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Minnesota Orchestra

The Grammy Award-winning Minnesota Orchestra, now in its second century, ranks among America’s top symphonic ensembles, with a distinguished history of acclaimed performances in its home state and around the world; award-winning recordings, broadcasts and educational engagement programs; and a commitment to intentionally build concert programs to feature more works by composers of color, exploring music both contemporary and historic. This past fall, Danish conductor Thomas Søndergård began his tenure as music director.

The 2023-24 season opened in September with two festive weeks of programming led by Søndergård, the first of which spotlighted Principal Oboe Nathan Hughes as soloist. Celebrated by musicians and critics alike for his collaborative approach to music-making, Søndergård displays his chemistry with the Orchestra throughout the season. Reflecting its commitment to highlighting a great range of 21st-century compositional voices, in February 2024 the Orchestra presented a work it co-commissioned: Billy Childs’ recently premiered Diaspora, a concerto for saxophone and orchestra. In April, local hip-hop artist Nur-D will partner with the Orchestra for a set of energetic debut concerts. To close the season in June, Søndergård will present a Celebrating Pride program that features works by composers from the LGBTQ+ community, ranging from Dame Ethel Smyth to Benjamin Britten. Throughout the 2023-24 season, many leading artists in classical music will make their much-anticipated returns and debut performances at Orchestra Hall, including pianist Yuja Wang, violinist Christian Tetzlaff and trumpeter Pacho Flores. The Orchestra will also offer its annual Lunar New Year and Juneteenth celebration programs, plus performances in a variety of genres from film music concerts to performances with Tony Award-winners Audra McDonald and Kristin Chenoweth.

Alongside a full schedule of concerts for in-person audiences, select performances will be featured on This Is Minnesota Orchestra, an acclaimed series of concert broadcasts and digital exclusives for television, radio and online audiences that was launched in September 2020 when COVID-19 restrictions did not allow for in-person audiences at Orchestra Hall.

Founded as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra gave its inaugural performance on November 5, 1903, shortly after baseball’s first World Series and six weeks before the Wright brothers made their unprecedented airplane flight. The Orchestra played its first regional tour in 1907 and made its New York City debut in 1912 at Carnegie Hall, where it has performed regularly ever since. Outside the United States, the Orchestra has played concerts in Australia, Canada, East Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and South Africa. Since 1968 it has been known as the Minnesota Orchestra. In a typical year, the ensemble presents about 175 concerts heard by live audiences of 300,000, primarily at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis.

In recent years, under the leadership of Osmo Vänskä—the Orchestra’s music director from 2003-2022 who now serves as the ensemble’s conductor laureate—the Orchestra’s international tours have reaped significant acclaim. The Orchestra undertook six visits to Europe, a history-making 2018 tour in which it became the first professional U.S. orchestra ever to visit South Africa, and another momentous tour to Cuba in 2015, the first by an American orchestra since the U.S. and Cuban governments announced steps to normalize relations between the two countries.

The Orchestra’s recordings and broadcasts have drawn acclaim since the early 1920s, when the ensemble became one of the first to be heard via these media—notably making its radio debut in 1923 by playing a nationally broadcast concert under guest conductor Bruno Walter. The Orchestra’s landmark Mercury Living Presence LP recordings of the 1950s and 1960s included a Gold-certified recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture that was the first to include an authentic military cannon and bell carillon. In 2014 the Orchestra won its first Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance for a disc of Sibelius’ Symphonies No. 1 and 4. Its most recent Grammy nomination for Best Orchestral Performance came in 2017, for a recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

The Orchestra’s final recording initiative under Vänskä’s direction, which concluded in November 2022, focused on the ten symphonies of Mahler. To date, nine albums in the series have been released, most recently a disc of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in December 2023. Outside the classical realm, in 2019 the Orchestra and Principal Conductor of Live at Orchestra Hall Sarah Hicks recorded two performances with singer-rapper Dessa for Sound the Bells, an album released by Doomtree Records that debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Chart for both classical crossover and current classical.

The Orchestra’s Friday night classical performances, currently hosted by Melissa Ousley, are broadcast live regionally by YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio, a weekly tradition for more than half a century. Over the years, many programs have been subsequently featured on American Public Media’s national programs, SymphonyCast and Performance Today.

In addition to offering traditional concerts, the Orchestra connects with more than 85,000 music lovers in a typical year through family concerts and educational programs including Young People’s Concerts. In recent seasons the Orchestra brought the series to a large online audience with Young People’s Concert webcasts, which have reached students around the globe. Over the course of the 2023-24 season, the Orchestra will present five distinct programs encompassing 23 total performances. In addition, the Orchestra’s popular Hall Pass initiative allows young listeners ages 6 to 18 to attend select concerts free of charge.

In 2011, extending a long tradition of performances throughout the state of Minnesota, the Orchestra launched Common Chords. This multi-year initiative creates partnerships between the Orchestra and participating Minnesota cities, culminating in a celebratory festival week that features performances and dozens of activities that reflect the interests, diversity and heritage of each community. Launched with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Common Chords presented its first festival week in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in 2011; subsequent partnerships have taken the Orchestra to Willmar, Hibbing, Bemidji, Detroit Lakes, Mankato and Austin. In January 2019 the Orchestra held its first Twin Cities-area Common Chords week, spending a week in North Minneapolis.

Along with its core series of classical concerts, the Minnesota Orchestra presents Live at Orchestra Hall, a lineup of concerts by a broad spectrum of artists; conductor Sarah Hicks, a member of the Orchestra’s artistic leadership since 2006, leads the series, which features a wide variety of genres including film music, jazz, Broadway musicals, hip-hop and folk rock, to name a few. Since 1980 the Orchestra has ended each season with a beloved urban summer music festival known for most of that time as Sommerfest. In 2019, the Orchestra outlined a new leadership model for the festival, now called Summer at Orchestra Hall, and appointed pianist Jon Kimura Parker as the festival’s creative partner. The first edition of Summer at Orchestra Hall in 2022 focused on the music and influence of Ludwig van Beethoven, and the second edition in 2023 had the theme of “Music in Motion,” inviting breaking collective BRKFST Dance Company as the festival’s artist-in-residence.

In 2017 the Orchestra launched the Minnesota Orchestra Fellowship, an ongoing program of two-year residencies intended to encourage greater diversity in the orchestral field by supporting the career development of outstanding young musicians of African American, Latin American and Native American descent as they embark on professional orchestral careers. To date, eight musicians have served as Fellows. The Minnesota Orchestra Fellowship is generously supported by Rosemary and David Good, and Margee and Will Bracken.

Nearly every concert in the two most recent seasons included music by a composer of color, and that strong commitment to centering music by composers of African, Middle Eastern, Latin, Indigenous and Asian descent continues throughout the 2023-24 season. In October 2021 the Orchestra held a week of recording sessions in collaboration with YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio featuring music by five Black composers, the results of which have become part of a database called the African Diaspora Music Project to greater spread the reach of these previously unrecorded compositions. The initiative, known as the Listening Project, continues with a public concert in November 2023.

The Orchestra nourishes a strong commitment to contemporary composers, and in the past two decades its Composer Institute has offered 155 emerging composers an intense immersion into the orchestral world. Since 1903 the Orchestra has premiered and/or commissioned more than 300 compositions, including works by John Adams, Kalevi Aho, Dominick Argento, Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, John Corigliano, John Harbison, Paul Hindemith, Charles Ives, Aaron Jay Kernis, Libby Larsen, Bongani Ndodana-Breen, Stephen Paulus, Kevin Puts, Carlos Simon, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.

In October 2021 the Orchestra won the Gramophone Orchestra of the Year Award, chosen by popular vote from a curated slate of 10 orchestras from around the world. Other major honors earned by the Orchestra in recent years include 20 awards for adventuresome programming from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), including five Leonard Bernstein Awards for Education Programming between 2005 and 2012 and, in 2008, the John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music.

Music directors of the Orchestra have included Emil Oberhoffer (1903-1922), Henri Verbrugghen (1923-1931), Eugene Ormandy (1931-1936), Dimitri Mitropoulos (1937-1949), Antal Dorati (1949-1960), Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (1960-1979), Sir Neville Marriner (1979-1986), Edo de Waart (1986-1995), Eiji Oue (1995-2002) and Osmo Vänskä (2003-2022). Thomas Søndergård began his tenure as the Orchestra’s 11th music director in September 2023.