At the end of the 18th century, when Haydn and Beethoven were still living, Cincinnati was little more than a village surrounding old Fort Washington. A "select band" of soldiers stationed at the fort would present concerts for the early settlers, pioneers who had pushed west-ward over the Allegheny Mountains. The Western Spy, a newspaper of the time, mentioned a memorial celebration in honor of Gen. George Washington at which the band played a goodly number of martial airs. An early writer wrote of another celebration that "a band of music accompanied them [the reveling settlers] with the harmonies of Gluck and Haydn."
With the 19th century and the arrival of many German settlers, numerous musical organizations were established in the "Queen City of the West." The Harmonical Society was a brass band of local talent, and the Apollonian Society, with 40 members, promoted "the cultivation of vocal and instrumental music." In 1825 Joseph Tosso, a young graduate of the Paris Conservatory, arrived to direct an orchestra assembled for a reception in General Lafayette's honor. Tosso remained and organized the Orchestra of the Musical Fund Society. About the same time, the Eclectic Academy was founded. The Midwest's first Sängerfest took place in Cincinnati in 1842 at the old Armory Hall.
On January 17, 1895 Frank Van der Stucken conducted the first concert of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The Cincinnati Orchestra Association Company, founded by 15 enthusiastic women under the presidency of Mrs. William Howard Taft, sponsored nine concerts by the 48-man orchestra in the first season. Concerts that season and the next were presented at Pike's Opera House, and in 1896 the orchestra, which then numbered 60, moved to Music Hall.
Frank Van der Stucken, born in Texas of Belgian-German parentage, continued as music director until 1907. During the orchestra's exciting early years, Richard Strauss was a guest conductor, Edward MacDowell performed his own piano concerto, and the orchestra presented the American premiere of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5.
Financial and labor difficulties caused the orchestra to disband in 1907. But the Orchestra Association campaigned to raise funds and, in 1909, largely through the efforts of Mrs. Charles P. Taft, engaged Leopold Stokowski to come as director of a handpicked orchestra of 77 men. During his three-year tenure the orchestra hosted Ferruccio Busoni and Sergei Rachmaninov and presented its first "popular concerts."
In 1911 the orchestra moved to the new Emery Auditorium. And in 1912 Ernst Kunwald, former conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, arrived. Under his directorship the CSO made its first recording for Columbia in 1917. Eugène Ysaÿe, the legendary Belgian violin virtuoso, was music director from 1918 to 1922, and the orchestra flourished under his leadership.
During his nine years as music director, from 1922 to 1931, Fritz Reiner presented the American premieres of works by Ravel, Debussy, and Ottorino Respighi. He introduced Béla Bartók to Cincinnati, leading this country's premiere of B. Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 1, with the composer as soloist.
Eugène Goossens, who was later knighted by Queen Elizabeth, succeeded Fritz Reiner in 1931. With a British flair for conducting large, massed choral and instrumental works, he led many brilliant May Festival performances and conducted the CSO in fully-staged opera and ballet performances. By 1936 the orchestra had outgrown Emery Auditorium and returned to Music Hall. Maestro Eugène Goossens is also well known for having invited various composers to submit Fanfares to be performed at subscription concerts, including the beloved Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland.
American-born and -trained Thor Johnson became music director in 1947. During his 11 years in Cincinnati he conducted the premieres of 120 American and European works, half of which he commissioned.
Johnson was succeeded in 1958 by Max Rudolf, former conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, who led the CSO on a memorable 10-week world tour in 1966 (under the auspices of the United States Department of State) and a four-week European tour in 1969. In 1965 Erich Kunzel (then assistant conductor) took charge of the Eight O'Clock Pops concerts, and in 1967 the Concerts in the Parks were initiated. A beautifully refurbished Music Hall provided the setting for the orchestra's 75th anniversary celebration during the 1969-70 season.
In 1970 the CSO welcomed Thomas Schippers as music director. His broad background of experience included the directorship of the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, as well as engagements with the opera houses of La Scala, Vienna, Bayreuth, and the Metropolitan Opera, and the philharmonics of New York, London, Israel, and Berlin. Until his untimely death in 1977, he brought glamour as well as a high standard of excellence to the orchestra.
From 1978 to 1980 Walter Susskind served as music advisor to the orchestra, drawing upon his vast experience as music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Aspen Festival, and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, and as guest conductor of many of the world's great orchestras.
Michael Gielen was named CSO music director in September 1980. His artistic leadership through six seasons continued to assure the CSO's prominence on a national and international level. Michael Gielen and the CSO introduced a number of important world, American, and CSO premieres both in Cincinnati and on tour, including appearances at Carnegie Hall.
An exciting new dimension was added to the orchestra in 1984, with the opening of Riverbend Music Center-officially The Hulbert Taft, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, J. Ralph Corbett Pavilion. Riverbend, located on the banks of the Ohio River, has attracted national attention for its post-modernist design by architeMichael Graves.
Appointed Music Director of the CSO in 1986, Jesús López-Cobos led the orchestra into a new era of international acclaim. He retired from the orchestra in August 2001 after 15 seasons, the longest tenure of any Music Director in the history of the CSO. He became Music Director Emeritus of the CSO in September 2001. Under his leadership, the orchestra enjoyed critical and artistic praise for its live performances and recordings, as well as tour appearances throughout the USA. He led the orchestra in a highly praised 20-city European tour in 1995 (the orchestra’s first since 1969) in celebration of the orchestra’s centennial season. Under his direction the orchestra also appeared at the prestigious Casals Festival in 1998. During the 2000-2001 season he again led the orchestra to Europe for concerts in his native Spain and in Poland and Germany. Also under his leadership, the orchestra’s first national telecast appeared in 1997 on PBS-TV, featuring guest pianist Alicia de Larrocha and the music of Ravel, Dvorvák and Falla.
The Estonian-born Paavo Järvi began his tenure with the CSO in September 2001.
The CSO also presents year-round family, community and education programs and concerts under the direction of Assistant Conductors Vince Lee, and Ken Lam; concerts in this category include Lollipop and Young People’s concerts and the Classical Roots: Spiritual Heights. In addition, the CSO serves as the official orchestra of the annual May Festival and Cincinnati Opera and, for more than three decades as the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra under Pops Founder and Conductor Emeritus, Erich Kunzel. The Cincinnati Pops Orchestra presents 20 Pops concerts in Music Hall and performs summer concerts at Riverbend under Associate Conductor, Steven Reineke and top guest conductors.