A community orchestra is no haphazard thing. It requires the persistent efforts of many people, the generous support of individuals and companies, and, above all, inspired musicians and a conductor with vision.
Athens is fortunate to be a place where these requirements could be and were met.
A community symphony in Athens moved from idea to reality in the Summer of 1978 when a group of local musicians gathered and agreed: such an orchestra should be a not-for-profit organization; its members should be unpaid volunteers from Athens and the surrounding communities; and its concerts should be both free of charge and appealing to general audiences. It remains so four decades later.
Early on it was decided the ideal conductor would be Professor Albert Ligotti of the University of Georgia’s Department of Music; a man whose rare combination of energy, enthusiasm, and high musicianship proved indispensable to the orchestra’s initial and sustained success.
By Fall 1978, a Board of Directors had been appointed and the Crawford W. Long Medical Society and Medical Auxiliary had agreed to be sole financial sponsor. A call for players went out to the community. With a core ensemble of 45 to 50 instrumentalists, rehearsals began in January, 1979.
The premiere concert for the Athens Symphony took place on Saturday, April 28, 1979, in Clarke Central High School’s Mell Auditorium. For the next 17 years, the Symphony’s performances consisted of a Winter Concert and a Spring Concert in Mell Auditorium with two exceptions: The 1985 Winter Concert was performed in the Milledge Avenue Baptist Church; the 1987 Winter Concert was performed in the Fine Arts Auditorium at UGA.
But in 1996 the Symphony found a new home in the new Classic Center Theatre in downtown Athens. Now the Orchestra had an acoustically first-rate hall in which to perform. The move also meant it was possible to accommodate the Symphony’s steadily-growing audiences. With a new and better home, the Symphony expanded its season to include both a Christmas and a Pops series, moving from two to six performances a year. The Pops series moved from the Theatre into the Classic Center’s Grand Hall, allowing concert-goers to bring food and have indoor picnics before the concerts.
Since there is no charge for tickets, the financial support of individual donors and community businesses has been critical to the growth and success of the Athens Symphony. In 1992, Athens First Bank and Trust succeeded the Crawford Long Medical Society as the Symphony’s sole financial sponsor. Beginning with the 1996-97 season, additional sponsors joined with Athens First Bank and Trust, including Athens Daily News/Athens Banner-Herald/Suburban Review; Georgia Health Enterprise; Georgia Power; Golden Pantry; and WGAU 1340AM.
For the 40th season, corporate sponsors include:
AT&T; Athens First Bank & Trust; Boom Magazine; Chick Piano; The Classic Center; Coker’s Home & Garden; ENT of Athens; Fortson, Bentley & Griffin; Jackson Spalding; Mercedes-Benz of Athens; Online Athens/Athens Banner-Herald; Piedmont Athens Regional Health System; Tena’s Fine Diamonds and Jewelry; WGAU Fox News 1340.
Over the years, the Symphony continued to expand and refine its repertoire. Regular concerts always include a major symphonic work and shorter pieces such as overtures or ballet selections. Concertos performed by distinguished members of the UGA Music Faculty have figured prominently in the orchestra’s programs, including concertos for a wide array of instruments, including 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 also include later works by Borodin, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak, as well as a symphony by the twentieth-century composer Howard Hanson.
The intention of every program is to present music that is both great and widely appealing, in keeping with its original mission as a community orchestra — to not only bring great music to the people, but also bring the people to great music.
In 2008, the Symphony established, on a permanent basis, the Athens Symphony Chorus with 125 volunteer singers from Athens and surrounding communities. The Classic Center’s acquisition of an orchestra shell for concert performances helped produce a superior concert-hall sound consistent with other major orchestras, taking full advantage of the excellent acoustics in the Classic Center Theatre.
Entering its 40th 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.