The League was founded in 1942 and chartered by Congress two decades later. The first grass-roots meeting on May 21, 1942, was organized by Leta Snow, manager of the Kalamazoo Symphony, who wanted to exchange information and ideas with other "civic" orchestra leaders. Twenty-three people attended the first meeting in Chicago, and 40 orchestras from 17 states subsequently accepted an invitation to join the new organization as charter members. The first newsletter, the Inter-Orchestra Bulletin, was published in October, 1942, and served as the League's voice until 1948. The League's award-winning bimonthy magazine, SYMPHONY, is a direct descendant of this newsletter.
Despite travel restrictions brought on by World War II, the League managed to convene national meetings three more times that decade, and in 1950, annual conventions were declared "the order of things." The League's first public policy challenge, and the issue which brought the smaller civic orchestras together with the larger professional orchestras (the larger, or "major" orchestras, were not part of the League when it was founded), was the campaign in 1950-51 to repeal the 20 percent federal excise tax which had been imposed on concert tickets during the war. The effort to repeal the tax was successful, due in large part to the League's leadership in forming a grassroots campaign. The League's first full-time paid executive, Helen M. Thompson, was credited with the success of the campaign, securing the League's role as representative of all U. S. orchestras, large and small.
From the mid-1950s onward, the League began collecting financial and operational data and distributing detailed industry reports, forming the origin of the League's extensive database and survey program today. The earliest training programs also began in the mid-1950s and covered an array of artistic, volunteer, and managerial topics, many of which are addressed today in contemporary versions of those original workshops and seminars through the Orchestra Leadership Academy. The League also gave form to several other independent arts organizations, including the American Council for the Arts, the Music Critics Association, and the Conductors' Guild.
Though artistic issues were addressed from the League's earliest years in myriad programs for composers and instrumentalists, conductor training programs were given special emphasis, first through annual workshops in Asilomar (California) and Orkney Springs (Virginia), and later through the Conducting Continuum. Today this includes, among other projects, annual conducting workshops and a national conductor preview. In the 1980s, the League's artistic offering was expanded by the development of new tools such as the OLIS database of symphonic repertoire and several programs which showcased the performance of new repertoire. The increased attention to artistic concerns was formalized in an artistic services department in 1983.
Since its beginning, the League has relied on volunteers to accomplish its mission. The Women's Council, established in 1964, provided a forum for presidents of orchestra volunteer associations to exchange ideas. In 1980, the Women's Council became the Volunteer Council, reflecting its expanded role in identifying and developing the League's services for orchestra volunteers. In the spring of 1998, the League changed its membership structure for volunteer associations, welcoming all volunteer associations of League member orchestras as members of the League.
Recognizing the important role youth orchestras play in nurturing young talent and in creating a cultural climate of support for all orchestras, the League formed its Youth Orchestra Division in 1975. With 193 youth orchestra members, the YOD publishes a newsletter and offers workshops and services specific to the needs of youth orchestras.
The League's role as a national advocate for orchestras dates back to the successful grass-roots campaign to repeal the federal tax on concert tickets 50 years ago. With the founding of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965, the League became an advocate for increased federal support for all the arts. The League was one of the founders of the American Arts Alliance and has participated actively in other coalitions of arts, cultural, and not-for-profit organizations on issues ranging from taxes to immigration. The League created a Government Affairs department in 1981 to reflect this expanded effort. In 1996, the League withdrew from formal participation in the American Arts Alliance and expanded its own advocacy staff and activities while broadening collaborations with Independent Sector and other groups.
In June, 1997, Charles S. Olton became the League's president and chief executive officer, the seventh in the League's history. Under Olton's leadership the League embarked on major new initiatives in leadership development, public advocacy, and artistic development, and board development.
The Orchestra Leadership Academy, the League's most comprehensive and far-reaching leadership development program, was launched in 1999, as was Music for a New Millennium, an initiative designed to assist orchestras in programming new American music through an informative web site, performances and sessions at the League's National Conference, and a composer residency program.
The year 2000 brought the Audience Motivation Research Project and new online services for League orchestra, business, and individual members. Music Alive was introduced, in partnership with Meet The Composer, offering short-term composer residencies to American orchestras. In 2002, the League built on the success of the Audience Motivation Research Project by introducing a Public Advocacy initiative that envisions a new consumer magazine, enhanced press relations, and a series of televised public service initiatives. The League issued its first annual MetLife Awards for Excellence in Community Engagement, and a new board development initiative was undertaken.
In July, 2003, Henry Fogel became the League's president and CEO, after eighteen years at the head of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association and a term as the League's board chairman. As Fogel's tenure began, the League launched several new initiatives: the American Conducting Fellows Program, placing aspiring conductors in residence at orchestras; Ford Made in America, a consortium commissioning project benefiting small-budget orchestras; an extension of the existing Music Alive composer residency program, providing for multi-season composer residencies at orchestras; and the Bank of America Awards for Excellence in Orchestra Education. Also in 2003, the League established its first endowment, dedicated to funding the existing, highly respected Orchestra Management Fellowship Program.