The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra began a new era in its quest for greatness with the arrival of Yoel Levi in 1988. His first concert as Music Director, simulcast on radio and television statewide, gave evidence of extraordinary control in such areas as orchestral balance, precision, intonation and ensemble. Levi also moved quickly to improve the orchestra with additional players, most of them assistant or associate principals, and he told an interviewer that he wanted to create an ensemble "that plays orchestral music as if it were chamber music. I want players that know how to listen to one another, that really understand how they fit into the whole picture of the score. That is a great orchestra." The ASO also upgraded its facilities for recording concerts and expanded its national syndication of radio broadcasts, begun the previous year.
The new season saw the debut of the Atlanta Symphony Ball, latest of the volunteer fundraising projects of the Atlanta Symphony Associates, who also added a new membership unit to their roster: Fayette Fortissimo. The ASA, through such projects as the Decorators' Show House, Gifts of Note, the Musical Marathon, the Sleighbell Luncheon, and participation in the Annual Fund, raises nearly a million dollars for the orchestra each year.
George Hanson became Affiliate Artist Conductor in 1988 and a year later was named Resident Conductor. Stephen Paulus succeeded Alvin Singleton as the ASO's Composer in Residence, producing a number of new works for ASO concerts during his four years with the orchestra.
The ASO has been a partner in making improvements to the summer amphitheater at Chastain Park, including the recent facelift of the stage, canopy, sound system and lighting. The annual Summerfest of classical music in Symphony Hall was inaugurated in 1989 with four sold-out Beethoven concerts, and the series has grown each summer since. Over the years, the Summerfest has concentrated on music of Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and composers of the countries ringing the Mediterranean.
Personnel changes are always taking place in the orchestra, which has now grown to include 95 full-time musicians. Retirements and promotions have brought in new principals in the trumpet and flute sections, as well as a dozen new associate and assistant principals. (One of them, Associate Principal Flute Amy K. Porter, won top prize in the Kobe International Flute Competition two years ago.) William Preucil resigned as Concertmaster in 1989 to go to the Cleveland Quartet. Martin Chalifour served as acting concertmaster for a year, and Cecylia Arzewski began her duties as Concertmaster in 1990.
Levi continued the ASO tradition of making fine audiophile-quality recordings with Telarc. In his first season he recorded Copland's Third Symphony and now, a dozen compact disks later, looks forward to the imminent release of piano concertos by Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns with André Watts as soloist. He worked frequently with the ASO Chorus, having performed with them each season and recorded Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe with them in 1993.
Robert Shaw's involvement with the ASO and Choruses continued, despite his retirement as Music Director. He conducted at least two Master Season concerts a year with the orchestra and either the large ASO Chorus or the smaller ASO Chamber Chorus, in addition to his traditional holiday offerings in December.
Many honors have come to Shaw in recent years, recognizing a lifetime of music achievement. He has been on the cover of Musical America as Musician of the Year, presented with the National Medal of Arts at the White House, and feted on national television with the Kennedy Center Honors.
A high point of the early Levi years came in 1991 with the ASO's second European tour, in which the orchestra played under Yoel Levi's baton in fifteen cities including Vienna, London and Paris. Derrick Henry, who went along on that tour, wrote in a magazine article that the ASO "consistently impressed the European critics and audiences with its virtuosity and versatility. That was a break-through trip, instilling the musicians with new-found confidence."
Although financial assistance from Delta Air Lines and a number of other supporters made that tour possible, the ASO had a harder time making ends meet at home. Its 1992 visit to New York's Carnegie Hall had to be canceled due to lack of funding, and national radio syndication of its concerts was dropped. The accumulated deficit was nearly three million dollars. The task of building ticket sales and donor support to match the expense of maintaining musical excellence and widespread reputation was proving to be a long and hard one.
A part of that process, recognizing necessity as well as responsibility, is to build on the admirable foundations laid in previous years to Atlanta's important African-American community. The ASO Board established an Action Committee for Audience Development in 1992 to initiate and guide these efforts. The orchestra has performed at the National Black Arts Festival since its inception in 1988. In 1993, the Symphony and the Festival cosponsored a national competition for classical compositions by black composers. The quality of submissions were high, and the winning work, by Jeffrey Mumford, was performed in both Summerfest concerts and at the Festival. The runner-up, composed by Jonathan Holland, was heard during the Martin Luther King Tribute concert in 1994. That concert, for the second year, was made an integral part of its King Holiday programming by National Public Radio's Performance Today.
To foster young instrumentalists, the ASO has established the Black Talent Development Program, in which promising high-school musicians are given coaching and guidance by players from the Symphony. Well-received performances and talks sponsored by the ASO have been given for young audiences by pianist Awadagin Pratt and singers Marietta Simpson and Florence Quivar. The innovative Gospel Christmas program featuring the All-Atlanta Chorus has grown each year since its debut in 1992.
The ASO has collaborated enthusiastically with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games since the moment our city was picked to host the 1996 Games. Soon after that announcement, Louis Lane led the orchestra in the Olympic Fanfare at Master Season concerts, and ASO brass and percussion sections participated in the ecstatic parade that celebrated the choice. (Even earlier, the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra assisted the effort to win the Games for Atlanta by recording music for the committee's video presentation.) With Queen Sonja of Norway in attendance, the ASO played the inaugural concert of the Cultural Olympiad, featuring a new work commissioned for the occasion and composed by Atlantan James Oliverio. This July the Symphony will give a special concert at Chastain Park observing Year-Out Day, exactly a year before the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games, and multiple ASO concerts are being planned for the Olympic summer of 1996. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games recognized the ASO's importance in Atlanta's cultural life by presenting its Regional Designation Award in January 1994 and by commissioning new compositions from Michael Torke and Anthony Davis for the orchestra's 50th-Anniversary Season.
Anniversary celebrations during the 1994-95 season brought with it a boost in organizational, local and national awareness of the unique qualities of the ASO. The Symphony Celebration open house and concerts and the free concert in the Lakewood Amphitheater brought a wide cross-section of the community closer to the orchestra and its music making than ever before. The ACOG-commissioned work by Michael Torke, premiered at the season's opening concerts and taken to Carnegie Hall in January 1995 received great reviews. Widespread broadcast of the joyous Gospel Christmas concert and the splendid Golden Anniversary concert have engendered inquiries from around the country. The Side By Side concert, uniting the ASO and its Youth Orchestra onstage for the first time, recognized the orchestra's origin among young hometown musicians.
Historical displays and magazine articles throughout the anniversary season reminded everyone of the ASO's humble beginnings and meteoric rise within a scant five decades. Admiring things continue to be said about the Atlanta Symphony — from the critic in the Pittsburgh Press, commenting on the Symphony's first Shostakovich recording by writing, "The Atlantans sound like a top-notch group, precise in ensemble and intonation, yet warm and brilliant as the music demands," to Franz Welser-Möst's describing the ASO to the Washington Post as "one of the best orchestras I have ever conducted." We've come a long way in fifty years, but, as Yoel Levi continues to say, the ascent is never finished.
Text by Nick Jones
Yoel Levi [b. 1950] was Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1988 until 2000 and Music Director Emeritus from 2000 to 2005. Among his many milestones while with the Orchestra were leading the ensemble on a critically acclaimed European tour in 1991 and in July 1996 conducting an internationally televised performance of the Atlanta Symphony at the Opening Ceremony of the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. During the 1991-92 season, Mr. Levi and the Atlanta Symphony were named “Best Orchestra of the Year” at the first annual International Classical Music Awards. Mr. Levi conducted 30 recordings with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for Telarc International. Levi served as Principal Conductor of the Flemish Radio Orchestra from 2001-2007 and as Principal Conductor of the Orchestre national d'Île-de-France from 2005 to 2012. He is currently Principal Conductor of the KBS Symphony Orchestra in Seoul, a position he has held since 2014.