Robert Shaw's appointment to lead the Atlanta Symphony was announced in February of 1966, but he would not be free of his commitments to the Cleveland Orchestra until the summer of 1967. For the ASO, 1966-1967 would be a transitional season, featuring a number of guest conductors and anchored by Associate Conductor Robert Mann. A member of the cello section since 1952, Mann became Henry Sopkin's assistant in 1961 and had been increasingly active in conducting the ASO. During the transitional season he led three subscription concerts, the Suburban Series at Westminster School, the annual open-air Easter concert at Lenox Square, and various other performances. Near the end of the season, an editorial in the newspaper saluted his leadership, saying, "Atlanta at large is belatedly discovering this year how fortunate it is to have a musician of Robert Mann's calibre as associate conductor. . . . Mr. Mann has noticeably carried the orchestra forward in a short period of time. We salute him."
Shortly after Sopkin's retirement, the Ford Foundation made a major grant to the ASO: one million dollars for endowment and another $750,000 to go toward lengthening the season and raising musicians' pay. The orchestra would need to match this by raising another million dollars, which it did within three years.
Buoyed by this news, Atlanta was ready for its new Music Director. Robert Shaw had been chosen because he combined the two traits the ASO's Board had been looking for: he was an established musician of international stature, and he was a rising conductor whose own reputation would grow as he brought the ASO to prominence. He began in fine fashion. At the season opener in October 1967, he filled the Municipal Auditorium's 5,000 seats for the ASO's first performance ever of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony and the world premiere of a choral work by Copland, which he had commissioned for the occasion. The concert was carried live on local television.
Shaw seemed to be everywhere — speaking and receiving an honorary degree at Emory University, giving preconcert lectures, being interviewed by the newspapers. He quickly established himself as the city's artistic conscience, arguing that the arts are not a luxury but a necessity for a healthy society. He noted the absence of African-American leaders on the ASO's Board of Directors, and before long the orchestra had its first three black directors. Shaw called for the establishment of a conservatory in Atlanta to train professional musicians, and he advocated the performance of music by contemporary composers, saying, "Music is not written by pictures in a history book."
In addition to continuing the main subscription series and the Suburban Series, Shaw inaugurated a Chamber Series to present works for smaller ensembles, a Connoisseur Series at Emory, and a Promenade Series of lighter fare. He took the orchestra for a week-long Festival of Contemporary Music, much of it by black composers, at Spelman College.
He also began the ASO Chamber Chorus in order to enhance the orchestra's choral offerings. Reflecting his lifelong concerns for education and skill-building of amateur performers, he turned Chamber Chorus rehearsals into seminars on vocal technique and choral conducting methods, with academic credit available through Georgia State University. Incorporating some of the area's finest voices, both amateur and professional, the all-volunteer Chamber Chorus made its debut in November of the first season, with the Schubert Mass in G Major. The larger ASO Chorus made its bow with the Beethoven Ninth in 1970.
Atlanta's concert halls were coming along a little slower than the orchestra's growth. The ASO was not able to move its concerts into the new Civic Center until March 1968, and the long-awaited Memorial Arts Center with its new Symphony Hall was not completed in time for the beginning of the next season, as had been the plan. Its inaugural concert came the next month, when Shaw led the ASO and Chamber Chorus in works including the Poulenc Gloria on October 19, 1968. It was an all-French program in memory of the 106 Atlantans who had died in the Paris air crash in 1962 and in honor of the French government and citizens who had responded to the tragedy by contributing to the building of the Arts Center. Henry Sopkin attended and was recognized with a standing ovation.
A number of important firsts occurred during Shaw's first decade with the Symphony. The first international radio broadcast carried an ASO concert to Austria in 1969. The orchestra won the first of its four ASCAP Awards for taking a leading role in performance of American music the same year. In 1970 Shaw welcomed Everett Lee as the first African-American to conduct the ASO. The first Affiliate Artist, tenor Seth McCoy, gave two weeks of concerts in Atlanta schools and colleges under ASO sponsorship in 1970. The first summer concerts came as an Encore Series after the regular season in 1971, and summer offerings continued to expand as the season lengthened. The first endowed chair was contributed by Mrs. Howard R. Peevy in 1974, the same year when the ASO honored its youth-symphony origin by establishing the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra to train future musicians.
The ASO made its first commercial recording in 1975, "Nativity," a two-LP set of Christmas selections (which is still available in CD form). Its long and fruitful relationship with Telarc Records began with Stravinsky's Firebird, recorded in 1978 along with selections from Borodin's Prince Igor. That album, the first digitally taped recording to be commercially released by an American orchestra, won an Audio Excellence Award and was nominated for a Grammy Award. The ASO's list of recordings has now grown to more than fifty, with fourteen Grammys and numerous additional nominations, awards from Gramophone and Ovation magazines, and worldwide distribution.
Under Shaw's leadership, the ASO worked to improve its connections with minority communities, including actively seeking African-American instrumentalists to fill vacancies in the orchestra. There are few black soloists, instrumental or vocal, who did not perform with the ASO during Shaw's tenure, and the Spelman and Morehouse College Glee Clubs have frequently been heard. In connection with Morehouse, the orchestra in 1972 gave the world-premiere staging of the first surviving opera by a black composer, Scott Joplin's Treemonisha. T. J. Anderson was the ASO's Composer in Residence for the 1969-1970 season, and works by African-American composers including Anderson, Ulysses Kay and George Walker were performed.
Shaw continued to expand the ASO's offerings of new music. His first seasons included the world premiere of Ulysses Kay's Theatre Set, which he commissioned with funds provided by the Junior League, and works by Penderecki, Schoenberg, Lutosławski, Webern, Ligeti and Schuller, among others. A portion of the Symphony's audience resented such programming, and matters came to a head when no fewer than ten works by Charles Ives were scheduled during Shaw's fifth season. In February of 1972 his resignation was requested, sparking a furor within Atlanta's cultural community. A phenomenal grass-roots campaign collected 4,000 checks in down-payment for subscriptions to the next Shaw season, insuring that he would remain as Music Director (and re-affirming the principle, which Henry Sopkin had fought for as early as 1948, that the Music Director has authority in matters of programming).
Touring was another area of activity that was expanded as the orchestra grew during the 1960s and 1970s. Sopkin had taken the ASO to neighboring states with some frequency, and under Shaw it extended its reach, playing in the Midwest and Northeast as early as 1970. A Carnegie Hall debut the following year affirmed the ASO's place on the national concert scene. In 1976, the ASO gave two all-Beethoven concerts there, one of which featured the ASO Chorus in its New York debut. (Yoel Levi continues the tradition on the 24th of this month, leading the ASO in a Carnegie Hall concert of music by Michael Torke, Chausson, Canteloube and Sibelius.)
At the end of Shaw's first decade with the ASO, the orchestra was on a solid financial and artistic footing, its musicians had become full-time employees with a year-round contract, it had performed in most of the states east of the Mississippi, ASO recordings had established its name in the marketplace, and it was being regularly mentioned as one of the top twenty orchestras in the nation.
Text by Nick Jones
Robert Shaw [1916 - 1999] became the Orchestra’s second Music Director in August 1967 and shortly thereafter founded the now legendary Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Chamber Chorus. During Mr. Shaw’s tenure, the Orchestra’s size, pay and concert offerings significantly expanded. Among the highlights of his tenure as Music Director were the Orchestra’s first European tour, plus concerts in New York’s Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. He retired as Music Director in 1988 and was named Music Director Emeritus and Conductor Laureate — a title he held until his death in 1999. Mr. Shaw’s recordings with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Chamber Chorus for Telarc International received 18 GRAMMY® awards. As Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, he won the ASCAP Award for adventuresome programming of contemporary music four times, and twice received the Georgia Governor’s Award in the Arts. A documentary, Robert Shaw-Man of Many Voices on the music, life and legacy of Robert Shaw, aired on PBS’s American Masters in the Summer of 2019.