The Story of the
Athens Symphony

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

In its Silver Anniversary Season, the Athens Symphony Orchestra looked back with pride on the many achievements that have contributed to its success and that have enabled it to attain its special place in the affections of the Athens community.

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 to1996 (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.

Seeking to expand its outreach to the community, the Symphony has offered over the years a variety of different kinds of concerts in addition to its regular Winter and Spring series. Under the sponsorship of an anonymous donor, a Young People’s Concert was given each April from 1981 through 1985. Then, in 1985, a new tradition was begun of presenting Pops concerts annually in May. The first two of these concerts were held in the old Belk building in downtown Athens, after which the series was moved to Spanky’s in the Beechwood Shopping Center, where it was given until 1996. Between 1990 and 2000, the Symphony played its annual Pops concert twice, once in Athens and once in nearby Monroe, Georgia. The popularity of these concerts proved to be so great in the Athens area that, beginning in 2001, two performances of the Pops concert began to be presented back to back on successive nights in Athens alone, each with great success. Finally, in 1993, the Symphony added to its regular schedule a Christmas concert, to be given annually. Since 1997, this concert has been offered twice each December, once on a Saturday evening and again on the following Sunday afternoon. These concerts are most often choral programs in keeping with the season, and they typically feature one or more of the local Athens church choirs, which has made them especially appealing. On one occasion, however, the University of Georgia Ballet Ensemble collaborated with the orchestra to present, in fully costumed performances, excerpts from The Nutcracker, a perennial holiday favorite.

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.

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 now, the Guild has been responsible for promoting 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 upon 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 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. During the past twenty-five years, this has been the constant goal of the Athens Symphony’s outstanding conductor, Albert Ligotti, and it will continue to be the Symphony’s guiding principle in the years that lie ahead.