Skip to Main Content

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: 1953-1966

A Time for Consolidation

Atlanta Symphony's continued growth under conductor Henry Sopkin.

               In May 1952, President Charles Jagels was able to report to the Atlanta Symphony Guild, "For the first time, we ended the season without a deficit," thanks to increases in corporate sponsors, government support and ticket sales.  The 1950s became a time of relative stability for the Atlanta Symphony, as the orchestra settled into a pattern of twelve concerts per year, big-name guest artists, short trips for concerts in nearby cities, and slow but steady growth, both artistically and financially.

                Each season was livened by such guest performers as Richard Tucker, Jennie Tourel, Leonard Pennario, Rudolph Firkusny, Isaac Stern, and Yehudi Menuhin.  Conductor Henry Sopkin grew confident enough in his ensemble to turn over the podium to visiting conductors including Pierre Monteux, Sir John Barbirolli, Arthur Fiedler, and some distinguished composer-conductors: Igor Stravinsky, Howard Hanson, Ernst von Dohnányi, Morton Gould, and Heitor Villa-Lobos.  Soloists from the orchestra, such as concertmaster Robert Harrison and principal flute Warren Little, were frequently featured, as were local singers Irene Callaway and Peter Harrower.  Beverly Wolff, who leapt to national renown when she starred in the television broadcast of Leonard Bernstein's opera Trouble in Tahiti, joined the group of regular Atlanta singers after she married and returned to live here.

                The orchestra's concert offerings expanded, with additional Young People's Concerts and the popular free Family Series (entirely sponsored for a number of years by Colonial Stores).  The ASO played annually at Emory University and Georgia Tech, for which Henry Sopkin wrote a stirring concert overture incorporating the "Rambling Wreck" fight song.  The orchestra experimented with "Date Night" pops concerts for the teen set and was well received when it played at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and the state hospital in Milledgeville.  For several years beginning in 1956, it played festivals of American compositions annually at Georgia State College's Spring Festival.  In 1962 Sopkin and the ASO serenaded the Georgia legislature at the Capitol with the new state song, "Georgia Forever," with words by state poet laureate Ollie Reeves and music by Frank Black.

                An important addition to ASO programming was the Tiny Tots series (now called Symphony Street), said to be among of the first concerts for pre-schoolers in the nation.  The early concerts typically placed Sopkin and the ASO in the center of a gymnasium and encouraged youngsters to walk among them, watching them while playing, feeling the instruments' vibrations, even placing their hands lightly on the players hands to follow their motions.

                Choral music quickly became a regular feature of ASO seasons.  The Choral Guild of Atlanta (organized by the Atlanta Music Club shortly after it gave birth to the Atlanta Youth Symphony) began performing annually at Christmas in 1948.  Haskell Boyter, the Choral Guild's director, formed a 300-voice chorus from local choirs to perform Mendelssohn's Elijah with the orchestra in 1952.  This proved so successful that Boyter formed a regular Atlanta Symphony Chorus, which performed with the ASO from 1953 through 1958.  Among the masterworks performed in that era were the Verdi Requiem, the Bloch Sacred Service ("Avodath Hakodesh"), the Brahms German Requiem, and the annual Messiah at Christmas time.

                All this activity required funding, and the ASO's budget continued to expand, reaching the quarter-million-dollar mark by the end of the decade.  Atlanta business was solidly behind the Symphony, which drew its Presidents and many Board members from the top banking and retail executives in the city.  The Women's Committee was very active in fund-raising for the Symphony.  In addition to their annual Symphony Week publicity and ticket-sales blitz, they ran gift boutiques, organized glittering balls and fashion shows, and sponsored such benefits as the Atlanta premiere of the Disney film Song of the South and a gala wine-tasting party in cooperation with the French consulate.  In 1956 they sponsored the local premiere of This Is Cinerama, with party-goers feasting at a downtown hotel and then walking to the Roxy Theater on a 2,000-yard red carpet rolled out by Barwick Mills.

                The ASO began to attract national attention for its close involvement in community affairs and its frequent performances of music by American composers.  Henry Sopkin was highlighted as a distinguished American conductor in the program book of the Minneapolis Symphony and featured in an article in International Musician, which also carried pictures from an ASO Tiny Tots concert.  In 1957 Sopkin and the Symphony were profiled in Time.  Several times in the mid 1950s, ASO performances of new American pieces were recorded by the American International Music Fund and placed in the Library of Congress.  In 1960 the orchestra was selected to premiere Vittorio Giannini's solo cantata The Medead with soprano Irene Jordan, one of ten American works commissioned by the Ford Foundation.

                There were other recordings and broadcasts of the ASO in those days.  The orchestra's tenth anniversary was marked by a special one-hour NBC radio broadcast (live, of course) from Emory University in 1955.  The U.S. State Department selected the ASO as a representative American orchestra to be featured in its film Symphony Across the Land, shown in the U.S. pavilion at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels.  Classical radio station WGKA sponsored a free ASO concert at the Tower Theater in 1957, in order to test the theater's acoustics as a possible concert venue, and a recording of that broadcast was offered free to all subscribers the following season.  The ASO also recorded a portion of Vivaldi's Gloria in 1959 and several overtures in 1961.

                Following the test concert, the ASO moved into the Tower Theater, gratefully abandoning the Municipal Auditorium where it had performed since its formation.  The old Auditorium's spotty acoustics, cavernous size, lack of backstage facilities, and usage for everything from professional wrestling to housing animal cages for visiting circuses made it a nightmare for Symphony performers and audiences alike.  The Tower was much more comfortable, and the orchestra could be heard to better advantage.  Because it was smaller, each concert was played twice.  Volunteers seized the opportunity to increase subscription ticket sales, giving the ASO its first season entirely sold out on subscription.

                A shock came early in 1962, when it was announced that the Tower Theater had been sold.  Making the best of the situation, the orchestra moved its concerts back to the Municipal Auditorium.  It tried to ease the transition by reducing the number of seats to allow more leg room and by playing in a new acoustical shell donated by the Junior League of Atlanta (which had also established the ASO's music library a decade earlier).  Not everyone was mollified, and more than 100 subscriptions were canceled.

                This situation gave added impetus to the push for a new concert hall, for which the Symphony, the mayor and the newspaper had been beating the drums for years.  But it was hard to convince Atlanta of the need to spend that much money.  An important city bond issue, which included seed funds to build a new hall at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and Twelfth Street, was defeated in August 1962, plunging Symphony supporters into gloom.

                This occurred only two months after the disastrous air crash at Orly Field in Paris, which took the lives of more than 100 Atlantans, many of them prominent in the city's cultural life.  Much of the leadership of Atlanta's arts institutions was wiped out, and the shock was profound.  The city's leading arts groups, including the Symphony, the High Museum, and the Atlanta School of Art, eventually rallied their forces and combined into the Atlanta Arts Alliance, laying plans for a new Atlanta Memorial Cultural Center dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Orly crash.

                The drive to raise the needed 8.1 million dollars was area-wide.  School children gave what they could.  Local performing groups gave benefit concerts.  Businesses contributed generously, including a $30,000 gift from General Motors, and the goal was in sight until a change in construction plans and revision of building costs necessitated raising an additional four million dollars.  Atlanta's generous "Anonymous Donor" (later revealed to be Coca-Cola chairman Robert W. Woodruff) made another large gift, and $1,000,000 from the Callaway Foundation put the drive over the top.  Ground was broken on the site of the existing High Museum for what was by then called the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center in June 1966.

                Henry Sopkin would never get to conduct in the new center's Symphony Hall.  The man who founded and nurtured the ASO through 21 years retired in 1966.  During his final season he conducted the first Atlanta performance of Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony and welcomed Charlotte Gibson as the ASO's first black soloist at subscription concerts.  He distributed his library of scores and parts to Atlanta high school orchestras.  A newspaper article proclaimed "Sing No Sad Songs for Henry Sopkin," noting that he that he would be teaching in California.  Sopkin declared, "In my heart, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will always be mine."  5,000 people came to his last concert, which featured Brahms's Alto Rhapsody and a chorus of 200 in Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony.  Speaking to the misty-eyed audience afterward, Sopkin expressed his thanks to Atlanta, adding, "I won't say goodbye, just so long until next time."

Text by Nick Jones