From There to Here – 75 Years of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
By James Paulk, ASO Annual Giving Officer
On February 4, 1945, the Atlanta Music Club sponsored a concert with Henry Sopkin conducting the Atlanta Youth Symphony Orchestra at the Grady High School Auditorium. While many of the details are lost to history, it’s unlikely that the small group of dedicated women who brought it together could have imagined that this modest ensemble, with musicians aged 11 to 25, would grow to become a renowned orchestra and chorus whose sounds and recordings echo around the globe, with community and education initiatives reaching hundreds of thousands of people each year.
Four previous attempts to form an orchestra, from 1905 to 1939, all had failed. But this time, with World War II still raging, the four women who led the effort had the foresight to hire Henry Sopkin, a genial and visionary music teacher whose unique mix of talent, enthusiasm and business skills were essential as he served as conductor, manager, fundraiser, union negotiator and even janitor. Sopkin moved quickly to develop the new ensemble, which officially became the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1947.
Two historic events capped the end of the Sopkin era. In 1965, the Orchestra received a life-changing $1.75 million Ford Foundation grant, paired with a $1 million local match (the ASO budget at the time was only $350,000).
Meanwhile, a 1962 plane crash had killed 103 of Atlanta’s leading arts patrons. Ultimately, the tragedy united Atlanta’s leaders behind the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center, later renamed the Woodruff Arts Center, which included Symphony Hall. Thanks to Sopkin, Atlanta had developed a taste for musical excellence that would endure and grow.
With the new hall and the grant money, the stage was set for a momentous transformation. With Robert Shaw’s arrival as Music Director in 1967, the Orchestra acquired one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th Century, already world-famous for his pioneering choral work. A tireless workaholic, Shaw immediately set about transforming the ASO from a part-time orchestra to an international ensemble. He made the Orchestra a recording powerhouse, winning 18 Grammy® Awards and racking up record sales in the millions. And then there’s the ASO Chorus, Shaw’s masterpiece, a 200-voice, all-volunteer ensemble whose unrivaled virtuosity helped put the Orchestra on the map. It continues as perhaps the finest volunteer choral ensemble in America.
When Shaw stepped down in 1988, the Orchestra turned to 36-year-old Romanian-born Yoel Levi, an Assistant Conductor at the Cleveland Orchestra, just as Shaw had been before coming to Atlanta. Levi set about refining the Orchestra’s sound and won praise from critics for a series of landmark recordings, especially those of Mahler’s Symphonies. Among the highlights of his tenure was an extraordinary European tour which included an emotional concert in East Berlin. His influence on the Orchestra’s sound was profound and lasting.
After Levi’s departure in 2000, the Orchestra recruited Music Director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles as a collaborative team to share responsibility for the Orchestra. A beloved figure with both musicians and fans, Maestro Spano has championed contemporary music, building relationships with a distinguished group of composers, dubbed the “Atlanta School.” His friendships across the music universe have made the ASO a destination for a parade of distinguished guest artists. Maestro Runnicles is also General Music Director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Grand Teton Music Festival.
As Jerry Garcia put it: “What a long strange trip it’s been.” The road has been rocky at times. At many junctures, the Orchestra faced financial threats, most recently in 2014.The resolution of that crisis, with the community once again coming together to support its Orchestra, set the stage for a new era. Finances have stabilized, the Orchestra’s size has been restored, and the audience has responded. The ASO will celebrate this amazing heritage with a season filled with ASO75 activities.
The ASO will hit the road with a new series called ASO75 Around the A, presented by PNC Bank. The free events range from full-orchestra concerts to intimate chamber ensemble performances featuring Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians, as well as members of the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra and Talent Development Program. The inaugural Around the A Performance will be held on Wednesday, September 25, at Centennial Olympic Park.
In conjunction with the Centennial Olympic Park performance, the ASO will unveil its first Living Walls mural, located across from the Center for Civil and Human Rights. The ASO will also unveil its very own Tiny Door on Callaway Plaza. Several concerts, including Saturday, September 21, Opening Weekend with Joshua Bell and the March 11 concert, featuring Itzhak Perlman and conductor Yoel Levi will be available via live stream for music lovers to enjoy beyond Symphony Hall.
The Orchestra will perform with Maxwell at Cadence Bank Amphitheatre on September 27, followed by Star Wars and More: The Music of John Williams at Ameris Bank Amphitheatre on September 28. The anniversary season will also be filled with special guests, including Midori, Emanuel Ax and André Watts, to name but a few. Visit aso.org to learn more about ASO75.