The Atlanta Youth Symphony, forerunner of the ASO, had a brilliant success with its first concerts in 1945 and 1946. With support from the Atlanta Music Club, the school system and civic-minded individuals, it probably could have continued indefinitely as it was, but its leadership, the Atlanta Youth Symphony Guild, took seriously the key purpose included in their charter: "To provide a nucleus in a reasonable time for a professional civic orchestra of excellent quality. . . ." They began expanding the orchestra's scope and its budget almost immediately.
The Guild launched a campaign for widespread support in 1946, and by the fall Conductor Henry Sopkin had added fifteen professional first-chair players to the group's students and amateurs. He announced that he hoped to add fifteen more paid players each season, until by 1951 the orchestra would be entirely professional. Preference would be given to Atlanta and Georgia musicians in hiring.
The Youth Symphony's publicity mastermind, Dorothy (Mrs. Lon) Grove, later recalled the unexpected chill that descended over fundraising efforts: "Businessmen were tiring of a child prodigy. . . . They wanted something professional. The Youth idea had lost its glamor." At the concert of January 26, 1947, the ensemble's title was changed to Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. It was a name the group would have to grow into, but Sopkin and the Guild were confident it could do so.
A previous concert that season had featured the lovely mezzo-soprano voice of Beverly Wolff in three Christmas numbers. A trumpet-playing charter member of the Youth Symphony, she had since graduated from high school and begun concentrating on her singing. She went on to national renown, a Metropolitan Opera contract, and numerous return engagements with her hometown orchestra.
The January concert introduced the organization's first professional soloist, pianist Hugh Hodgson, an Atlanta native who was chairman of the Fine Arts Department at the University of Georgia. He donated his fee back to the ASO. Hodgson, too, was to perform often with the orchestra in years to come, including tour concerts in Georgia cities and an Atlanta concert in which he played his own Piano Concerto.
Foremost among the new first-chair professionals was concertmaster Robert Harrison, who headed the violin department of the University of Georgia. A fine instrumentalist and charismatic performer, he brought star quality to the orchestra second only to that of Sopkin. He was also tall, fair-haired and serious; one newspaper writer compared him to the young Yehudi Menuhin. He soloed at least once a season with the ASO for many years.
Another big step came with the 1947-1948 season, when tickets were sold for the first time. (The Atlanta chapter of the American Federation of Musicians generously allowed this unusual situation to occur, with amateur and union musicians playing together in ticketed concerts, in the expectation that the ASO would eventually become fully professional. The local AFM has always been proud and supportive of the ASO, as anyone will know who has visited their office and seen the many historic ASO pictures among the photos lining the walls.) Only 900 subscriptions were sold, 100 of them to an American Legion post, but volunteers bravely continued to keep the orchestra running, and supporters redoubled their efforts.
That season and the next were a time of artistic growth and consolidation. Sopkin spoke often about the benefits of a civic orchestra and his pride in the ASO's growth. Musical offerings became more ambitious, including symphonies by Beethoven, Schumann and Tchaikovsky. More musicians were hired, including several Sopkin convinced to come from Chicago and other cities at considerable reduction in pay. The NBC radio network broadcast a special concert of the ASO from Emory University's Glenn Memorial Auditorium. The orchestra's first choral concert featured the Choral Guild of Atlanta in the Christmas Oratorio of Saint-Saëns.
But the Symphony's financial position was worsening. Neither ticket sales nor donations were keeping pace with the orchestra's expansion, and a deficit of $18,000 had accumulated. The Guild took a hard look at its condition in 1949 and decided on some important changes. A Men's Committee was formed under Eugene Young, and the women of the Guild, who had always done most of the work of running the ASO, were organized into a Women's Committee under the leadership of Helen (Mrs. Howard C.) Smith. The Junior Committee, which had languished for several years, was revitalized by Mrs. Grove. These committees were given goals to build local interest in the ASO, increase Guild membership, and boost ticket sales.
The ASO exploded upon the consciousness of all Atlanta in September 1949 with the arrival of the first annual Atlanta Symphony Week. Mayor Hartsfield made an official proclamation. Newspapers were dotted with announcements, editorials, advertisements and articles of interest about the Symphony (containing the oft-repeated assertion that ASO seats were "cheaper than anywhere else in the U.S."). Symphony speakers were dispatched to radio stations. All the big downtown stores decorated their windows in symphonic themes, and their newspaper ads encouraged buying of Symphony tickets. Volunteers spoke at schools and clubs. There were ASO-related exhibits at the High Museum and the Library. Atlanta has probably never seen an equally concentrated burst of publicity.
Symphony Week was successful in its major goal of ticket sales, generating 500 more subscriptions than the target of 3,000. A big contributing factor was the Guild's decision to start bringing in big-name stars as soloists. An artist roster headed by soprano Dorothy Kirsten and pianist Oscar Levant did much to raise excitement about the season. Miss Kirsten's cooking secrets, make-up tips and suggestions for dressing well appeared in separate newspaper articles, each with a glamorous photo of her and reminder of her approaching ASO concert.
The ASO planned a home concert and a tour of seven cities with Oscar Levant in February 1951, which proved to be disastrous when Levant became ill. His Atlanta concert had to be postponed by two weeks, and the tour was canceled. Robert Harrison saved the day locally by moving up his ASO performance of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto by two weeks to cover for Levant. Although four small out-of-town concerts were hastily scheduled, profits for the season were wiped out.
Things looked brighter for the following season. Having achieved its goal of full professionalism, the ASO proudly announced that it had was now included in the top 25 U.S. orchestras. The dream of a southeastern tour came true in an unexpected fashion in 1952, when the Dallas Symphony had to cancel its tour and asked the Atlanta Symphony to fill in. An AP news release detailing the scramble for leave time, substitutes and babysitters was picked up by newspapers from New York to Tucson.
Great excitement had greeted the announcement of the Music Club's commission of a new work for the Symphony. Although the ASO had already premiered a composition by Philip Warner the year before, this was the first commission ever to come from Atlanta. To write the new piece, Henry Sopkin chose Don Gillis, an assistant of Toscanini's at the NBC Symphony, who was known for composing breezy orchestral suites.
During the six months preceding the work's 1952 premiere, newspapers reported on the lively competition to suggest movement titles for the suite. (Perhaps not entirely seriously, Mayor Hartsfield suggested that one should be called "Expressway Drag.") Mr. Gillis has told of his amazement, upon arriving here for the rehearsals and performance, at being squired around downtown by proud boosters and shown store windows decorated with concert posters and pages from his score. Then the Sunday newspaper came out with a special section about the great occasion — printed, he says, in magnolia-scented ink! The premiere, at the last concert of the season, helped cement the ASO permanently in the civic mind as a thriving cultural institution.
Text by Nick Jones
Henry Sopkin [1903 - 1988] was the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's founder and first Music Director (1945-1966). A violinist, composer, gifted young conductor and educator, he had gained a reputation as one of the top youth-orchestra conductors in the country. A graduate of the American Conservatory in Chicago, Mr. Sopkin was on the faculty of Woodrow Wilson City College and was also an associate music editor of the Carl Fischer Publishing and the Mills Music Company. He led the Atlanta Youth Symphony’s first concert on February 4, 1945. In 1947 the youth orchestra was renamed the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. A decade later under Mr. Sopkin’s leadership, the budget tripled, and the Orchestra repertoire expanded, increasing its youth programming and bringing the world’s top soloists to the Atlanta stage. Mr. Sopkin retired in 1966. The ASO’s Planned Giving Program is named in his honor – The Henry Sopkin Circle.