Ronda Respess can vividly recall the days when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra transitioned from an organization with part-time musicians to one with full-time performers.
Respess, who plays second violin with the orchestra and is in her 51st year there, was one of the full-time musicians Music Director Robert Shaw hired in 1969 as it made that change. For some, she said, it meant they had to decide whether or not to quit their day jobs to go full-time.
“I was very lucky,” Respess said. “When I came in, it was a 36-week season and we worked our way up to a 52-week season (being paid for each week of the year), and it stayed that way until (seven) years ago, when we had our first lockout. … We lost 10 weeks, so it went down to 42. It’s currently 42.”
In its history the orchestra has weathered several storms thanks to a short list of maestros who have spent an average of nearly 20 years at the helm.
The organization is commemorating its 75th anniversary during the 2019-20 season with a variety of events, and the celebration started with its 75th anniversary gala in September, when actress/singer Vanessa Williams performed.
According to its website, the orchestra was founded by Grace O’Callaghan, supervisor of music for Atlanta’s high schools, as the In-And-About High School Atlanta Symphony. The first concert was at Grady High School Feb. 9, 1939, and its conductor was Joseph Maddy. Marcia Weissgerber served as its conductor for several years, followed by Henry Sopkin (1945-66).
Under his tutelage the organization changed its name to the Atlanta Youth Symphony and had its first season in 1945. The symphony added professional musicians the following year and changed its name to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1947. Among the venues it’s played in is the Atlanta Civic Center, which opened in 1967 and closed in 2014.
“They started out playing (there) after the circus performed and it smelled like elephant manure,” said Belinda Massafra, a longtime volunteer. “It’s a credit to all the conductors, who have made it a world-class orchestra.”
Robert Mann served as the acting conductor in 1966 and 1967. Then came Music Directors Robert Shaw (1967-88), Yoel Levi (1988-2000) and Robert Spano (2001-present), who will retire at the end of the 2020-21 season.
“We’ve been so lucky to reap the benefits of three incredible music directors” in the past 50-plus years, Respess said, adding Shaw also founded the orchestra’s choir, “which is world reknown.”
The orchestra had lockouts in 2012 and 2014 as the musicians’ new contracts were agreed to after the old ones expired.
It hosts more than 150 concerts each year at Symphony Hall and other venues through its different series. It also records music on its in-house label, ASO Media. During its 33-year history with Telarc, the orchestra and chorus have recorded over 100 albums and won 27 Grammy Awards.
The orchestra has also been led by Norman Mackenzie, its longtime director of choruses, who helped the chorus earn several Grammys (including best choral performance) and whose tenure dates back to the Shaw years.
Ups and downs
Over the years the orchestra has had its ups and downs, especially in the past decade as it recovered from The Great Recession and dealt with its two lockouts.
Massafra, who said she’s been involved with the organization for 15 to 20 years, started as a concertgoer when she worked cattycornered across the street at BellSouth. She’s a longtime member of the Atlanta Symphony Associates volunteer group and has served in a variety of leadership roles over the years.
“I think Robert Spano has done an amazing job in his almost 20 years leading the orchestra,” Massafra said. “He’s added a lot of people over the years and has had an incredible impact on the orchestra.”
Volunteers Howard and Vicki Palefsky both got involved with the orchestra after moving to Atlanta from San Francisco in 2006. Howard served as its board chair for a two-year term that ended May 31. He helped guide the organization over most of the past 10 years, when the orchestra climbed from a low of 77 full-time musicians to its current 88.
He and others interviewed by the Neighbor pointed out the fact that the orchestra has operated with a budget surplus in each of the past five years, spurred by a $25.2 million Musicians’ Endowment Campaign that helped fund the musicians’ needs ironed out in the contract signed in 2014.
Some also said that financial stability has positioned the orchestra well for future growth, including renovating Symphony Hall, which is about 45 years old, or building a new one.
“That has set us up for some important initiatives going forward, … (including) perhaps an expanded size of the orchestra and more aggressive touring of the orchestra to become more of a world-class organization,” Howard Palefsky said. “We’re on the cusp financially of accomplishing those kinds of initiatives.”
Bruce Kenney, who plays French horn and has been with the orchestra since 1985, is also president of its union, the Atlanta Federation of Musicians, Local 148-462 of the American Federation of Musicians. He said it was important to negotiate a way to increase the orchestra to 88 full-time musicians with its new contract before and during the 2014 lockout.
“In my mind, the importance of negotiating the union contract is it’s not just about the money but the artistic excellence of the group,” Kenney said. “The musicians are there experiencing on stage what’s required to do the job well. The financial stability is always important because donors want to know they’re contributing to a stable organization.”
While it’s stayed true to its core of classical music concerts, the orchestra has remained in the black partly by expanding its horizons through performances and recordings of new original music and by drawing other fans with programs such as its Movies in Concert series where it performs film scores and soundtracks.
It also hosts a free community concert series, Around the A, which brings popup performances to venues across metro Atlanta.
“We sold out 17 classical concerts (in the 2018-19 season) and several live concerts, and we’ve been continuing to build the classical concerts, so we added more,” orchestra spokeswoman Tammy Hawk said. “We also expanded our family concert series. It’s now two performances of each.”
In addition to the gala, the orchestra has several “tent-pole moments,” events where it plans to honor the anniversary, Hawk said.
They include An All-Star Cast Sings Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” concerts in November, Levi guest-conducting the orchestra and world-renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman in March, an April trip to New York’s Carnegie Hall to perform Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis” and special “Tristan und Isolde” concerts in June.
“We’ve also partnered with some Atlanta artists, including Tiny Doors, and had a mural showing the musicians backstage done (by) Living Walls artist Jurell Cayetano,” Hawk said.
The orchestra is also reviving its annual Designer Show House tour/fundraiser in February, with this year’s site a new construction home in Buckhead.
Reflections on 75
Those interviewed by the Neighbor and other orchestra leaders reflected on what the milestone anniversary means to them.
“The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary season is a great opportunity to celebrate the things from our past that identify us, that make us special, that we’re proud of. This season, we also look forward to celebrating where we’re going, what’s new, all that our future holds,” Spano, who was not available for an interview, said in a statement.
Also in a statement, Executive Director Jennifer Barlament said, “The growth of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since its beginnings as the Atlanta Youth Symphony are really quite remarkable. The ASO’s artistic profile is strong – our (28) Grammy Awards, a host of incredibly talented musicians and our spirit and appetite for innovation – we look forward to creating transformative orchestral experiences for the next 75 years and beyond.”
Kenney said the anniversary “represents a number of decades of growth and artistic excellence.”
“You have to understand musicians are part of a fabric,” he said. “When we play the music of Beethoven or Mozart or Brahms or Mahler, it’s a continuum of cultural growth and cultural conversations among humanity. When we play our instruments, we represent what our teachers taught us, what the teachers before them taught them, etc. In some cases in the violins you might have someone play a 200- or 300-year-old violin where that very instrument itself is historically linked to the continuum of this art form of orchestral music.
“I think it’s fascinating that when we sit there, it’s not just us there that moment. It’s all the people that were there before us and what they contributed to make that musical event happen. … When an organization like this is 75, it’s a really meaningful thing. It represents the lives of a lot of musicians, a lot of donors who want something like this to be in their city.”
Said Howard Palefsky, “I think it’s an astounding legacy considering it started in the ’40s as a children’s orchestra initially. To see it become a top 15 or top 10 orchestra in America, to having had that happen with only four music directors over 75 years is a pretty unique track record. I think it speaks to the development of what is a pretty unique Atlanta Symphony sound. It continuously punches above its budget. It plays like a much bigger orchestra. Secondly, and I give Robert Spano the credit here, to be a champions of symphonic music is very satisfying. Traditional classical music is … (important) but is not indicative of where orchestral music is going. It’s still alive and still being written in an important way, and Spano has brought in a lot of new composers.”
His wife added, “It reaches this milestone by becoming fiscally sound in a way few orchestras in America are. It’s not just surviving. It’s thriving in an unusual way. Lots of arts groups are having a rough time. Symphonies have a tough time, and there was a time when people in the industry thought the business model was broken.
“My husband proved when he was board chair that it’s not broken. You’ve just got to get smarter with it. It’s vibrant in that it’s ever expanding in diversity (of programs) in the communities. It’s not just that it made it to 75. I’m 71 and Howard is 72, but it’s doing it with great style and great success. It’s just a number if you’ve made it to 75, but if you’ve done it with all those accomplishments, it’s really something to celebrate.”
Said Respess, “Oh my goodness. It means a lifetime of the most wonderful job anybody can have. It’s a full career. … I’ve seen it grow immensely and I’ve grown with it. It’s such a satisfying feeling. It’s grown to be bigger, better, just a major player on the (national) orchestra stage and internationally with our recordings and the internet.”
Perhaps Kenney said it best.
“I’m just very proud, frankly,” he said. “The Atlanta Federation of Musicians was founded in 1901 and there were two to four other Atlanta symphony orchestras that came and went before World War II. The fact that we’ve (reached this milestone) today is a wonderful accomplishment and not to be taken for granted.”