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Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: Origins

Origins of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

              Atlanta has been blessed with an abundance of music since it rose from the ashes of the Civil War.  Caruso sang here; Rachmaninov played here; many touring virtuosos, opera companies, ensembles and orchestras added the city to their concert tours.  More than one newspaper article noted Atlanta's reputation as a place to hear great music.  But homegrown efforts at establishing an opera and an orchestra seemed always to flare briefly, only to flicker and die.  Just as numerous opera companies preceded the present Atlanta Opera's success, at least four orchestral organizations failed before the founding of the youth ensemble that grew into the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

                It was the vision and organizational skill of several remarkable women that brought the Atlanta Youth Symphony to life.  One was Anne Grace O'Callaghan, supervisor of music for Atlanta high schools.  In 1939 she formed the In-and-About Atlanta Orchestra, drawing on the best players from high-school programs throughout the region.  She also cherished the hope that Atlanta would one day have a professional orchestra to inspire and help train her school musicians.  Another founding light was Marcia Weissgerber, who taught music at Girls' High School and was conductor of the In-and-About Atlanta Orchestra.  Of crucial importance was Josephine (Mrs. James O'Hear) Sanders, president of the Atlanta Music Club.  At Miss O'Callaghan's invitation, Mrs. Sanders heard a 1944 concert of the In-and-About Atlanta Orchestra and saw in the group the possibility of development into a permanent, professional orchestra.  From the beginning, her plan was that Atlanta would "grow an orchestra, not buy one."  She convinced the Atlanta Music Club to sponsor the founding of an Atlanta Youth Symphony, with concerts in February and April of 1945.

                Invited to be Guest Conductor was a violinist, composer and educator named Henry Sopkin, a warm and enthusiastic clinician who had gained a reputation as one of the top three youth-orchestra conductors in the country.  A graduate of the American Conservatory in Chicago, he was on the faculty of Woodrow Wilson City College and was also an associate music editor of the Carl Fischer Publishing Company and the Mills Music Company.  He had twice guest-conducted the In-and-About Atlanta Orchestra with good results.  For the new group, Miss Weissgerber auditioned and selected the orchestra members in the fall of 1944 and began rehearsals.  Sopkin came in about ten days before each of the concerts to lead the last four rehearsals and the performance.  Interviewed before the first concert, he said, "A Youth Orchestra in a community means the beginning of a permanent symphony.  It is the carry-on of the work started in school with an opportunity to also discover the people with a talent to make music their life work."

                Mrs. Sanders realized that a wide base of support was needed to insure the Youth Symphony's continuation.  She and her workers signed up 42 corporations, civic groups and cultural organizations as Charter Sponsors.  The Music Club's publicity chairman, Dorothy (Mrs. Lon) Grove, did an outstanding job of keeping the inaugural concerts of the new group before the public eye.  Newspaper editorials, articles and columns carried some mention of the Atlanta Youth Symphony — its visionary founders, its dynamic conductor, all those musically talented and hardworking kids — almost every day, constantly urging everyone to come to the concerts.

                The Youth Symphony contained more than high-school students.  The youngest member was 11-year-old violinist Raymond Page, whose feet dangled from his chair.  The oldest member was about 25.  It was wartime, and servicemen from nearby bases and from Georgia Tech's V-12 officer program made up the majority of their e males available.  (The Atlanta Constitution reported that the orchestra's personnel were preponderantly "on the distaff side," and photos show females outnumbering males by three or four to one.)  Miss Weissgerber's Girls' High School program provided the largest single source of players.  Others came from Emory University, from the University of Georgia in Athens, and from towns as far away as Americus.  A contingent of eleven players commuted from Chattanooga to take part in the final rehearsals and the performances.  Also on the roll were a number of young career women ("business girls," as the newspaper called them then) with musical training.

                The first concert was an immense success, filling the cavernous Memorial Auditorium to capacity.  Tickets were free, but had to be obtained in advance.  Boxes were reserved for leaders and guests of the Music Club and other sponsoring organizations.  Bright blocks of uniformed Girl Scouts and nurse trainees stood out among the concert-goers.  Sopkin led the Youth Symphony and audience in the National Anthem and then turned to the works on the program: Rossini's Overture to L'Italiana in Algeri, Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, the Waltz from Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, an arrangement of Bach pieces called "Prelude, Chorale and Fugue," Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia, a crowd pleaser called "Hillbilly" from Morton Gould's Americana Suite, and Finlandia by Sibelius.  Enthusiastic applause greeted each piece, to be matched by warm newspaper reviews in the days that followed.  Clearly, Atlanta was ready to support this new orchestra.

                The second concert, on April 22nd, was equally successful.  Marcia Weissgerber led the National Anthem, and Henry Sopkin conducted music by Weber, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev and Morton Gould.  A highlight was Swiss Lullaby by Henri de Ribaupierre, arranged for strings by Sopkin and dedicated to the Atlanta Music Club.  Following this concert's equally positive reception, Sopkin was asked if he would consider moving to Atlanta and becoming conductor if the Youth Symphony could be made a permanent organization.  He agreed, later revealing that he had chosen Atlanta's over a similar offer to begin a youth orchestra in Corpus Christi, Texas.  It was quite a sacrifice for a husband and father of two sons; Atlanta was offering him about a third of the salary he had been making in Chicago.

                It was time for the Atlanta Youth Symphony to emerge from the Music Club's protection and become an independent entity.  The Atlanta Symphony Guild was formed, receiving its corporate charter on September 20, 1945.  It selected a Board of Directors and elected as president Dr. Clarence L. Laws.  Funding for the first full season was provided by a number of individuals and corporations.  The budget was $5,000 in addition to Henry Sopkin's salary, which was donated for the first year by the Music Club.

                An Atlanta Symphony Junior Guild was also formed, an invitation-only group of 64 young women formed by Mrs. Grove as an arm of the Symphony Guild.  In addition to meeting monthly for music-appreciation sessions, they handled ticket distribution for the concerts.  These two volunteer organizations were the beginning of the present-day Board of Directors and the Atlanta Symphony Associates, the vanguard of a long list of public-spirited Atlantans who have given of their time and hard work to keep this orchestra in operation.

                For the first full season, Sopkin planned three public concerts and a young people's concert for school groups.  A contest was held, and 16-year-old pianist Barbara Chapman was selected to become the Youth Symphony's first soloist, performing with the orchestra at the young people's concert in January.  The other concerts featured music by Haydn, Smetana, Johann Strauss, Glinka, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and others.

                Before the final concert of the season, the Atlanta Symphony Guild unveiled its plan to seek financial support for the orchestra from a wide cross-section of the city.  Fundraising letters were sent out seeking to raise an operating fund of $75,000 and to increase the Guild's membership to 10,000.  Dr. Laws told a newspaper interviewer, "Our intention is to seek members from every section of Greater Atlanta, to make the Youth Symphony a real civic accomplishment. . . . It will grow in musicianship and quality as fast as the citizens of Atlanta want it to."

Text by Nick Jones