A Portrait of the Athens Symphony
by Carl Rapp, Violinist with the Athens Symphony

A community orchestra, like the Athens Symphony, is no haphazard thing. It requires the persistent efforts of many people, it requires the generous support of sponsoring organizations, and above all it requires a conductor with vision. Because Athens is fortunate enough to be a place where these requirements could be met, the Athens Symphony has prospered over the years and continues to have great expectations for the future.

The origins of the Symphony can be traced back to 1976, for it was then that the idea was conceived of developing a community orchestra to enhance the cultural life of Athens. Under the inspiration and leadership of Ms. Jill Read, the Clarke County Office of Cultural Affairs undertook to survey, over a period of 18 months, the aptitudes and interests of the Athens community as a whole in order to determine whether a community orchestra might be expected to flourish. In the summer of 1978, on the basis of favorable findings in the survey, a group of local musicians was convened at the Cultural Affairs Office for the purpose of laying out a plan for the new orchestra. Early on, it was decided that the orchestra should be a not-for-profit organization, that its members should be unpaid volunteers from Athens and the surrounding communities, and that its concerts should be both free of charge and particularly appealing to general audiences. It was further decided that the ideal conductor would be Professor Albert Ligotti of the University of Georgia, Department of Music; a man whose rare combination of energy, enthusiasm, and high musicianship was understood from the beginning to be indispensable to the orchestra’s continuing success. By late fall of 1978, a Board of Directors had been appointed, the Crawford W. Long Medical Society (together with the Medical Auxiliary) had agreed to become sole financial sponsor, and a call for players had gone out to the community. With a core ensemble of approximately 45 to 50 instrumentalists, rehearsals began in January of 1979, culminating in the Athens Symphony’s premiere concert on Saturday, April 28, 1979, given in Clarke Central High School’s Mell Auditorium. From that point on, the Symphony’s principal offerings would consist of a Winter Concert and a Spring Concert, each given in Mell Auditorium from 1979 to 1996 (except on two occasions: the first in 1985 when the Winter Concert was performed in the Milledge Avenue Baptist Church, and the second in 1987 when the Winter Concert, featuring the Grieg Piano Concerto, was performed in the Fine Arts Auditorium at the University of Georgia.

1996 was a watershed year for the Athens Symphony, for it was then that the Symphony began to give its performances in the new Classic Center Theatre in downtown Athens. Moving to the Classic Center meant that the orchestra now had an acoustically first-rate hall in which to hold both its practices and performances. It also meant that it was now possible to accommodate more adequately the Symphony’s ever-growing audiences. The expansion of both the Pops series and the Christmas series had much to do with the fact that a new home had been found for the orchestra in the Classic Center’s impressive facilities.

Of crucial importance to the growth and success of the Athens Symphony has been the financial support of individual donors and of community businesses and other organizations. In 1992, Athens First Bank and Trust succeeded the Crawford Long Medical Society as the Symphony’s sole financial sponsor. Along the way, support for the Symphony has also come from Heyward Allen Motor Company and Pepsi Cola Beverages of Athens. Beginning with the 1996-97 season, additional sponsors have joined forces with Athens First Bank and Trust, including Athens Daily News/ Athens Banner-Herald/ Suburban Review, Georgia Health Enterprise, Georgia Power, Golden Pantry, and News Talk 1340am WGAU.

For the 38th season, corporate sponsors include: Athens Banner Herald, Athens First Bank and Trust Company, Athens Regional Health System, AT&T, Chick Music, Classic Center, E N T Athens, Fortson, Bentley, and Griffin, Georgia Power, Jackson Spalding, Fox News 1340 WGAU, Mercedes-Benz of Athens.

A major boost to the Symphony’s well-being came in 1992 with the creation of the Athens Symphony Guild. For more than ten years, the Guild faithfully promoted an awareness of the Symphony, through educational projects and through the sponsorship of fund-raising events conducted on the Symphony’s behalf.

Over the years, the orchestra has continued to expand and refine its repertoire. Regular concerts invariably include a major symphonic work, a featured soloist (or soloists), and shorter pieces (such as overtures or ballet selections). Concertos performed by distinguished members of the UGA Music Faculty have also figured prominently in the orchestra’s offerings. These include concertos for a wide array of instruments, such as piano, violin, bassoon, string bass, cello, flute, oboe, horn, trumpet, clarinet, and even guitar. Symphonies performed by the orchestra include numerous works by the great classic and romantic composers (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Schumann), but they also include later works by Borodin, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak, as well as a symphony by the twentieth-century composer Howard Hanson.

Orchestral showpieces are always factored into the programs, and there have been vocalists, as well as instrumentalists, among the featured soloists. The intention of every program is to present music that is both truly great and widely appealing, in keeping with the mission of a community orchestra, which is not only to bring great music to the people but also to bring the people to great music.

In the nearly 12 years that have transpired since its Silver Anniversary Concert on April 5, 2003, the Athens Symphony has continued to build upon the achievements of its first twenty-five years of music-making in Athens. An exciting new development for the Symphony was the establishment in 2008, on a permanent basis, of the Athens Symphony Chorus consisting of 125 volunteer singers from Athens and surrounding communities. Other developments include the acquisition by the Classic Center of a tremendously important orchestra shell for use during concert performances, as well as the acquisition of a set of risers for the Symphony’s chorus. These acquisitions make it possible for the Symphony to project a superior concert-hall sound after the fashion of major orchestral ensembles, thereby taking full advantage of the excellent acoustics provided by the Classic Center Theater.

With the retirement in 2012 of Albert F. Ligotti (now Conductor Laureate in Perpetuity), the Athens Symphony embarked on a new era under the leadership of Susan Dinwiddie (Conductor) and Brad Maffett (Assistant Conductor). Both conductors have been greeted with enthusiasm by the orchestra and chorus personnel, who appreciate their high musical standards and their dedication to maintaining and building on the Ligotti legacy. Under their leadership, the Symphony has continued to evolve and progress in keeping with its original impetus and Ligotti’s vision. On September 12th 2015, Founding Conductor Albert F. Ligotti passed away at the age of 88, leaving an efficient and well loved organization to continue his community educational work.

Always an essential component of the annual Christmas concerts, the Athens Symphony Chorus was also featured in the 2013 Spring Concert, performing several choral selections from popular operas. In the 2016 Pops Concert, the chorus will again be featured, celebrating the music of Richard Rodgers and America’s coming of age in the 20th-century. The collaboration between the chorus and the orchestra continues to grow, and we look forward to the presentation of a major choral work in the near future.

Featured instrumental soloists in the last three years have included Brandon Craswell on trumpet, Rebekah Healan on piano, Adam Frey on euphonium, David Starkweather on cello, and Rachael Fischer on violin, performing major works from both the romantic and the modern repertoires.

In the 2015 Fall Concert, the ever-popular Terry Kay returns to narrate Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, in a concert devoted entirely to Russian masterpieces, and in the 2016 Spring Concert, Ashley Sandor Sidon will perform Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Also, in the 2016 Spring Concert the orchestra will give its first performance of Dvorak’s great Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”).

Now in its 38th season, the Athens Symphony continues to present carefully selected programs that explore the range and depth of both classical and popular music, making it one of the brightest lights in the Athens music scene.