Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
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. Its recordings are widely praised and have won many honors, including twenty-six Grammy awards as of 2006. Employing nearly 100 full-time musicians and a staff of 65, the ASO is a constituent of the Woodruff Arts Center located on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. It 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 first ensemble to bear the title Atlanta Symphony Orchestra premiered on October 7, 1923, with sixty players drawn from pit orchestras of the Howard and Metropolitan Theaters. The group presented a series of Sunday afternoon concerts under New York conductor Enrico Leide. 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. Levi is music director emeritus of the ASO, music artistic advisor to the Flemish Radio Orchestra, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
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. In a short time their concerts and recordings with the orchestra and chorus have drawn admiring reviews from critics. The Spano-conducted CD of A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams won three Grammy awards in February 2003, and Runnicles's CD 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

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.

Volunteer Support

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 through such projects as the Decorators' Show House, Atlanta Symphony Ball, Sleighbell Luncheon and Fashion Show, Annual Fund Campaign, and sales of their own cookbook, Sounds Delicious. The ASA also brings classical music into the lives of more than 40,000 children and adults annually by presenting an Adult Education and Meet the Artist series, ushering for children's concerts, and orchestrating outreach projects. They host ASA Nights at the Symphony and the ASYO Annual Ball, as well as appreciation events for ASO musicians, chorus, and staff.

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 eight 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.
Led by a visionary and hard-working board of directors who represent varied constituencies in the city's business and artistic life, the ASO recently completed a major fund-raising drive to increase its endowment funds by $40 million, in order to support its continued growth and its many community-based programs. It is now embarked on an ambitious project to build a new Symphony Center, which will include a concert hall and recital hall, rehearsal and office spaces, and state-of-the-art educational facilities. A team of internationally acclaimed designers has been selected, including the acoustical firm Kirkegaard and Associates, theatrical-design consultants Auerbach Pollock Friedlander, and renowned architect Santiago Calatrava.


Further Reading
Lea Agnew and David Hughes Duke, "Atlanta Symphony Orchestra," Atlanta History 38, no. 1-2 (1994): 60-77.
Cite This Article
Jones, Nick. "Atlanta Symphony Orchestra." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 21 March 2021. Web. 03 August 2021.
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