Oregon Symphony: A Brief History
Early historical records indicate that Portland’s first symphonic concert took place at Oro Fino Hall, June 15, 1866, just 21 years after the city’s founding. Ensuing years brought more concerts and several attempts to establish an orchestra; by 1875, the first orchestral society was formed, followed by others over the next two decades. It was not until 1896 that the Portland Symphony Society was founded -- the first orchestra in the West, and one of only seven major orchestras established in America before 1900. W.H. Kinross conducted the inaugural concert at the Marquam Grand Theatre on October 30th of that year. By 1899 the Symphony gave an annual concert series, and in 1902 embarked on its first state tour.
In its early years, the orchestra was maintained on a cooperative basis, with the players equally sharing ticket sale revenues and electing a conductor from their own personnel. However, in 1911, a major reorganization commenced which signaled the beginning of the Symphony’s modern era and its movement toward professionalism. In the next seven years, an office was established, a manager hired, a board of directors elected, the earliest contributions recorded, and the symphony season expanded to six concerts with tickets being sold by subscription. The reorganization culminated with the Symphony’s premiere concert in the new Civic Auditorium and the selection of Carl Denton as its first music director in 1918.
The Symphony continued to grow in public esteem under Willem van Hoogstraten, conductor from 1925 to 1938, and was recognized as one of the foremost in America, ranking among the 15 largest orchestras in the nation. However, the Depression, the threat of war and the consequent effect on the sponsoring Symphony Society’s ability to carry the orchestra’s deficits resulted in the suspension of its concerts in 1938. Portland was without its regular symphonic season for nearly a decade, although members of the orchestra continued to perform on a limited basis under well-known guest conductors.
Finally, in 1947, with impetus from the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, the Symphony Society was revived and the Portland Symphony Society reorganized as a permanent, professional orchestra. In August 1967, an official change in name to Oregon Symphony took place, reflecting the increasing number of concerts played outside Portland and a commitment to serve the larger statewide and regional community. The next year’s completion of the total renovation of Portland Civic Auditorium gave the Symphony one of the nation’s most modern concert halls.
Guest artists gracing the orchestra’s roster throughout its history include legendary names such as Van Cliburn, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Ernest Bloch, Aaron Copland, Otto Klemperer, Erich Leinsdorf, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Georges Enesco and Igor Stravinsky, and distinguished performers such as Grainger, Gieseking, Horowitz, Nilsson, Oistrakh, Rostropovich, Rubinstein, Segovia, Stern, Villela and Watts.
Throughout the next decade, the Oregon Symphony steadily grew and diversified its performance activities, reaching a growing number of enthusiastic listeners. A very successful Pops program was established with Norman Leyden in 1970; Leyden was appointed Associate Conductor in 1974. He was named Laureate Associate Conductor in 2003.
A dramatic era in the history of the Oregon Symphony commenced in 1980, with the appointment of James DePreist as Music Director and Conductor. Widely recognized as one of the few top conductors America has produced, DePreist is hailed both in the U.S. and Europe for his mastery of a vast symphonic repertoire and his ability to inspire performers to unprecedented artistic heights. Within two years of DePreist’s appointment, the Oregon Symphony was elevated to “major” orchestra status. Then, in September of 1984, DePreist oversaw the Symphony’s dramatic move from the Portland Civic Auditorium to its current home, the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall within the Portland Center for the Performing Arts. The move allowed the orchestra to rehearse on the stage where it performs.
This was a turning point in the Symphony’s history. The move and DePreist’s leadership resulted in a new level of concert activity, an even greater service in the areas of education and community programs, and recordings. The Oregon Symphony released its first recording to rave reviews on the Delos International label in the fall of 1987. It included Strauss’ “Don Juan,” Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra, and Respighi’s “Roman Festivals.” Subsequent recordings, featuring works by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, were released in 1988 and 1989, respectively. The Oregon Symphony’s first recording with KOCH International Classics, released in 1992, features the premiere recording of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Apocalypse,” in addition to works by Norman Dello Joio and Ronald LoPresti. In the fall of 1993, the orchestra released a limited-edition Pops recording with Norman Leyden. A fifth classical recording, the second of American works with KOCH in January of 1995, features two works written in tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. -- the world premiere recording of Nicolas Flagello’s “The Passion of Martin Luther King” and Joseph Schwantner’s “New Morning for the World: Daybreak of Freedom.” The disc is the orchestra’s best-seller to date.
A $1 million gift from Gretchen Brooks, longtime Symphony supporter, made recent recordings possible and paid tribute to James DePreist’s 23-year collaboration with the Oregon Symphony. They include a disc recorded in September 2000 of works by Igor Stravinsky and a second disc recorded in early 2001 featuring works by Ottorino Respighi. Both critically acclaimed discs were released in 2001 by Delos International. The newest Delos recording features works by Sibelius, Shostakovich and Berlioz/Wagner. The next was released in May 2003, features Michael Daugherty’s innovative “Hell’s Angels,” Benjamin Lees’ Passacaglia for Orchestra and Vincent Persichetti’s long unavailable Fourth Symphony. A recording featuring the orchestral works of Oregon composer Tomas Svoboda was released on Albany Records in July 2003.
In 1995 Murry Sidlin was appointed Resident Conductor. Sidlin created a new series of audience development concerts, “Nerve Endings,” inspired and funded by a prestigious “Magic of Music” grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. In April 2002, “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin,” a Nerve Endings-style concert/drama conceived, written and conducted by Sidlin, was performed at the Portland Expo Center and recorded for national television on PBS. The performances honored Rafael Schächter, a little-known choral conductor from Prague who brought spiritual hope to thousands of imprisoned Jews by organizing and leading 16 performances of Verdi’s "Requiem" while interned at the Nazi concentration camp in Terezin during World War II.
In 2002 the Oregon Symphony began its Community Music Partnership initiative, an innovative music residency program specifically designed to serve rural or remote communities. Formerly known as the Regional Tour, the CMP focuses on one community to help realize its potential to strengthen and sustain a community’s music education program. The orchestra’s presence is crafted to the needs of the community and activities are shared with a variety of constituencies - from school children and musicians to senior citizen centers and Rotary Clubs. Local "ownership" of the partnership is central to ensuring success and benefits are long lasting. The Community Music Partnership is funded by the Ford Family Foundation. Oregon Symphony in the Neighborhoods presents a local series of free neighborhood parks concerts and educational events funded through the Regional Arts and Culture Council by the city of Portland.
A 90-minute television special produced by CBS affiliate KOIN Channel 6 in honor of the Symphony’s Centennial featured DePreist and the orchestra in a performance of its signature work, Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, and was awarded a Northwest Regional Emmy in June of 1997. In May of 1997 the orchestra was featured on PBS’ Newshour with Jim Lehrer. The orchestra launched its Web site, located at www.OrSymphony.org in August of 1997.
The Symphony began an extensive, international search for its 10th music director in 1999. In May of 2002 Carlos Kalmar, the acclaimed Music Director of Vienna’s Tonkünstlertorchester and Chicago’s Grant Park Music Festival, was appointed Music Director. The 2002-2003 season saw a season-long tribute to James DePreist, culminating with his appointment as Laureate Music Director.
In 2005 Gregory Vajda was named Resident Conductor. In addition to his activities at the Oregon Symphony, Vajda’s summer engagements include return engagements at Chicago’s Grant Park Festival and the Round Top Festival in Texas.
The Oregon Symphony ranks as one of America’s major orchestras and as one of the largest arts organizations in the Northwest. The Oregon Symphony is proud to provide varied music of the highest artistic standards to diverse audiences, with a commitment to educating children as the musicians and audiences of tomorrow.