Atlanta Symphony emerged to national prominence in the 1970s and 1980s.
Robert Shaw came to Atlanta partly to bring the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to broader recognition nationally and internationally. During his first years he concentrated on building playing skills and repertoire, and when he felt the ASO and Chorus were ready he made the first steps toward national exposure. The first big national triumph came when Jimmy Carter, who had often attended ASO concerts while he was governor of Georgia, invited the Symphony and Chorus to Washington for the festivities surrounding his inauguration as President in January 1977. Ensembles of ASO players entertained at several functions at the State Department and in the White House. At the inaugural concert in the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony played the first half of the program and after intermission Shaw led the ASO in music of Gershwin and Ives, concluding with the finale from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony featuring the ASO Chorus and soloists.
The audience was stunned by the excellence of what it heard. Washington critics reported the evening as if it were a sporting contest, one going so far as to say "Our orchestra was simply outplayed." Paul Hume, the city's most respected critic, agreed and called the evening "the greatest inaugural concert in history." Hume reserved special praise for the ASO Chorus, writing, "If the rest of the country could sing the way those people from Georgia sing, Jimmy Carter's problems would be over before he gets started."
The ASO's touring reach gradually expanded beyond the neighboring southeastern states that were regularly visited. In 1978 they toured the western U.S., playing in Colorado, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The orchestra, which had made its Carnegie Hall debut in 1971, made its first tour of northeastern states in 1980. This culminated in a well received Easter Festival in Carnegie Hall, as the ASO Chorus and soloists joined Shaw and the Symphony to perform the Requiems of Berlioz, Verdi and Brahms on consecutive evenings. In 1982 a tour of the Midwest drew critical praise comparing the ASO favorably with the Chicago Symphony.
The first international exposure came in 1980, with a performing residency in Mexico City. Though Symphony members got off the plane a bit shakily after hearing that the city had felt an earthquake while they were in the air en route, they soon regained their composure and enjoyed four days of concerts interspersed with shopping and sightseeing. (Mr. and Mrs. Shaw, who had preceded the orchestra to Mexico City, actually experienced the quake but came through unscathed.)
Adding depth to the conducting roster, Louis Lane came aboard in 1978 as Co-Conductor, with duties that included assisting Shaw in planning each season's programs in addition to conducting. At the same time Hiroyuki Iwaki, the well-known Japanese conductor who already headed orchestras on three continents, became Principal Guest Conductor. Jere Flint began his long service as conductor of both the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra and the ASO's Symphony Street (formerly Tiny Tots) concerts for young children in 1980, and the following year William Fred Scott came from the Boston Opera Company to join the ASO conducting staff.
Expanding its concert offerings in Atlanta, the ASO began free summer concerts in Piedmont Park in 1977. The ticketed series of pops concerts in Chastain Park had already become an Atlanta tradition. The first Coffee Concerts were given in 1980, presenting classical fare on Saturday mornings. In 1984 the orchestra began a Campus Series of concerts performed at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, often featuring black soloists. William Fred Scott began the vastly popular Champagne Concerts of light classical music in 1985, and these proved so successful that they were combined with the Coffee Concerts the following year.
Educational offerings presented by the Atlanta Symphony Associates for both children and adults continued to grow, with programs such as docents preparing school children for the experience of Young People's Concerts, instrumental ensembles performing in the schools, tours of Symphony Hall, slide presentations, Meet the Artist luncheons, music appreciation courses, and pre-concert dinners and lectures.
The ASO presented its first music festival in January 1978, three non-subscription concerts dedicated to the music of Schubert performed by the orchestra and chorus, chamber performers from the orchestra, contralto Florence Kopleff, tenor Seth McCoy, and pianist John Perry. Newspaper critic John Schneider praised the festival as "one of the most luminous and illuminating musical experiences ever to grace Atlanta's cultural life." The ASO later experimented with springtime Primavera Festivals in 1981 (music of Beethoven and Bartók, including a concert performance of Bartók's opera Bluebeard's Castle) and 1983 (music of Tchaikovsky), but festivals did not become a regular occurrence until the annual Summerfests began in 1989.
ASO recordings grew in both number and prestige. The entire city rejoiced when the Berlioz Requiem recording won four Grammy Awards in 1986, including the one for Best Classical Recording, while another ASO record was named Best Orchestral Recording. At the same ceremony, the Recording Academy conferred its rarely-given Governors' Award upon the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The occasion did not pass without controversy, however. Both at that time and when the Verdi Requiem CD won three Grammys in 1989, charges were made about supposed irregularities in membership and voting among Atlanta members of the Recording Academy. Although the charges were untrue, the Academy has since taken steps to dilute its members' voting power in the classical categories. Even so, ASO recordings have won a total of fourteen Grammies, and their excellence has been attested by reviews and commentary in a broad cross-section of music publications.
In 1983 the ASO announced its far-reaching American Music Project, which commissioned new orchestral works from American composers including Leonard Bernstein, John Harbison, Gian Carlo Menotti, William Schuman, and Stephen Paulus. Beginning with Billy Taylor's Peaceful Warrior (a work honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and premiered by the ASO with the Spelman and Morehouse College Glee Clubs during Black History Month in 1984), sixteen works were commissioned wholly or in part and premiered at Atlanta Symphony concerts through 1992. Compositions available on recording that were written because of this project include the Violin Concerto (No. 1) by Stephen Paulus, Itaipu by Philip Glass, Ned Rorem's String Symphony, and Leonard Bernstein's Missa brevis. The scope and vision of the American Music project were largely responsible for the ASCAP Award that was presented to Shaw and the ASO in 1986 for adventuresome programming of contemporary music, one of four ASCAP Awards they have won.
Many honors were conferred upon Robert Shaw during his 21 years as Music Director, among them being selected to present the Noble Lectures in the humanities at Harvard University in 1981 and being named Woodruff Professor of Music and Humanities at Emory University in 1984.
Eventually, however, it became clear that his health would not hold up forever and that it was time to relinquish the time-consuming duties of the music director's job. In 1985 he signed a lifetime contract that named him, when a successor could be found, as the ASO's Music Director Emeritus and Conductor Laureate. In May 1988, near the end of his last season, he was honored with a gala Tribute Concert that featured principal players from the ASO, cellist Lynn Harrell (Shaw's godson), soprano Sylvia McNair (who made her first recording with the ASO), Louis Lane as pianist, and the ASO Chamber Chorus conducted by William Fred Scott. Congratulatory letters were sent by many local and national leaders and composers Leonard Bernstein and Ned Rorem.
Shaw's biggest triumph was still to come. Less than a week later, he departed with the ASO and the entire ASO Chorus for two concerts in New York followed immediately by the organization's first European performing tour. Concerts in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, East Berlin, Ludwigsburg (West Germany), Zurich, Paris, Bristol and London brought admiring reviews and a glow of good will for the ASO and the city and state that brought it forth.
At the end of the Robert Shaw era, the Atlanta Symphony had grown to 93 members and more than 200 volunteer choristers with a following of 11,000 subscribers and annual attendance of half a million. The orchestra's tours had covered the continental United States and taken it to Mexico and Europe. It recordings had made its sound familiar the world over.
Text by Nick Jones