Various individuals and groups in El Paso attempted to form a symphony orchestra as far back as the early 1880s. The El Paso Symphony Orchestra (EPSO) can trace its origins to its organization by Frederich R. Koch in 1893, and EPSO has survived more than a century, despite several reorganizations and an ongoing struggle to gain widespread support. Central to its success and longevity are two defining moments: the 1929 establishment of the Symphony Society and the 1930 arrival of conductor Hine Arthur Brown.
Brown, a Julliard School teacher, first went to present-day New Mexico State University in Las Cruces to teach violin. His contract also required him to conduct in nearby El Paso. After contacting the El Paso Symphony Society, Brown secured contributions, musicians, and instruments and rented the Scottish Rite Auditorium for the first successful concert on January 26, 1931. Soon after, the El Paso Symphony Association became a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation that handled the business of the orchestra.
The EPSO flourished under Brown’s baton, increasing its musician memberships and earning national recognition through radio broadcasts and print. Brown’s twenty-one-year tenure firmly established the symphony’s presence and influenced the city’s musical life. The demand for music instruction helped triple the number of music teachers and shops in the city and encouraged the founding of the music department at the modern-day University of Texas at El Paso. Brown conducted his final concert for EPSO on March 26, 1951.
Brown was succeeded by Orlando Barera, who debuted during the 1951–52 season. Barera added challenging symphonic works to the orchestra’s repertoire, expanded the budget, and increased public support for engaging world-class musicians. Artists, such as Eleanor Steber, Cesare Siepi, Victoria de los Angeles, Claudio Arrau, and Isaac Stern elevated the orchestra’s reputation at home and abroad.
After his death in 1969, Barera was replaced by William Kirsch, who made his EPSO conducting debut during the 1971–72 season. Despite stabilizing the Symphony Association’s finances, problems with musicians arose. Because of disagreements over repertoire and interpretation choices, rehearsal schedules and procedures, the Symphony Board terminated Kirsch’s contract in 1974.
El Paso native Abraham Chavez, Jr., member of EPSO since 1940 and its concertmaster and assistant conductor since 1940, was named symphony conductor in 1975. Under his leadership, EPSO became El Paso’s most professional performing group and the best-funded performing arts organization. Although still plagued by limited funding and public support, Maestro Chavez was a vocal advocate for expansion and better salaries for his musicians, and he was well-known for his work with the youth orchestra. In fact, the El Paso Convention and Performing Arts Centers named the main concert hall in his honor.
Turkish-born Gürer Aykal succeeded Chavez in 1992. Aykal elevated the orchestra’s musicianship further and took the orchestra on successful tours of Germany (1996) and Turkey (2000). In addition, Aykal weathered a musicians’ strike demanding higher salaries in 2001. He retired in 2004.
EPSO appointed its first female conductor, Sarah Ioannides, in 2005. She continued to invite internationally-recognized musicians and established the symphony’s collaboration with the arts community. Also in 2005, EPSO expanded the Symphony Youth Orchestra established by Maestro Chavez. Comprised of more than 200 of the region’s best young musicians from second grade to college undergraduates, the youth orchestra, under the direction of assistant conductor Andres Moran in 2009, performed year-round at the national level. Divided into four levels, the youth orchestras serve young musicians from El Paso, Alamogordo, Juarez, Las Cruces, and area universities.
Ioannides stepped down as conductor after the 2010–11 season, which was the eightieth season of the EPSO. For the 2011–12 season, six guest conductors took the stage to direct the orchestra at six concerts throughout the year to vie for the position of music director. Audience members had the opportunity to cast their votes for their favorite conductor and thereby assist a search committee in making the final choice. In 2013 Czech native Bohuslav Rattay was named music director. By 2015 EPSO consisted of more than seventy musicians. Gürer Aykal, Emeritus Conductor, returned to conduct a concert in October 2015 for the orchestra’s eighty-fifth anniversary season.