular guest artists such as Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Marian Anderson, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, Jascha Heifetz, Pablo Casals and others.
In 1922, Gabrilowitsch led the orchestra and guest pianist Artur Schnabel in the world's first radio broadcast of a symphonic concert on WWJ-AM. The DSO performed at New York's Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1928 and, also that year, made their first recording. In 1934, the DSO became the nation's first official radio broadcast orchestra, performing for millions of Americans over the airwaves on the Ford Symphony Hour national radio show until 1942.
Following Gabrilowitsch's death in 1936, the DSO entered into a troubled time in which financial difficulties forced the orchestra to disband twice and move from Orchestra Hall to a succession of three different Detroit venues. The final move, in 1956, was to Ford Auditorium, which remained their home for the next 33 years. By this time, Paul Paray was Music Director and the orchestra was enjoying a golden era in which they had become one of the country's most recorded orchestras, making 70 records over 11 years, many award-winning, for the Mercury label.
Paray stepped down as Music Director in 1963 and was followed by a number of internationally renowned directors including Sixten Ehrling, Aldo Ceccato, Antal Dorati and Günther Herbig. In the 1970s, a group of concerned citizens rallied to save a neglected and run-down Orchestra Hall from the wrecking ball, while the Orchestra continued to perform at Ford Auditorium. Following nearly 14 years of restoration, the DSO moved back into the Hall in 1989. Acclaimed Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi became Music Director in 1990 and added 40 recordings to the DSO’s catalog until his departure at the end of the 2004-05 season.
Esteemed conductor Leonard Slatkin, called "America’s Music Director" by The Los Angeles Times, became the DSO’s 12th Music Director with the 2008-09 season. His international reputation as one of the extraordinary conductors in the world combined with his incredible musicianship and passion for educating young people has brought the DSO into a new era of reinvigorated performance and community engagement.