John Lemley and Mark Gresham | 24 SEP 2019
Now that the opening weekend of concerts are over and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary season has officially begun, it’s time for a good look at the orchestra’s history and a look at what’s in store for 2019-20.
It is also music director Robert Spano’s penultimate year at the helm of the orchestra, so 2019-20 is the first of two consecutive years of celebration. The programming schedule for the ASO’s 75th anniversary classical season can be read directly online or you can download the season brochure as a PDF file.
When Spano steps down at the end of the 2020-21 season he will end his tenure as only the fourth music director in the ASO’s 75 years history. After next season is over, Spano will have served a total of 20 years as music director.
If that length of tenure seems rather old-fashioned in this jet-setting age of career climbing, with professionals in all fields jumping from one job to another, that’s okay. Longevity is an traditionally asset around these parts. Atlanta, is after all a Southern city, whether it admits that or not, and we native Southerners have long tended to measure things, and their worth, against the often too-well-remembered past. History matters.
We could easily isolate the history of the Atlanta Symphony to itself, it would be more informative to put it in perspective of city, state and and even national events. So let’s take a tour of the ASO’s history, with some nods to that larger context, framed by the tenures of the orchestra’s four artistic leaders.
Henry Sopkin: 1945-1966
The birth of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra happened in the fall of 1944, when what then called the Atlanta Youth Symphony began rehearsals in preparation for concerts the following February and April. The young musicians were auditioned and selected by Marcia Weissgerber, who taught music at what was then Girls’ High School. Henry Sopkin, a noted educator and conductor of youth orchestras in Chicago, was invited be guest conductor for the concerts. He did not participate in the fall rehearsals, but arrived in Atlanta 10 days before each concert to lead final days of rehearsals and the concerts themselves.
The Youth Symphony’s first concert, which took place at what was then the Municipal Auditorium at the corner of Courtland and Gilmer Streets, began with the National Anthem, and included music by Rossini, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, J.S. Bach, Borodin, Sibelius and Morton Gould. It was performed for a capacity audience.
By the time those first rehearsals began in 1944, the United States had been involved in World War II for almost three years. The Allied invasion of Normandy, “D-Day,” had taken place that June 6. Atlanta played a vital role in the Allied effort due to its war-related manufacturing companies, network of railroads, and military bases that included the Third Army headquarters at Fort McPherson. William B. Hartsfield was serving in his second tenure as Mayor of Atlanta, an office he would continue to hold until 1962. The Governor of Georgia was liberal Democrat Ellis Arnall, argued that youths old enough to fight in war should be able to vote for their country’s leadership. Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term as President of the United States, but would die in office only 11 weeks into that final term.
On the national music scene that same fall, Martha Graham’s ballet Appalachian Spring, with music by Aaron Copland, made its debut that October at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. In December a British military aircraft carrying American bandleader Glenn Miller disappeared into the English Channel.
Against this backdrop, Sopkin officially accepted the position of music director in 1945. The Atlanta Symphony Guild was formed, receiving its corporate charter that September. The Atlanta Youth Symphony was considered a huge success during it first few years, and in January 1947 its name was changed to Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
That year, the orchestra became a mix of amateur and professional musicians for ticketed concerts, with the expectation that the orchestra would in time become fully professional. That came about in the early 1950s, and the ASO touted itself as one of the top 25 orchestras in the nation. For the first time, in 1952, the orchestra ended its season without a deficit. The decade became a period of relative stability and the orchestra’s concert offerings began to expand, it gained national attention for its close involvement in community affairs and Sopkin’s frequent programming of music by American composers.
In 1957, the ASO moved its performances from the problematic Municipal Auditorium to the smaller by acoustically better Tower theater. But the orchestra was obliged to move back to the Municipal audiium in 1962 when the Tower Theater was suddenly sold. By this time, talk of building a new concert hall as in the air. But on June 3, 1962, Air France Flight 007, filled with Atlanta’s elite crashed in failed takeoff at Orly Airport in France. there were 130 fatalities, 106 of them art patrons heading home to Atlanta on the charter flight.
In the wake of tragedy, Atlanta did not give up, even with the failure only two months later of a bond referendum to build an new hall. The city’s leading arts groups, including the Atlanta Symphony, joined forces as the Atlanta Arts Alliance, laying plans for a new cultural center dedicated to the memory those who died in the Orly plane crash.
Ground was broken in June 1966 for the Memorial Arts Center, which would contain a new Symphony Hall, but Sopkin never got to conduct there, having retired at the end of the 1965-66 season. It would be the up to a new music director to lead the first concerts there.
The story continues in Part Two