One of the youngest of America's major orchestras, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra began in 1945 as the Atlanta Youth Symphony, created by members of the Atlanta Music Club to give high-quality performance opportunities to young musicians in the Atlanta area. Over its history, the ensemble has grown from a community orchestra of volunteers and part-time employees to a world-class ensemble with a reputation for musical excellence.
Under the direction of the gifted conductor and teacher Henry Sopkin, the Atlanta Youth Symphony became the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) in 1947. Although still in its fledgling years, the orchestra flourished under Sopkin's leadership: expanding its repertoire, increasing its programs for young players, and improving the level of musicianship among its members. As it grew, the orchestra was able to attract world-renowned soloists such as Glenn Gould and Isaac Stern, which further enhanced its reputation as a top-notch regional orchestra. In 1964, the ASO, still an organization of part-time musicians, became a founding member of the Atlanta Arts Alliance, which later became the internationally acclaimed Woodruff Arts Center.
When Sopkin announced his retirement in 1966, an arduous search began to find a replacement for this talented and visionary conductor. The job was offered to Robert Shaw who initially turned down the position because he felt that he was not well-versed enough in orchestral repertoire to "stay ahead of the musicians." When he finally accepted the music director's position in 1967, it was obvious that he was equal to the challenge. Shaw immediately expanded the ASO to 87 full-time musicians, created the 200-voice Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and raised the expected level of musicianship to a new and highly professional standard. He also began to organize significant tours for the ASO which brought national recognition and recording opportunities to the group. Under Shaw's leadership, the ASO performed for the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and released the first commercial digital orchestral recording for Telarc.
With its national reputation for excellence of musicianship well established, the ASO made numerous recordings, won 15 Grammy Awards and toured internationally under Shaw's direction. In 1988, Shaw retired from his position as ASO music director although he continued to hold the positions of director emeritus and conductor laureate until his death in 1999. Following Shaw's retirement, Yoel Levi became the third music director in ASO history. A conductor of international reputation, Levi has continued the tradition of musical excellence for which the ASO has become known. He led the ensemble on its second European tour in 1991 to enthusiastic audiences. In 1995, the ASO celebrated its 50th anniversary season with two nationwide television broadcasts and a successful tour of the northeastern United States, and performed for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in 1996 which was viewed by more than 3.5 billion people worldwide. In 2001, Robert Spano became music director, with Donald Runnicles as principal guest conductor. One of the six or seven largest Americal orchestras, the ASO performs over 200 concerts each year. As of 2011, the orchestra had recorded over 100 albums and won a total of 27 Grammy Awards. A focus of the orchestra's mession has been the promotion of new music by American composers and it has commissioned, premiered, and recorded works by Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, Michael Gandolfi, and Christopher Theofanidis, among others.