The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) is the most widely recognized orchestra and largest arts organization in the southeastern United States. It offers a variety of concerts year-round, in addition to outreach and educational programs in area schools and communities.
The ASO’s recordings are widely praised and have won many honors, including dozens of Grammy awards. It is a constituent of the Woodruff Arts Center and receives strong community support through its volunteer guild, the Atlanta Symphony Associates. In 1997 the ASO was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
The original conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was Italian-born Enrico Leide, who came to Atlanta from New York in 1920 to perform at the Howard, Paramount, and Old Metropolitan Theaters. Although there is some debate as to the orchestra’s premier performance, records indicate that an early concert was held on October 7, 1923, with sixty players drawn from pit orchestras of the Howard and Metropolitan Theaters. The group later presented a series of Sunday afternoon concerts under Leide’s direction. The advent of talking motion pictures and the subsequent stock market crash in October 1929 dissolved the group before the end of the decade. In 1945 another ensemble under Chicago conductor Henry Sopkin (1903-88) was organized by music teachers in the public schools and sponsored by the Atlanta Music Club; it was called the Atlanta Youth Symphony. Adult musicians were added gradually, necessitating a name change in 1947 to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and by 1951 the ASO was entirely made up of professionals.
Under Sopkin’s leadership, the ASO became one of the country’s top twenty-five orchestras. It commissioned new works, began touring, and hosted famous guest artists ranging from violinist Isaac Stern to composer and conductor Igor Stravinsky. Sopkin, who retired in 1966, had made a considerable financial sacrifice to come to Atlanta, and he devoted the rest of his career to building the ASO.
Beginning in 1967, Robert Shaw headed the ASO as music director and conductor. After overseeing the conversion from a part-time, nine-month ensemble to a full-time, year-round employer, he improved the orchestra’s playing skills, founded the ASO choruses, and brought the orchestra to national prominence through extensive touring, appearances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and Carnegie Hall in New York City, national radio broadcasts, and its first professional recordings.
Shaw also led the ASO in meaningful engagement with the African American community, hiring the orchestra’s first Black players, prompting the election of the first Black members of its board, bringing in many African Americans as guest conductors and performers, and forging relationships with the predominantly Black colleges of the Atlanta University Center. At his retirement in 1988, he led the ASO and Chorus on their first European tour, performing in East and West Germany, Switzerland, France, and Great Britain.
Shaw was followed by Yoel Levi, who served as music director from 1988 to 2000. Born in Romania in 1950 and brought up in Israel, Levi symbolized the ASO’s increasingly international outlook. He made many recordings with the orchestra and in 1991 led its second tour of Europe. The ASO performed concerts in fifteen cities, including London, England; Paris, France; and Vienna, Austria. Levi expanded the orchestra, bringing in many fine new players. His discerning ear for such important aspects of ensemble technique as balance, intonation, and fine gradations of dynamics honed the ASO into one of the finest orchestras in the world.
Robert Spano became music director in September 2001, and Donald Runnicles was named principal guest conductor, forming a unique creative partnership with senior ASO staff for developing musical programs and other projects. The Spano-conducted performance of A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams won three Grammy awards in February 2003, and Runnicles’s recording of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana received two Grammy nominations. Spano led the ASO and Chorus on the opening night of the 2003 Ravinia Festival in Chicago, and he conducted them at Carnegie Hall in 2004.
Youth Programs and Volunteer Support
Mindful of the need to train young instrumentalists for excellence in future musical careers, the ASO sponsors the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra (ASYO), an ensemble of 120 players of high school age who are chosen by competitive audition, rehearse under ASO conductors and coaches, and give three or more public concerts each year. Former ASYO players include a winner of the Naumburg Competition, members of the ASO and many other American orchestras, and faculty members of a number of music schools.
In addition to the ASYO, the ASO’s educational programs include the Talent Development Program, which develops young minority players on an individual basis through coaching and mentoring by ASO musicians, and Young People’s Concerts, which provides an educational experience for students from preschool through secondary school. High school and college students can meet ASO musicians and tour Symphony Hall in conjunction with the orchestra’s regular concert series. Orchestra members also volunteer their time to take music into Atlanta-area schools on a regular basis.
The Atlanta Symphony Associates (ASA) is the orchestra’s volunteer support organization. Originally founded in 1945 to handle ushering, program books, and other aspects of concert production, it has grown into a broad-based group of dedicated volunteers who raise more than $1 million annually for the ASO. The ASA promotes engagement with classical music by offering diverse programming that targets both adults and children.
Present and Future Plans
The orchestra gives more than 200 performances annually, including its principal classical subscription series, pops concerts in Symphony Hall and the Chastain Park Amphitheater, family and children’s programs, free summer parks concerts, and out-of-town performances throughout Georgia and farther afield. It is supplemented by the all-volunteer Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus of 200 voices, winner of multiple Grammy awards for Best Choral Performance, and the elite ASO Chamber Chorus of 40-60 voices. The choruses were founded and trained by Robert Shaw, widely revered as the dean of American choral directors, and are now directed by Norman Mackenzie.
Plans for a new arts center designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava were scuttled in 2007 due to funding constraints and the ASO underwent a period of financial distress. Labor disputes and layoffs followed, and the 2014 season was postponed due to a strike. But after a period of belt-tightening, the ASO balanced its books and, with support from a successful Woodruff Arts Center capital campaign, was able to restore positions that were suspended only a few years prior. Discussion of a new home, either refurbished or newly built, have resumed as well, though new funding would likely be required to finance such a venture.