Founded in 1911, the Austin Symphony Orchestra is one of the oldest major orchestral ensembles in Texas. Along with orchestras in San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, El Paso, Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, Galveston, Wichita Falls, Beaumont, and Lubbock, the establishment of the Austin Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of the twentieth century represents a widespread popular movement to bring classical music to the Southwest. The years following World War II brought another national surge in interest for classical music, as orchestras all around the country experienced a marked increase in both attendance and the number of performances given by orchestra companies.
In 1953 the Women’s Symphony League of Austin was founded to provide financial support to the symphony, and in 1966 the Knights of Symphony was founded by Austin businessmen. Throughout the years, funding has been provided through endowments and other support groups to assist and promote the symphony.
The first conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra during the post-World War II era was Dr. Hendrik J. Buytendorp who hailed from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He began his career with the orchestra in 1938 and retired eleven years later in January 1949. The symphony chose Ezra Rachlin to replace Buytendorp. An experienced conductor in his own right, Rachlin, a native of California, was a cofounder of the Philadelphia Opera Company and later conducted the Lauritz Melchior’s Orchestra and the Memphis Open Air Theater. Rachlin, who remained conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra until 1969, helped increase its local popularity as well as its national stature as a musical institution. By 1976 Akiro Endo had assumed the position of conductor and music director. Sung Kwak became music conductor by the early 1990s.
As of 2015 the symphony has been led by conductor Peter Bay, who took over the post in January 1998 after having held positions as the Musical Director of the Erie Philharmonic, the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, and the Breckenridge Music Festival. He also worked as conductor for the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the Richmond Symphony in Virginia. Originally from Washington, D.C., Bay is a graduate of the University of Maryland and the Peabody Institute. In 1994 he was one of two conductors selected to participate in the Leonard Bernstein American Conductors Program. In January 2002 Bay made his debut with the Austin Lyric Opera and conducted Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire. He also conducted Verdi’s La Traviata in November 2002, Puccini’s Turandot in November 2003, and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in April 2005. He conducted the score to the motion picture The Vessel, released in 2014.
In addition to presenting numerous musical performances to the general public throughout the year, the Austin Symphony Orchestra offers a variety of educational programs geared toward students and young adults. These include having musicians perform in local public schools, inviting students to concert performances, and allowing students to meet and perform with a professional orchestra. Through its efforts, the Austin Symphony Orchestra helps provide some 90,000 children annually with an opportunity to learn about and be involved in symphonic music. The Austin Youth Orchestra was founded in 1993 and, through close association with the Austin Symphony, offers young talent enhanced opportunities for orchestral music education.
The Austin Symphony, which consists of approximately eighty musicians, is overseen by a board of directors. Throughout its storied past, the symphony has accompanied many outstanding performers including Yo-Yo Ma, Van Cliburn, Isaac Stern, and André Watts. Bass Concert Hall on the University of Texas campus served as the longtime performance hall until the last concert there on February 3, 2007. The symphony’s new venue, the Long Center for the Performing Arts, opened in 2008. The 2011–12 season marked the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s centennial season with celebrated American violinist Joshua Bell performing in the opening concert. In 2015 the Austin Symphony Orchestra began its 105th season with a performance by André Watts.