Born in 1959 in Flensburg, Germany, Delfs landed a conducting and composition job at his hometown's municipal theater by the age of 17. After studies at the Hamburg Conservatory and the Juilliard School, he became resident conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony during Lorin Maazel's tenure there. He has served as music director of the symphony orchestra of Bern (Switzerland), Generalmusikdirektor of the city of Hannover, (Germany; 1995-2000) and music director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (2001-2004). He has been the Milwaukee Symphony's music director since 1997; among his achievements there are re-establishing the orchestra's recording activity and leading the group to become the first US orchestra to distribute live concert recordings commercially as digital downloads. In 1999, Delfs and the MSO toured Cuba, making the group the first major American orchestra to perform on the island since 1962.
This past December, Delfs announced that he would step down from his Milwaukee position in the summer of 2009, saying that he needs to re-establish his home base in Europe in order to develop his growing career there.
Beginning next fall, Delfs will conduct the Honolulu Symphony in seven weeks of concerts each season, half of the orchestra's Halekulani Masterworks Series.
Delfs succeeds Samuel Wong, the conductor and physician who stepped down in 2005 after a decade with the Honolulu Symphony to head the Global Music Healing Institute. (Wong had concluded a very turbulent tenure at the Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2003.) JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony, has been serving as artistic adviser in the interim.
The Honolulu Symphony has suffered persistent financial and management difficulties in recent years, as well as contentious labor relations with its musicians. The orchestra's condition has improved considerably over the past 18 months, however, with the appointment of a new chief executive, a substantial increase in fundraising and a $4 million grant from the Hawaii state government.