Like Cincinnati, St. Louis benefited from an influx of German immigrants after 1848, who brought an appetite for Old World musical culture that took the form of the Sängerbund, supplemented after 1865 by the Theodore Thomas Orchestra's annual tour concerts. As Cincinnati's May Festivals became a regular port of call for Thomas until his death in 1905, Saint Louis created a Musical Union Orchestra in 1879, and two years later a Choral Society. These merged in 1893 and performed together until 1907, when the Saint Louis Symphony Society was formed. A violist from the Boston Symphony, Max Zach, was engaged as conductor. By the time he died in mid-season 1921, the orchestra had grown from 64 to 82 players and the season to 15 pairs of concerts in the Odeon Theater.
Saint Louis wanted Fritz Kreisler as their next conductor, but settled for Rudolph Ganz, the Swiss-born piano virtuoso from Florenz Ziegfeld's Chicago Musical College. Before their first rehearsal Ganz stated forthrightly, "Gentlemen, the orchestra is not my instrument, so please, do your best and we will learn together." They tried for the next six seasons, which included records on RCA Victor's Blue Label, national recognition for Ganz's children's concerts, and an introduction to the music of Mahler, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg. When the Odeon burned down in 1926, forcing the orchestra to play in Washington University Field House, 15 post-season pop concerts were added.
Ganz left in 1927, and Vladimir Golschmann was selected after four seasons of guest conductors. Like Sergey Koussevitzky in Boston, he was Russian-born, but made his career in Paris with eponymous concerts of new music. Under him the orchestra not only survived the Depression but flourished. In 1934, it occupied half of the new Kiel Auditorium (although one could hear basketball crowds on the other side of a steel fire-curtain when both tenants played on the same night). In 1955, however, a tired Golschmann was named emeritus. Unluckily for Saint Louis, a three-year search netted Belgian-born Edouard van Remoortel. His contract was not extended beyond 1962, leading to another search, another unsatisfactory choice: Brazilian Eleazar Carvalho, whose appetite for avant-garde music was not matched by finesse in the standard repertory. However, before his resignation in 1966, conversion of the 40-year-old Saint Louis (film) Theater into Powell Hall, one of America's acoustic showplaces, had begun.
Walter Susskind inaugurated Powell in 1968 and stayed for seven stabilizing seasons, bringing with him Leonard Slatkin as assistant conductor. Jerzy Semkow followed in 1975 for four seasons (when Thomas Peck was engaged to form a symphony chorus). By 1979, Slatkin was importuned to become music director, and in 17 seasons before he moved to Washington, D.C., made the orchestra one of North America's finest. After more than 20 years on Vox Records, Saint Louis returned to RCA, and added EMI. In 1996, Slatkin was succeeded by Dutch-born Hans Vonk, former Cologne Radio (1990-1997) and Dresden Staatskapelle (1985-1990) music director.