Robert Shaw in Rehearsal (ASO Archives)

The Atlanta Symphony at 75, part two

Mark Gresham | 11 OCT 2019

(Continued from Part One.)

If obliged to select only a single word to best identify the American South in the 1960s, it would have to be “change.”

That was that decade when the social and economic machine of the late twentieth century began to most dramatically sweep across the region. In its dense study, The Economics of Southern Growth, completed only a decade and a half later, the Southern Growth Policies Board went as far as bluntly declaring that “1965, the year by which both the voting rights and civil rights act had been passed, was for the South what 1945 had been for Germany and Japan,” comparing that legal and social defeat of the Old South by the rest of the nation with the liberation of Europe and Asia by the Allies in World War II. While that metaphor may be hyperbole in the extreme, one might arguably call it the beginning of a Second Reconstruction that followed a decade or so of a restless, entrenched Cold Civil War of sorts.


While Houston is ranked as number four among major American cities, behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, Atlanta was then and remains the undeniable hub and capital of the South. Even so, all across the region you can still find people who insist (wrongly) that Atlanta isn’t a part the “Real South.” But let’s also be honest: local natives know there was and still remains a bit of tangible dichotomy between “Atlanta” and “Georgia” in terms of politics and social perspectives.

Nevertheless, in the 1960s, Atlanta was ripe and eager for economic and cultural growth, even if it was not entirely prepared for major changes to come.

In 1961 Mayor William B. Hartsfield oversaw construction of a new international airport on the site of what had been Candler Field, Atlanta’s first airport – a former automotive racetrack which, as a city alderman in 1925, Hartsfield had recommended the city purchase for constricting the original airport in the first place. Hartsfield was only 13 when the Wright Brothers seminal aircraft took of at Kitty Hawk. Making Atlanta the region’s major port to the skies became his career-long ambition. This new Atlanta airport proved pivotal to the economic future and growth of the city.

A 1961 postcard touts Atlanta's new international airport.

A 1961 postcard touts Atlanta’s new international airport.

The Atlanta Art Association had great ambitions as well. In the spring of 1962, the group organized a tour of European museums to explore the possibilities for creating a new cultural center that would serve as a major hub for the city’s arts, which would include a home for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as well as theater and an art museum and college. But tragedy struck on June 3, when the chartered Air France Flight 007 carrying the entourage crashed on takeoff at Orly Field near Paris, France, killing 106 of Atlanta’s most devoted arts patrons.

National tragedy would soon follow with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson filling the gaping void left by Kennedy’s death. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed under Johnson’s watch, and after his re-election the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. The sweeping Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 soon followed, though it was not one of Johnson’s own legislative priorities.


Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are a-Changin” in 1963, releasing it on his eponymous 1964 record album. Indeed, the times were changing, and the song became one theme for the era. But not all changes were necessarily for the better.

There were 16,000 American military personnel stationed in Vietnam at the time of Kennedy’s death, but under Johnson, American military involvement grew dramatically. By 1967, when Robert Shaw arrived to become the new music director of the the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, that number had risen to 525,000. Domestic opposition to the war had also radically increased.

The Mayor of Atlanta at that time was Ivan Allen, Jr., who provided pivotal leadership for the city’s social and economic transformations in the wake of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Allen was convinced that the South could never thrive economically under segregation, and had forged alliances with Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders in the African American community. He had been the sole white Southern politician of note to testify before Congress in favor of what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The Atlanta skyline in 1968, looking south along the expressway toward North Avenue and the downtown skyline. The Equitable Building is the skyscraper under construction. (source: Atlanta Time Machine)]

The Atlanta skyline in 1968, looking south along the expressway toward North Avenue and the downtown skyline. The Equitable Building is the skyscraper under construction. (source: Atlanta Time Machine)

In great contrast, the Governor of Georgia at the time was the controversial Lester Maddox, known as a staunch segregationist who had already become infamous for refusing to serve black customers in his Atlanta restaurant, The Pickrick, in defiance of the the 1964 Civil Rights Act, though the restaurant had a number of black employees including guitarist Bobby Lee Sears, working there as a dishwasher and with whom Maddox would later form a musical comedy act.

Into this extraordinary, seemingly anomalous social milieu stepped the eminent conductor and humanist Robert Lawson Shaw.

The ASO’s Board had been looking for a specific pair of traits in a new music director, and Shaw possessed both of them: an established musician of international stature, for his reputation as a choral director, and a developing orchestral conductor who could grow along with the orchestra.

Robert Lawson Shaw

Robert Lawson Shaw

His first season opened in October 1967 and the Municipal Auditorium was filled to capacity. The program included the orchestra’s first time performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and the world premiere of a work by Aaron Copland commissioned for the occasion. This first choral concert would involve the Choral Guild of Atlanta, but Shaw formed the Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus that same fall, which made its debit in November with Schubert’s Mass in G, then performed Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in December. The future looked bright.

Then tragedy suddenly struck the city and the nation again. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968, but was struck down by an assassin’s bullet the very next day. Riots erupted nationwide and lasted several days. Atlanta, by comparison, remained peaceful as its citizens, black and white, ceremoniously and respectfully laid to rest its apostle of non-violence. But Shaw’s own dreams of working directly with King were dashed.

The new Memorial Arts Center (later renamed the Woodruff Arts Center) did not open until October 5, 1968, so the ASO performed its first concert of the new season in the Atlanta Civic Center. Symphony Hall’s inaugural concert by the orchestra came on October 19, when Shaw led the ASO and Chamber Chorus in an all-French program, including Poulenc’s Gloria, in memory of the Atlantans who had died in the 1962 Orly plane crash. Former music director Henry Sopkin attended and was given a standing ovation.

The original facade of the Woodruff Arts Center building, in a view of the Symphony Hall side.

The original facade of the Woodruff Arts Center building, in a view of the Symphony Hall side.

Shaw became the city’s artistic conscience, arguing for the arts as a civic necessity rather than a luxury of privilege, for the involvement of African-American leaders on the orchestra’s Board, and the performance of music by contemporary composers. Shaw would establish the larger Atlanta Symphony Chorus in 1970, again performing Beethoven’s Ninth for their debut.

Turmoil erupted in Shaw’s fifth season, when he scheduled some ten works by the iconoclastic American composer Charles Ives. This upset a certain conservative portion of the audience and as a consequence, in February 1972, the ASO Board requested his resignation. However, that move created a furor among Atlanta’s cultural community. A fervent, successful public campaign in response insured that Shaw would continue as music director.

In 1974, Shaw instructed Michael Palmer, the ASO’s associate conductor at the time, to establish the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra, hearkening back to the ASO’s own beginnings as a youth orchestra and providing a high-quality training platform for young orchestral musicians.

Robert Lawson Shaw. (source: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra archives)

Robert Lawson Shaw. (source: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra archives)

The ASO’s size, pay and concert schedule significantly expanded during Shaw’s tenure. At the end of Shaw’s first decade with the orchestra, its finances and artistic programming were strong, its musicians had become full-time employees with a year-round contract. Between its successful seasons, its prominent touring and recordings with Shaw for Telarc that won a total of 18 Grammy awards, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus came to genuine national and international prominence.

Shaw stepped down as music director in 1988, becoming music director emeritus and conductor laureate for life, and remained professionally active until his death in 1999. In 2016, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra celebrated the Centenary of Shaw’s birth, which included the world premiere exhibition of Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices, a film which documents his life and 60-year career, on April 24 of that year at Symphony Hall.

Years after his death, Robert Shaw’s legacy continues to cast a long, influential and beneficent shadow on Atlanta’s arts and music scene. But in 1988, the Atlanta Symphony Orcehstra was ready to welcome its next music director. ■

(to be continued…)

Read Part One