City Cast

The Houston Symphony's History

Brooke Lewis
Posted on August 15
Houston Symphony members perform during a concert.

The Houston Symphony is a historic institution in the city. (Houston Symphony/Facebook)

The Grammy award-winning Houston Symphony is one of the oldest performing arts institutions in the city. Ima Hogg, civic leader and art patron, sponsored the first concert in 1913 with a thirty-five member orchestra. Since then, a Houston Symphony concert has remained a popular music destination for all kinds of performances. So, how did it become what it is today?

The Musical Beginnings

The first orchestra concert kick-started excitement for a permanent orchestra organization in the city. However in 1918, the orchestra disbanded because of World War I. In 1931, the orchestra was reformed under Italian conductor Uriel Nespoli. After Nespoli’s tenure, Frank St. Leger, a British-American conductor, took over for three seasons. The orchestra still struggled because of its low budget, lack of talented musicians, and poor-quality instruments.

The Orchestra Expands

In 1936, new conductor Ernst Hoffmann took the orchestra in a different direction and raised its reputation nationally. During World War II, the orchestra performed concerts for nearby army camps. They also performed on NBC's national radio program “Orchestras of the Nation,” where the station’s national program director called the orchestra “one of the finest ever on the series.” As time wore on, a variety of conductors took over and raised its reputation nationally. In 1965, the orchestra performed for the first time at Carnegie Hall as part of the International Festival of Visiting Orchestras. The following year, attendance skyrocketed when the orchestra began performing at Jones Hall.

The Orchestra’s Legacy

In the 1980s the orchestra almost shut down because of a severe debt, but The Houston Symphony Society and music director Sergiu Comissiona successfully brought the organization out of its deficit. During their 70th anniversary season, the symphony featured talented guest pianists, focused on playing mostly classical and romantic masters, and made nearly a quarter of a million dollars. In 1990, orchestra members took their first overseas trip to perform at the Singapore Arts Festival in Japan. Since its original performance in the 1960s, the orchestra has played 16 times at Carnegie Hall. Over the next two decades, the orchestra would endure Tropical Storm Allison, Hurricane Harvey, and the covid-19 pandemic and still manage to retain audience participation. In their latest season, check out their new classical, pop, and family centric performances.

So, what’s your favorite part about going to the Houston Symphony? Email me.

Hey Houston

Want to know what's happening in Houston? Sign up for our free newsletter, Hey Houston. Packed with local news, curated event recs, local life hacks, and more, it's your daily toolkit for getting the most out of the city you love.

Houston History

See All

The latest in Houston