The Germans of San Antonio had an Instrumental Verein as early as 1852 but did not form a full orchestra until the state Saengerfest of 1874. Orchestral life grew, and in the early 1900s San Antonio had some form of symphony orchestra. Noted musician and professor Julien Paul Blitz, for example, conducted a San Antonio orchestra from 1917 to 1922.
In the 1920s and 1930s, however, orchestral activity apparently declined, until Max Reiter, a young German conductor and refugee from European anti-Semitism, drummed up enough support for a trial orchestra concert in June 1939 at the Sunken Garden Theater for an audience of 2,500. Moved by the success of this concert, the Symphony Society of San Antonio formally incorporated. Reiter staged four concerts in the symphony's first season, engaging soloists such as pianist Alec Templeton and violinist Jascha Heifetz in order to attract large audiences. In addition, he commissioned the exiled Czech composer Jaromir Weinberger to write a Prelude and Fugue on a Southern Folk Tune for the new orchestra.
Season ticket sales grew, and by 1943–44 Reiter had placed the orchestra on a fully professional basis. He added a tour through the Rio Grande valley and children's concerts and began to lure the city's Hispanic population with a visit from Mexican composer–conductor Carlos Chávez, who conducted his own music. Spring 1945 witnessed the first Grand Opera Festival. Starting with performances of La Bohème, Reiter established a tradition of regular opera productions that achieved considerable financial and artistic success. On December 13, 1950, at the height of his artistic powers, Reiter died of a heart attack.
Within a short time, Victor Alessandro had been named his successor. Alessandro, born in Waco, had received his education from the Eastman School of Music and after graduation had gone on to conduct the Oklahoma Symphony, bringing it up to a remarkable level in only three years. As the conductor of the San Antonio Symphony, Alessandro built upon Reiter's foundations a far-reaching and varied program of his own, initiating a series of pops concerts and greatly expanding the role of the associate conductor, principal hornist George Yaeger. In 1961 Alessandro established the Rio Grande Music Festival, a week-long series of operas and concerts each spring. From his earliest years in San Antonio, Alessandro challenged his audiences with contemporary works and championed American music, especially by Texas and local composers.
Beginning in the late 1960s the orchestra gave its concerts in pairs, one performed at the Lila Cockrell Theatre, the other at Trinity University. When Victor Alessandro died on November 27, 1976, much of the orchestra's growth, stability, and artistic integrity had been directly attributable to his quarter-century tenure. After a two-year search, François Huybrechts replaced Alessandro as the symphony's music director. After two seasons he was succeeded by Lawrence Leighton Smith, in 1980.
Under Smith the orchestra received greater exposure with its city-funded outreach program and increased touring in South Texas and Louisiana. In 1985 Smith resigned, and a search for a new musical director began. Sixten Ehrling served as artistic advisor, and guest conductors led many of the concerts. Financial difficulties forced the cancellation of the 1987–88 season before a new music director could be found. Many of the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony played for the newly-formed Orchestra San Antonio until January 1988, when the San Antonio Symphony reinstated its season and assumed Orchestra San Antonio's remaining commitments. For the 1988–89 season Zdenek Macal served as artistic director and principal conductor. Christopher Wilkins was appointed music director designate in 1990 and assumed the post of permanent music director in 1992. In 1994 the symphony was given the first ASCAP/Morton Gould Award for Creative Programming and was recognized for its community-relevant programming by the American Symphony Orchestra League. In 1993–94 the orchestra included seventy-six musicians and performed more than 125 concerts in a forty-one-week season. The San Antonio Symphony had recorded for Mercury Records.
By the late 1990s the San Antonio Symphony faced more financial difficulties and was near bankruptcy on the eve of its sixtieth anniversary season in 1998. Donations from a number of area businesses and the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation helped save the orchestra. After the 2001–2002 season Christopher Wilkins was named music director emeritus, having completed eleven musical seasons. That same season, the symphony was honored with the Leonard Bernstein Award for Educational Programming. Larry Rachleff succeeded Wilkins as the symphony's seventh music director effective for the 2003–04 season. Still in financial crisis, however, the symphony declared bankruptcy in 2003, and its board devoted the next year to reworking a business plan. Rachleff's tenure as music director began in earnest with the 2004–05 season, as the symphony bounced back to serve the community and reach out to new audiences.
Ken-David Masur was appointed resident conductor for the 2007–08 season. Christopher Seaman served as artistic advisor by the 2008–09 season as the symphony continued a search for a new full-time music director. During the 2008–09 season the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra consisted of approximately 77 full-time musicians who performed over a 28-week season, and the organization had received a total of seven ASCAP awards. Additionally, the symphony also included its own chorus (the San Antonio Symphony Mastersingers), a 24-member volunteer board, and 20 full-time administrative staff positions.
Sebastian Lang-Lessing debuted as the symphony’s eighth music director in October 2010. The symphony's primary concert venue since 1990 through the 2013–14 season was the Majestic Theatre in downtown San Antonio. The 2014–15 season marked a season-long celebration of the symphony’s seventy-fifth anniversary. On September 20, 2014, the San Antonio Symphony made its debut as the resident symphony at the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts—a state-of-the-art, world-class facility constructed around the city’s historic Municipal Auditorium (the original façade was preserved). On the heels of the success of the seventy-fifth anniversary festivities, the 2015–16 symphony season included a variety of Classic series and Pop series performances throughout the year, as well as two dozen free admission Young People’s Concerts. Highlights included a Baroque Series (led by Akiko Fujimoto, associate conductor, at San Fernando Cathedral); the winter festival Las Américas, featuring the music of North and South American composers; the performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini ; and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 .