In 1894 Morris Steinert, an immigrant from Germany, was persuaded by a group of New Haven amateur musicians to form a symphony orchestra. Steinert was a music merchant and an instrumentalist, who played piano, organ, flute, cello, and violin. Many of the men who approached Steinert to form an orchestra were also German-Americans seeking to continue the traditions of their native country in their new land, where classical music was less appreciated. Steinert consented and the group started rehearsals upstairs above his piano store.
The first performance of the fledgling orchestra took place in January 1895 at a now-defunct theater on Chapel Street near the present Union League Café. The program included works by Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schubert, as well as two solos performed by Isidore Troostwyk, a Dutch-born violinist who had recently arrived as a Professor of Music at Yale. Troostwyk served as concertmaster of the new orchestra. The conductor was Horatio William Parker, also newly arrived at Yale and already a composer of some reputation. It was through Parker’s leadership and commitment over more than two decades that the Symphony was gradually transformed from a local band into an accomplished symphony orchestra.
In its early years, the NHSO was closely tied to Yale, drawing its conductors from the School of Music faculty and serving on occasion as a laboratory for Yale composers and performers. The University also offered financial and organizational support. Until the construction of Woolsey Hall, the orchestra performed in various local venues including the Hyperion Theater, Alumni Hall (later replaced by Wright Hall, on Elm St) and College Street Hall (on the site of the present Palace Theater). In the 1901-02 season program notes were introduced, and sold at the door for ten or fifteen cents.
In 1901 Yale commissioned the construction of Woolsey Hall to commemorate the university’s bicentennial. When completed, the hall, with its large auditorium and imposing pipe organ, became the chief performance venue of the NHSO. The first concert at Woolsey featured an overture composed by a member of the School of Music faculty and an organ concerto written by Horatio Parker’s former teacher.
Until the 1930s, the repertoire was exclusively classical, but in 1939 Harry Berman, Assistant Conductor of the NHSO, established a Civic Orchestra to play light classics, Gilbert and Sullivan, single movements of famous symphonies, and other pieces that would appeal to a broad audience. Some of the musicians in the Civic Orchestra also played in the NHSO and appreciated the extra work during the latter years of the Depression.
The years of World War II were good years for the NHSO as restrictions on travel, especially gasoline rationing, meant that people made the best of opportunities close at hand. The 1944 concerts at Woolsey Hall were virtually sold out before the season began. Soloists’ contracts included a clause that exempted the orchestra from liability if, concerts had to be cancelled because of war conditions. The second balcony of Woolsey was closed in 1942 because it lacked adequate exits for swift evacuation, should there be an emergency.
The Pops concerts as such began 1945, with the first performance indoors at the New Haven Arena, on Grove Street, home of the New Haven Eagles ice hockey team. Later that summer four more concerts were played in the Yale Bowl, for which a band shell was eventually constructed. The shell cost $10,000 to build and each year was dismantled and reassembled at a cost of $2,000. The outdoor concerts were a great financial success, drawing nearly 40,000 people the first summer. The first performance, conducted by Harry Berman, included light classics and favorites from Oklahoma!, which had opened on Broadway two years earlier.
Berman was also instrumental in establishing the Children’s Concerts, which were first given in Yale’s Sprague Hall in 1933 and later in Woolsey Hall, supported by Yale. The concerts were relatively inexpensive—$5 for four concerts, and featured outstanding young performers, some from as far away as the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. The audiences were large, drawn from the New Haven area but listeners also traveled from as far away as Bridgeport and Waterbury.
In 1969 the orchestra celebrated its 75th anniversary. A commemorative program was published with a folded gold sheet bearing a picture of the orchestra on the cover. Rudolf Serkin played Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, and the orchestra also performed two movements from Bach’s Suite in D and Brahms’s Second Symphony.
Throughout the years, the NHSO continued these traditions of performance and education—supporting programs in the schools and community, and presenting both classical repertoire and pops concerts. The orchestra has performed regularly in New Haven and has also toured throughout Connecticut and beyond (including performances at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall); it has given numerous radio broadcasts and made the world-premiere recording of the complete five-movement version of Mahler's first symphony. The orchestra celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1994.
In 2007, William Boughton became the tenth Music Director and Principal Conductor of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. Under his leadership and that of Executive Director Elaine Carroll, programs have expanded both geographically and musically, with concerts being performed in new venues, and new partnerships offering opportunities to share the NHSO’s high musical standards with audiences throughout Connecticut. Outreach programs and Community Partnerships with other arts organizations have expanded the reach of the orchestra throughout the region.
The NHSO's education prgrams have broadened in scope as well. Composers-in-Residence, including Augusta Read Thomas, Jin Hi Kim, Christopher Theofanidis, and Daniel Bernard Roumain have shared their talents and knowledge with Connecticut students through in-school programs, individual mentoring, and the Young Composers Project. A Junior Board program was established for high school students, providing leadership training, volunteer opportunities, and a chance to interact and learn directly from a professional operating orchestra. The NHSO's Young People's Concerts are a vital part of a curriculum-rich Education program, and reach over 12,000 schoolchildren each year.
In March 2008, the NHSO was chosen as one of seven orchestras nationwide to participate in the League of American Orchestras’ highly competitive three-year Institutional Vision Program. In December 2009, the orchestra was featured in the Miramax film Everybody’s Fine starring Robert DeNiro. In 2010, the Orchestra released its first commercial CD in over thirty years—a disc featuring the music of William Walton on the Nimbus (London) label, which was recognized as a "Critic's Choice" by Gramophone Magazine. The orchestra also recived the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers award for "Adventuresome Programming," reflecting its renewed commitment to performing the music of contemporary composers.
Now in its 120th year of continuous operation, the New Haven Symphony Orchestra continues to fulfil its mission of touching the lives of those in the region with a broad array of musical offerings, played to the highest standards.