The Houston Symphony Orchestra began performing in 1913. Orchestral music in Houston dates from 1868, when Professor Stadtler led a small ensemble at the Exchange Saloon. Orchestras connected with German Saengerfest from 1885 to 1913, a local Symphony Club by 1902, and a visit by Modeste Altschuler's Russian Symphony Orchestra in the 1912–13 season whetted local appetites for a permanent ensemble.
More than the other major orchestras in Texas, the Houston Symphony Orchestra began as a project of fashionable society, when civic leader and art patron Ima Hogg marshaled her forces to sponsor a concert on June 21, 1913. Under Julien Paul Blitz, the thirty-five-member orchestra played a diverse program, including Mozart's Symphony No. 39 and " Dixie." The concert was a success and built enthusiasm for continuing activity. Blitz was succeeded in 1916 by Paul Bergé, who remained until the orchestra disbanded in 1918 because of World War I.
The 1920s witnessed many guest orchestras touring through Houston until the HSO was reconstituted under Uriel Nespoli in 1931. His programs displayed his loyalty to Italian music, as well as his enthusiasm for Wagner; unfortunately, the budding orchestra was not yet up to the grandeur of sound that Wagner required. There was a brief rivalry during this period with the newly-organized Philharmonic Society, and Nespoli's unfamiliarity with the English language and the workings of Houston society made his tenure a rocky one. Frank St. Leger then conducted the orchestra for three seasons. The orchestra at this time was hampered by the unevenness of talent among its members, some of whom were amateurs, and the poor quality of some of the instruments, which resulted from the orchestra's low budget.
In the spring of 1936 the symphony society amended its charter and became officially the Houston Symphony Society. Ernst Hoffmann, St. Leger's successor, began the 1936 season with renewed community support. Realizing the orchestra's limitations, he made moderate demands on it initially, but during his tenure he built the ensemble to major status. He was a model of thoroughness and extremely partial to the music of Richard Strauss. During World War II he organized numerous concerts for nearby army camps. On February 22, 1947, the orchestra played on NBC's national radio program Orchestras of the Nation. An appearance on this program was a recognition of an orchestra's merit, and Burt Whaley, NBC national program director, claimed the Houston orchestra was one of the finest ever on the series. Despite these achievements, in 1947 the society asked Hoffmann to resign, feeling the conductorship needed new direction. This move caused a rift in the society and resentment on Hoffmann's part, and he finally relinquished his post at the end of the season under a cloud of ill-feeling.
During the following season the orchestra played under a number of guest conductors, among them Leonard Bernstein. Efrem Kurtz, the next conductor, served seven seasons, through 1953. He was allocated a much more generous budget, and under his direction the orchestra performed with more gloss and virtuosity, especially in the string and woodwind sections. However, the ensemble was not yet performing as a unit, and Kurtz received some less-than-enthusiastic reviews. Despite a brilliant procession of guest artists in 1949, among them Igor Stravinsky as guest conductor, audience attendance slipped throughout the early 1950s. Ferenc Fricsay brought with him a potential Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft recording contract in 1954, and conducted with great intensity but with uneven results. Because of his numerous demands, including plans for a new concert hall, he was released in mid-season, to be replaced by the ebullient and prestigious Sir Thomas Beecham.
In 1955 Leopold Stokowski arrived, loaded with charisma, exotic tastes, and exciting plans for several premieres each season, at which he often had the composers present. The orchestra bloomed under his direction. Although a segment of the audience did not appreciate his programming and some players resented his demands, under Stokowski the orchestra gained a new sense of its position and widened its coverage of new music. He left it more polished and confident, with a sharpened stylistic facility. Stokowski also made a number of recordings with the orchestra, including the Carmina Burana, Shostakovich's 11th Symphony, Gliere's Ilya Mourometz, and Wagner's Parsifal.
Sir John Barbirolli, who took the baton in 1961, maintained the orchestra's discipline, constructed stimulating programs, and built an enthusiastic audience, although his programs, like Stokowski's, included a fair percentage of modern music. Under his guidance the orchestra's playing grew richer and more imaginative in blend, yet he made few revisions to the ensemble. During the 1963–64 fiftieth anniversary season, Barbirolli took the orchestra on a tour of the eastern seaboard, passing through Washington, D.C., and culminating with a triumphant performance in New York that garnered unanimously good reviews, which rated the Houston Symphony among the major orchestras of the country. Barbirolli returned to an audience with renewed enthusiasm for the orchestra.
After decades in City Auditorium or the Music Hall, the HSO moved into the visually and acoustically fine Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in 1966. The new building brought a surge in audience attendance, but the more expensive hall also necessitated more frequent touring to generate income. With his health declining, Barbirolli became conductor emeritus in 1967; he continued as a guest conductor until his death in 1970.
André Previn brought youthful vigor from 1967 to 1969, with evenings almost equally divided between traditional and modern music. During his tenure, an annual young artists' competition was organized under the Houston Symphony Society's supervision. More and more, the orchestra came to be regarded as a regional, as well as a city, treasure. However, new and younger concertgoers were not attracted by the orchestra's young conductor as had been hoped, and the attendance of older patrons began declining.
Antonio de Almeida served as principal guest conductor before Lawrence Foster took directorship in 1971. Foster had high standards and was bent on enhancing and polishing the quality of the ensemble, although his detractors claimed he was moody, stiff, and even power-hungry. He expanded the company's repertoire and acquired an exclusive five-year recording contract. The 1970s, however, brought funding problems; deficits grew while audience attendance eroded, as the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet rivaled the symphony.
The first Houston Symphony Marathon was held in 1977 on KLEF–FM, a fundraiser designed to revive the orchestra's fortunes. In the early 1980s Sergiu Comissiona became artistic advisor and then music director in 1984. In Houston's sagging economy, the orchestra continued to experience debt and labor problems until the symphony was broke and near collapse, despite a successful East Coast tour that included a performance at Carnegie Hall. However, a five-year planning effort by the Houston Symphony Society and Comissiona's leadership helped bring the orchestra out of debt; by 1985 the deficit had been greatly reduced and the orchestra once more promised to be a thriving major artistic force. Comissiona claimed his goal was to make music part of the daily life of the population. The 1983–84 seventieth anniversary season drew nearly a quarter million dollars by featuring a repertoire that drew heavily on the classic and romantic masters and featured a series of particularly fine guest pianists.
Christoph Eschenbach became music director of the orchestra in 1988. He and the Houston Symphony recorded for Virgin Classics and Pickwick International. In addition to its tours in the United States, the orchestra performed in the Singapore Festival of Arts in 1990, the Pacific Music Festival in Japan in 1991, and in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria in 1992. In 1993 Eschenbach and members of the orchestra formed a chamber-music ensemble called the Houston Symphony Chamber Players.
In a reflection of efforts to broaden the ensemble’s appeal, Michael Krajewski became the full-time pops conductor in 2000. In 2000 Eschenbach became conductor emeritus, and Hans Graf became music director in 2001. That year the Houston Symphony suffered a heavy loss with the destruction of its music library by flooding caused by Tropical Storm Allison. In the years after the catastrophe, donations helped restore the library holdings up to 2, 300 catalogued items. By the mid-2000s the symphony had implemented an outreach program, Houston Symphony Community Connections, whereby musicians volunteered as performers and music coaches at various community settings throughout the city.
In the 2010s the orchestra, which consisted of more than 80 full-time musicians, annually performed approximately 300 classical, pops, educational, and family concerts that were attended by an estimated 330,000 people. In 2012 the orchestra was the first from America to perform at the Annual Festival of the World’s Symphony Orchestras in Moscow. The Houston Symphony celebrated its centennial in 2013, and the 2013–14 season marked Hans Graf’s final season as music director. Andrés Orozco-Estrada succeeded Graf as music director for the 2014–15 season, while Michael Krajewski began his fifteenth season as pops conductor.