The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is the fifth oldest orchestra in the United States and for most of its history has been one of the finest orchestras in the country.
Founded in 1788, Cincinnati is a riverport city along the Ohio River, in the U.S. Midwest. The city and the areas around it became a major center of immigration from Germany and Switzerland in the 1840s. In 1849 the German communities of Cincinnati, Madison (Indiana), and Louisville (Kentucky) held the first Cincinnati Sängerfest, with a small orchestra and a combined choir of 118 voices.
The Cincinnati Orchestra was formed in 1872 under Michael Brand and augmented Thomas' own orchestra for the biennial May Festivals. The Cincinnati Orchestra Association was founded in 1895 and took the existing Cincinnati Orchestra as the nucleus for its new Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a 48-piece ensemble. The first music director was Frank van der Stucken, who served from the orchestra's founding until it was disbanded in 1907 when the Association refused to meet the demands of the new musicians' union.
The Association worked to raise money to re-establish the orchestra. Its president, Mrs. Charles P. Taft, successfully lobbied to hire the young British conductor Leopold Stokowski as conductor, permitting him to handpick the new 77-member orchestra in 1909. Stokowski stayed for only three years, but built a superb orchestra and established the orchestra's permanent tradition. Ernst Kunwald (1912-1918) presided over the orchestra's first recording, for Columbia in 1917. Legendary Belgian violinist Eugène Ÿsaye was music director from 1918 to 1922 and made the Stokowski-derived string sound even richer and more secure. His successor Fritz Reiner (1922-1931) instilled sharp discipline and gave Cincinnati some of the first American performances of works of Béla Bartók. Eugene Goosens, a charismatic English conductor, served from 1931 to 1946. He commissioned a series of wartime fanfares that included Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man.
His successor was American Thor Johnson (1947-1958) who was known for his support of American music, and after him, the highly respected conductor and conducting teacher Max Rudolf (1958-1970) continued the orchestra's fine disciplinary standards. During his tenure, the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra was formed under assistant conductor Erich Kunzel, still a highly popular combination. Also under Rudolf, the orchestra, under State Department auspices, became the first U.S. orchestra to undertake a world tour, and the May Festival was made an annual event.
Thomas Schippers, a brilliant American, took the podium in 1970, serving until his untimely death in 1977. The prominent German conductor Michael Gielen served from 1980 to 1986, increasing the orchestra's modern music repertory, and from 1986 to 2001, Jesús Lopez-Cobos was music director, with a flair for brilliant and colorful performances. Paavo Järvi served as music director from 2001 to 2011.
The orchestra makes its home in Music Hall, giving 52 subscription performances a year and twenty pops concerts, as well as the popular Concerts in the Park and other outreach performances.