The History of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Founded in 1930 by German conductor and local violin teacher Ferdinand Schaefer

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1930 by German conductor and local violin teacher Ferdinand Schaefer. At first, comprised of volunteer musicians who split the revenue from ticket sales, the ISO became a professional orchestra with salaried musicians in 1937. That same year, Fabien Sevitzky – a Russian-born conductor and nephew of famed conductor Serge Koussevitsky – became Music Director of the ISO. Sevitzky’s appointment was highlighted in an April 5, 1937 article in Time Magazine, which began, “Of Midwestern orchestras, none has risen so rapidly or so recently as the Indianapolis Symphony.”

Soon after, the ISO blossomed into one of the nation’s most renowned orchestras. Sevitzky worked to promote the ISO through a variety of national radio broadcasts, and his successor, Izler Solomon, ensured the creation of the Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University as a venue meant specifically for the ISO (until then, the ISO had been performing at the Murat Theater). Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the ISO traveled around the world to perform “Salute” concerts in countries such as Finland, Korea, Japan, Formosa, Portugal, The Netherlands, Israel, Mexico, Austria, Venezuela, Thailand, Greece, and Chile – earning the Orchestra a Citation from the Voice of America and the United States Information Agency as well as a letter of commendation from President John F. Kennedy – the first-ever such commendation to a symphony orchestra.

Solomon’s successor, John Nelson (1976-1987), is associated with the Orchestra’s appearances at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, plus a debut European tour in 1987. In the summer of 1982, a 14-year-old violinist named Joshua Bell was the first performer for the ISO’s Symphony on the Prairie series, and in 1984, the ISO moved downtown to its new home at the restored movie palace — the Circle Theatre.

In 1987, internationally renowned performer, conductor, and composer, Raymond Leppard (1987-2001) was selected as the Orchestra’s fifth Music Director. During his tenure, several key accomplishments took place: a return to regular recording with a series of CDs on the Koss Classics and Decca labels; performances on NPR’s “Performance Today”; nationally-syndicated radio broadcasts of ISO concerts; acclaimed tours on the East Coast and two tours of Europe; and a performance at Carnegie Hall as part of the venue’s centennial season.

Following Maestro Leppard’s retirement, Mario Venzago was appointed Music Director (2002-2009) and led the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in a deeper commitment to repertoire of the mid-19th century — specifically works by Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann — the Second Viennese School, contemporary scores and new commissions, including Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto with world-renowned violinist Hilary Hahn in 2008.

From 2011-2021 Krzysztof Urbański served as the seventh Music Director of the ISO, and upon his appointment, was the youngest Music Director of any major American orchestra. During Urbański’s tenure, the ISO was selected to perform at SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in April 2018.

The ISO welcomed Jun Märkl as its eighth Music Director of the ISO effective September 1, 2024, which marks the beginning of the 2024–25 season. Prior to that, Maestro Märkl will make his debut as music director designate conducting The Music of Strauss on January 26–27, 2024, at Hilbert Circle Theatre amid a week of celebrations. 

Music Directors

Ferdinand Schaefer (1930-1937)
Fabien Sevitzky (1937-1955)
Izler Solomon (1956-1975)
John Nelson (1976-1987)
Raymond Leppard (1987-2001), Conductor Laureate from 2001 to his death in 2019
Mario Venzago (2002-2009)
Krzysztof Urbański (2011-2021)
Jun Märkl (2024-present)

Pops Conductors

Erich Kunzel, Pops Music Director (1982-2002)
Jack Everly, Principal Pops Conductor (2002-present)