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‘The greatest body of musicians in the West:’ the origins of the Minnesota Orchestra

The orchestra’s first concert was held on November 5, 1903, at the Exposition Building in Minneapolis.

Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra on stage, c.1912.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The Minnesota Orchestra, originally known as the Minneapolis Symphony, was created in 1903. It was co-founded by Emil Oberhoffer, the group’s first conductor, and Elbert L. Carpenter, the first president. The group brought a new level of culture and sophistication to Minneapolis, the eighth American city to establish a major orchestra.

Choral societies were popular in Minneapolis in the late 1800s, but the musicians were not reliable. This led the “Filharmonix” Choral Society, later renamed the Philharmonic Club, to organize a permanent orchestra with committed musicians.

Their conductor, Emil Oberhoffer, understood the importance of community support and funding. He gained the backing of Elbert L. Carpenter, who, through his own wealth and the donations of local businesses, secured a guarantee fund of $10,000 annually for three years. The orchestra’s first concert was held on November 5, 1903, at the Exposition Building in Minneapolis. There were six different concerts (programs) in the initial season, each performed only once.

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The orchestra began to tour regionally in 1907 in order to broaden its reach and attract new supporters. Oberhoffer took the orchestra to Moorhead, Duluth, and Grand Forks, North Dakota. Because of these tours, the orchestra was praised in the media; in 1910, the Minneapolis Tribune reported it had a reputation as “the greatest body of musicians in the West.”

The frequency of their tours earned the players the nickname “orchestra on wheels.” Within a few years, they had performed in several major U.S. cities, including Chicago in 1911 and New York City at Carnegie Hall in March 1912.

In March 1923, the orchestra performed its first live radio broadcast; in April 1924, it made its first recording while on tour, in New York. Radio broadcasts and recordings helped to broaden the exposure of the orchestra. The group won a Grammy in 2014 for best orchestral performance for a disc of Sibelius’s Symphonies nos. 1 and 4.

Volunteers have supported the orchestra since the beginning. The initial administrators were a committee of volunteers, and since then, volunteers have served on the board, helped raise funds, and organized outreach programs. The Woman’s Association of the Minneapolis Symphony began in 1949; by 1954, it had 1,500 members. Later renamed the Women’s Association of the Minnesota Orchestra, the group has been a major fundraising partner.

Young People’s Concerts began as matinee performances during the orchestra’s early tours. The first such concert in Minneapolis was held on November 24, 1911. Because school principals purchased blocks of tickets for this concert, two thousand seats sold out in thirty minutes. A second, identical concert was offered so more students could attend. A group of community women known as the Young People’s Symphony Concert Association organized and funded these concerts.

As early as the 1920s, Elbert L. Carpenter considered summer concerts. Because of a lack of funding, musical directors did not begin experimenting with summer options until the 1960s, when the orchestra performed several different types of summer concerts, including Music 60 and Summer Pops Jubilee. The festival, known as Sommerfest, debuted in July of 1980 and has become an annual event.

In 1968, the administrative board (the Minnesota Orchestral Association, MOA) changed the group’s name from the Minneapolis Symphony to the Minnesota Orchestra. Although the board sought the change in order to reflect the expanding regional character of the Orchestra, the musicians objected. They were concerned that concertgoers would assume the two entities were distinct organizations instead of the same institution with a new name. The musicians made three attempts (in 1968, 1974, and 1991) to reinstate the former name. None succeeded.

The orchestra’s early history includes several short strikes or lockouts. The length of the 2012–2014 lockout, however, was unprecedented, and caused the cancellation of the 2012–2013 season. The MOA and musicians reached an agreement in early 2014, more than a year after the lockout began.

The orchestra has been directed by Emil Oberhoffer (1903–1922), Henri Verbrugghen (1923–1931), Eugene Ormandy (1931–1936), Dimitri Mitropoulos (1937–1949), Antal Dorati (1949–1960), Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (1960–1979), Neville Marriner (1979–1986), Edo de Waart (1986–1995), Eiji Oue (1995–2002) and Osmo Vänskä (2003–current).

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.