Like the city of Detroit itself, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has had to deal with many difficulties, from disintegrating venues to financial crises. Through all of its trials and tribulations, the DSO has maintained a consistently high level of musicianship and technical skill, directly representative of the many distinguished conductors who have directed the group.
The DSO was founded in 1914 by ten young society women who each contributed $100 to the enterprise and secured $10 commitments from 100 other people. Weston Gales was hired to conduct, and the DSO played its first concert on February 26, 1914. Gales' name is not much remembered in Detroit. The orchestra blossomed with the appointment of the pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch as the music director in 1918. Gabrilowitsch encouraged the construction of Orchestra Hall, which was immediately hailed for its fine acoustics. He also raised the DSO's profile nationally and internationally through concertizing and (especially) radio broadcasts. With Gabrilowitsch conducting and famed pianist Artur Schnabel playing, the DSO took part in the world's first radio broadcast of a symphonic concert in 1922; later, the DSO was featured on the nationally broadcast Ford Symphony Hour. Unfortunately, two years after Gabrilowitsch died in 1937, Orchestra Hall was closed due to a lack of funds to maintain it. The orchestra went through a difficult stretch, during which it was disbanded twice, until the 1951 hiring of conductor Paul Paray. Paray's mastery of French repertoire brought international attention to the DSO; during his tenure, some claimed the world's best French orchestral music was actually performed in Detroit. Paray led the DSO on 70 recordings for the Mercury label, winning several awards. He was succeeded by distinguished musician Sixten Ehrling, but then the orchestra went through another down period in the 1970s. Antal Dorati was brought in to lead in 1977, but financial problems crippled the orchestra. These problems continued through 1987 when the orchestra's cumulative deficits reached $8 million; its endowment was only $14 million. The musicians stopped work for 12 weeks, claiming that both management and current music director Gunther Herbig were inept. Finally, both sides made concessions; Herbig was dismissed and replaced with esteemed conductor Neeme Järvi, while the orchestra's musicians accepted a substantial pay cut.
Meanwhile, a "Committee to Save Orchestra Hall" had staved off numerous attempts by the city to demolish the now-decrepit structure and managed to raise enough funds to restore it to its former glory. In 1989, the DSO moved back in. With Järvi's creative, stimulating direction drawing in the ticket buyers, and the glorious old-new hall proving an eminently suitable recording venue, the DSO took steps toward financial rejuvenation. The DSO recorded for Chandos with Järvi and was heard on General Motors' nationally broadcast "Mark of Excellence" radio series. In 2003, the DSO successfully opened the Max M. Fischer Music Center, which includes the modernized Orchestra Hall, a second performance hall, and an education center, even as Järvi announced his departure at the end of the 2004-2005 season.
Leonard Slatkin was named music director in 2008. Under his leadership, the orchestra has continued to showcase its excellence through its concert series at Orchestra Hall, free community concerts, radio broadcasts, streaming concert videos through its website, and its still-prolific recording output. Slatkin stepped down as music director in 2018 but has remained active as music director laureate. The DSO, under Slatkin, recorded mainly for the Naxos label, on which it released the album Copland: Billy the Kid; Grohg in 2019. This recording was nominated for a Grammy award. In January 2020, the DSO announced Jader Bignamini as its next music director, beginning with the 2020-2021 season.