How the National Symphony Orchestra Works

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The National Symphony Orchestra performs at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect/Getty Images

It's not the oldest professional musical organization in America, or the largest, or even the first symphony orchestra to be based in the nation's capital. But the National Symphony Orchestra has risen from humble beginnings in the Great Depression era to become a cornerstone of America's orchestral composing and performing arts scene and an international representative of American culture.

Now, after 78 years, the 100-member National Symphony Orchestra performs many of its 175 concerts a year from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, bringing classical, pops, family and new musical compositions to the public in the nation's capital.


The NSO does a bit more than your typical orchestra, though. The group performs for visiting heads of state and also at national ceremonies, including presidential inaugurations, Independence Day celebrations and the National Memorial Day Concert.

The orchestra has a well-developed educational program to provide exposure to classical music for families and students, and it also provideseducational resources for parents and teachers. Every summer, the orchestra plays a series of free concerts on the West Lawn of the Capitol building for the public. Members also put on a series of performances each year at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Va.

The National Symphony Orchestra annually travels to one of the 50 states and participates in the National Symphony Orchestra's American Residencies Project, during which the group gives performances, classes, lectures and workshops based around the culture and music of each state they visit. So far, the orchestra has visited 20 states [source: National Symphony Orchestra].

Development of new musical compositions and arrangements is also an important role of the National Symphony Orchestra. Its John and June Hechinger Commissioning Fund for New Orchestral Works is responsible for the development of more than 60 musical pieces, including cycles, fanfares and encores [source: National Symphony Orchestra].

So how did the orchestra get its start? Keep reading to learn about the history of the NSO.


History of the National Symphony Orchestra

Before there was the National Symphony Orchestra, there were a coupleattempts to organize an orchestra to represent the nation (or at least Washington, D.C.). The Washington Philharmonic started around the beginning of the 20th century, but it lasted only a year or so. The Washington Symphony Orchestra ran from 1902 to 1905, then failed to revive itself in 1907.

It wasn't until 1930 that a famed cellist from the Philadelphia Orchestra named Hans Kindler put together the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C., for its first show on Jan. 31, 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression.


For its debut season in 1931-1932, the orchestra put on 24 concerts, and its members received $40 a week to do three rehearsals and a concert every Thursday afternoon for the five-month season [source: Washington Post]. That figure may not seem like a lot by today's standards, but during the Great Depression it was a significant amount for musicians. Kindler led the National Symphony Orchestra until 1948, and died a year later.

From its beginning until 1971, the orchestra was based out of Constitution Hall in Washington D.C., which was built in 1929. Now, the National Symphony Orchestra performs a year-round schedule of classical, pops, family and summer concerts based primarily out of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts.

It's led by Ivan Fischer, the principal conductor, and German pianist and conductor Christoph Eschenbach, the music director designate of both the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center. Eschenbach will take over fully with the beginning of the 2010-2011 season [source: National Symphony Orchestra].

From 2000 until 2008, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center also operated the National Conducting Institute, designed to help develop new generations of orchestral conductors. The group also operates a summer music institute, youth fellowship programs and a young associates program to support young musical talent.


John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Music from the National Symphony Orchestra has echoed through the halls of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts since it opened in 1971. Built as a national cultural center and a living memorial to the nation's 35th president, the Kennedy Center's history begins in 1958, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the creation of a national cultural center.

After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, the proposed building was dedicated to his memory, and funds approved to build it on 17 acres of land along the banks of the Potomac River. Construction on the $70 million building began in December 1965, and the it opened to the public on Sept. 8, 1971. Today, the Kennedy Center presents more than 2,000 performances annually and attracts nearly 2 million visitors per year [source: Kennedy Center].


Inside the building is a 2,442-seat concert hall, a 2,300-seat opera house and theaters for family.The Kennedy Center hosts both small-and large-scale performances, in addition to a theater lab, a jazz cafe, a restaurant and bar, and the grand foyer, one of the largest rooms in the world [source: Kennedy Center]. The Kennedy Center receives federal funding to pay for the building's upkeep, but ticket sales and gifts pay for most of the artistic and educational programs that take place inside it.

The orchestra has performed a concert series from the Kennedy Center every year since it opened, and in 1986 it became an artistic affiliate of the center. In 1997, the Kennedy Center's Concert Hall was renovated, improving the sound quality of the orchestra's performance space significantly [source: Washington Post]. In addition, the Kennedy Center is home to regular theater, ballet, jazz, contemporary dance, opera and chamber music performances.

The center also offers permanent performing arts educational programs, as well as performances for young audiences, and workshops for career development and arts management. And even if you don't live in Washington, D.C., you can still catch something from the building. Each year, 20 million people attend one of the Kennedy Center's touring productions or tune in to one of its nationally broadcast performances [source: Kennedy Center].

For lots more information on music and arts, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Washington Post. "The NSO: 75 and Counting Its Blessings." Sept. 4, 2005. (April 12, 2010).
  • National Symphony Orchestra. "History of the National Symphony Orchestra." 2010. (April 12, 2010).
  • National Symphony Orchestra. "National Symphony Orchestra Education." 2010. (April 12, 2010).
  • National Symphony Orchestra. "National Symphony Orchestra American Residencies. 2010. (April 12, 2010).
  • "Orchestral Spotlight: National Symphony Orchestra." March 2007. (April 12, 2010).
  • National Symphony Orchestra. "Christoph Eschenbach." 2010. (April 14, 2010).
  • National Symphony Orchestra. "NSO: Discography." 2010. (April 14, 2010).
  • Kennedy Center. "Kennedy Center: History." 2010. (April 14, 2010).
  • Kennedy Center. "Kennedy Center: Virtual Tour." 2010. (April 14, 2010).
  • Kennedy Center. "The Greatest Performers and Performances." 2010. (April 14, 2010).