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Inside the Music

Happy Birthday, Minnesota Orchestra!

This Friday the Minnesota Orchestra celebrates its 118th birthday—the anniversary of the ensemble’s first-ever concert on November 5, 1903, led by founding Music Director Emil Oberhoffer at Minneapolis’ International Auditorium.

At that performance—and for the subsequent 65 years—the ensemble was known as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. About 50 musicians took the stage that cold November night, all men, with the exception of the evening’s featured soloist, renowned opera soprano Marcella Sembrich. The program comprised 11 works, the longest of which were Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Liszt’s Les Préludes and Rossini’s William Tell Overture. On three later occasions in the Orchestra’s history, in November 1927, November 1993 and November 2003, the Orchestra paid tribute to its first concert by playing an identical or near-identical program.

What else was going on in the U.S. at the time of the Orchestra’s inaugural concert? The first motion picture with a plot, The Great Train Robbery, had been filmed, and the Wright Brothers were preparing for their first airplane flight the next month in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. That summer, the Ford Motor Company was founded in Detroit. On the national sports scene, the Boston Americans baseball team had just won the first World Series, defeating the Pittsburgh Pirates five games to three. Closer to home, the University of Minnesota football team had just played to a hard-fought draw of 6 to 6 with its nemesis, the Michigan Wolverines.

Leading up to its first performance, the full Orchestra rehearsed up to three times a week—nine rehearsals in all—and players earned $1.50 per rehearsal, with an additional $6 due for the concert. Finances were kept afloat thanks to a community-wide “Guaranty Fund,” the annual fundraising effort that continues to this day.

A week before the first concert, the program’s intended soloist, Dutch baritone Anton van Rooy, withdrew due to a commitment with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Orchestra quickly engaged soprano Marcella Sembrich for the sky-high fee of $1,800—more than $50,000 in today’s dollars—on the grounds that the Orchestra should spare no expense in its first concert, and that a “big name” would draw more listeners to the concert. The gambit worked, as an estimated 3,000 concertgoers attended the first performance on a below-freezing Minneapolis night.

Sembrich spoke highly of the new ensemble to the assembled press, remarking that “the tone quality of the new Minneapolis orchestra is splendid, and in Mr. Oberhoffer you have a leader who is not only a cultured musician but an extraordinary conductor.” Media criticism was also kind, with the Minneapolis Times stating: “What Mr. Oberhoffer has accomplished in so short a time…is little short of marvelous.”

Since that first concert in 1903, the Minnesota Orchestra has weathered tides which Oberhoffer and his musicians could not have envisioned—the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, the Great Depression, two World Wars, the Great Recession and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to the support of audiences and donors, the music continues and the Orchestra embarks on its next 118 years.

Music and Maestros by John K. Sherman, a history of the Orchestra’s founding and first half-century, was a key source for this article. Photo at top: founding Music Director Emil Oberhoffer and the then-Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in the early 1900s.