The first music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was Leopold Sipe, who formed it and raised it to a high level of achievement before stepping down in 1972. During his tenure, the orchestra became the only full-time chamber orchestra in the United States in 1968, remaining the only one until 1978.
Sipe was succeeded in 1972 by Dennis Russell Davies, who became known for his alert performances and interest in newer repertory. The famous violinist, violist, and conductor Pinchas Zukerman took the leadership position in 1980. Under his leadership, the SPCO made a move to its acoustically outstanding new hall, Ordway Auditorium in St. Paul, which also hosts several Minnesota Orchestra concerts a year as well as being the home of Minnesota Opera. When Zukerman left in 1987, he was succeeded by an unusual triumvirate. By the beginning of the 1988 - 1989 season, Hugh Wolff was appointed principal conductor, conductor-harpsichordist Christopher Hogwood was director of music, and conductor-composer John Adams was creative chair. By 1992, two left and Wolff was named music director.
The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra comprises 33 highly skilled, solo-quality players and can be expanded and contracted depending on repertory. The orchestra has toured extensively in Europe, North and South America, and Asia. It has played at nearly all of America's great concert halls, including Carnegie Hall, and at the Musikverein in Vienna. On radio it has a highly popular concert series and an informal concert-discussion series called "Saint Paul Sunday" recorded by Minnesota Public Radio and distributed to over 160 stations by Public Radio International. It plays a 38-week season of over 150 concerts a year.
The SPCO has won ten awards from ASCAP (the composers' rights licensing organization) for adventurous programming. It has commissioned more than eighty new compositions and released close to sixty commercial recordings. Its recording of the complete original version of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring ballet score won a Grammy Award. Wolff retired from his position with the SPCO at the end of the 1999 - 2000 season. In the following season, concerts were played by a number of guest conductors as well as Nicholas McGegan (the SPCO's Baroque series director) and Bobby McFerrin, holder of the creative chair. In October, 2000, the SPCO announced the hiring of German conductor Andreas Delfs, music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, as its new music director.