The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (= ASO) is one of the youngest American orchestras to achieve prominence on the global stage. Now in its 56th season, the ASO's stature was most recently affirmed when - following a two-year international search - the ASO announced on February 8, 2000, the appointments of Robert Spano as Music Director Designate and Donald Runnicles as Principal Guest Conductor Designate.
The hiring of the two critically-acclaimed maestros were greeted with virtually universal acclaim. Approaching their leadership role with the ASO as a creative partnership, both conductors will officially begin their full duties in September 2001. (Each will also continue with the organization he currently conducts, Robert Spano with the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra and Runnicles with the San Francisco Opera.)
During the current 2000-2001 season, Robert Spano conducts the ASO in four weekends of concerts, Runnicles in three, and both will record with the Orchestra for Telarc. Their partnership, which has already begun, clearly signals a dynamic, new era for the ASO and an enlightening experience for Atlanta music lovers.
The ASO debuted in 1945 as the Atlanta Youth Symphony, organized by members of the Atlanta Music Club and later guided by a Board of Directors. Henry Sopkin, a gifted young conductor and educator from Chicago, was brought in as Conductor on a one-year contract. He remained with the organization for more than two decades and built it from a youth ensemble into a respected regional orchestra.
By 1947, the fledgling group had become the ASO, and the Symphony Guild became more active in fundraising and ticket sales. Within a decade, the orchestra's budget tripled. The Symphony expanded its repertoire, increased its special programs for young people, and brought top-flight soloists such as Glenn Gould and Isaac Stern to Atlanta. In 1964, the ASO was a founding member of the Atlanta Arts Alliance, the arts organization that has evolved into today's Woodruff Arts Center.
As it grew, the ASO continued to employ all its musicians on a part-time basis until 1968, even as the pioneering efforts of Sopkin raised the performance quality of the ASO to a professional level. Upon his retirement in 1966, a year-long search had already identified a music director to guide the Atlanta Symphony into a new era of growth.
Robert Shaw was selected to meet that challenge. Formerly associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for eleven years under George Szell, Robert Shaw was also the founder and director of the famed Robert Shaw Chorale. Upon his arrival in 1967, the orchestra was expanded to 87 musicians. Within a few years the season had expanded to include summer concerts, and the musicians had their first year-round contract. Robert Shaw also created both the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus of around 200 singers and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus, a select group of 60 voices.
The ASO's national reputation was enhanced by full houses and critical acclaim for its performances in such cultural centers as New York, Washington and Chicago in the 1970’s. The ASO Chorus began to share that praise when it joined the Orchestra to make its own Carnegie Hall debut in 1976. The ASO and Chorus were also hailed for their participation in President Carter's Inaugural Concert at the Kennedy Center the following year. In 1978, they recorded Igor Stravinsky's Firebird Suite and selections from Borodin's Prince Igor for an innovative Telarc release that became the first digital commercial orchestra recording. The ASO's long and prolific relationship with Telarc has produced a discography of more than 60 recordings, which have garnered a shelf full of Grammy awards.
Recalling its own beginnings as a youth ensemble and mindful of the need to develop future musicians, the ASO founded the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra (= ASYO) in 1974. Its first conductor was ASO associate conductor Michael Palmer. Jere Flint recently celebrated his 20th year as ASYO Conductor and led the youngsters in their highly successful participation in the National youth Orchestra Festival in 2000.
Under Robert Shaw's leadership, the ASO and Chorus made national debuts on both radio and television in the 1980s. He concluded his tenure as music director in 1988 with a European tour, leading the ASO and Chorus in six well-received concerts in cities including East Berlin, Paris and London. After his retirement, Robert Shaw served the ASO as Music Director Emeritus until his death in 1999.
A new chapter for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra began in 1988 when Yoel Levi became the third music director in the Orchestra's history. Levi previously served as resident conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra and pursued an international career as a guest conductor. In 1991 he led the ASO on its second European tour, performing concerts in fifteen cities, including Vienna and Paris, and receiving uniformly enthusiastic responses from critics and audiences alike.
1994-95 marked the ASO's 50th Anniversary Season, which was celebrated with such festive events as a Symphony Celebration open house, two nationwide TV broadcasts, and a successful Northeast tour culminating in New York. In the summer in 1996, performances by the ASO and Chorus in the Olympic Arts Festival and the Opening Ceremony of the Centennial Olympic Games drew an international audience of over 3.5 million people. The Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra gave two concerts in the Olympic Arts Festival and anchored the Closing Ceremony.
Yoel Levi's leadership of the ASO ended in the summer of 2000, and he has moved on to be music director of the Flemish Radio Orchestra in Belgium.