Alabama Symphony Orchestra
The Alabama Symphony Orchestra can trace its beginnings to 1921, when on Friday, April 29, fifty-two volunteer musicians joined to perform at the Birmingham Music Festival at the Old Jefferson Theater. It was not until 1933, however, that the orchestra gave its first "formal" concert when the Birmingham Music Club presented the orchestra, under the direction of Dorsey Whittington, at Phillips High School.
On October 23, 1933, the Birmingham Symphony Association was officially formed and J.J. Steiner was installed as president. With a budget of $7,000, four concerts were planned for its first season. By the 1935-36 season, the orchestra had as many as eighty players, and a budget of $410,000. A full rehearsal cost $100 and guest artists' fees were low by today's standards- the renowned composer-pianist, Percy Grainger, was paid $350 for his appearance with the orchestra in October 1939.
Symphony concerts continued throughout the 1930s with enthusiastic public acceptance, including open-air concerts in Avondale Park on Sunday afternoons. In 1942, American involvement in World War II put a temporary stop to these auspicious beginnings. After the end of the war, community interest in a revival of the Symphony Association continued, culminating in an editorial in the Age-Herald on September 14, 1948: "Birmingham needs a symphony orchestra. A city of this size, with a stirring musical life, needs an orchestra of symphonic size as a crown to its efforts…" Shortly thereafter, the Civic Symphony Association was reactivated and began the task of rebuilding the orchestra.
In April 1949, Arthur Bennett Lipkin became the orchestra's second conductor. Lipkin had been a conductor of suburban orchestras on Philadelphia's Main Line, a violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra and president of the American Orchestra League. Warmly recommended by Eugene Ormandy, Lipkin conducted his first concert on November 1, 1949. This was followed by four other concerts during that 1949-50 season with Dorsey Whittington, the orchestra's first conductor, appearing as soloist in the fourth concert, playing Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto.
In 1951, the orchestra began its long association with the Festival of Arts. There were several support groups formed in these early years. The Vanguards, a group mostly of young couples, produced its own magazine and published the concert programs. Another support group, the Symphonettes, was organized in October 1954. It later changed its name to the Symphony League.
1956-1979: Early Growth
In 1956, the orchestra changed its name to the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and became fully professional. Up until that time some of its musicians had been paid weekly salaries, some by the rehearsal or concert, and some remained strictly amateur. Growth continued throughout the fifties and it was during this time that the Youth Orchestra was founded under the direction of Herbert Levinson, symphony concertmaster. Shortly afterwards, a training orchestra of younger players from elementary and junior high schools was begun as a feeder for the Youth Orchestra.
Arthur Lipkin retired in 1960 and was succeeded by Arthur Winograd, who led the orchestra for the next four years. Before coming to Birmingham, Winograd had been a member of the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music, had conducted several orchestras in the United States and Europe and was a founding member of the Juilliard String Quartet.
In 1964, the fourth music director and conductor, Amerigo Marino, was appointed. Marino came to Birmingham from Southern California where he had been composer/conductor of the CBS Radio and Television Orchestra, as well as first violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. The year before, in 1963, Marino was one of four winners out of a field of 200 of the Ford Foundation Conductors Project.
1966 was a noteworthy year for the orchestra. First, it was chosen as one of thirty-three in the nation to receive a conditional grant of $600,000 from the Ford Foundation. Payable over a ten-year period, the grant required the orchestra to raise a matching amount. A dedicated group of volunteers raised the match in record time. In the same year, the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra absorbed the Alabama Pops Orchestra, which had Walter Moeck as its conductor.
The orchestra changed its name in 1979 to the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, reflecting the popular support and enthusiasm for the symphony throughout the state, and to recognize the fact that many of its concerts were played in various locations around the state.
Under Amerigo Marino, the scope of the Symphony increased to include a regular subscription series at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Concert Hall, home of the Symphony since 1973, a Pops series, and a series of concerts now numbering some thirty annually throughout Alabama.
The Alabama Symphony Orchestra celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1983 with eight regular series concerts, eight Pops concerts, fourteen concerts throughout Alabama, and a special annual fund concert featuring the renowned violinist Isaac Stern.
In a highly publicized move, the Alabama Symphony Association canceled the orchestra's 1984-85 concert season. There was simply not enough money available to continue to operate one of the finest musical organizations in the Southeast. The community responded immediately. A "Save the Symphony" Committee was formed by the Young Men's Business Club and, with an aggressive fund drive, over $120,000 was raised and the 1984-85 season was mounted. In addition, a new three-year contract was signed between the Association and the musicians.
In 1985, Paul Polivnick was named the new music director/conductor of the ASO after a year search, which attracted outstanding applicants from around the world.
Unfortunately, again facing difficulties, in 1993 the orchestra declared bankruptcy, bringing an abrupt and sad ending to the sixty-five year history of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. Almost as soon as it disbanded, Michael McGillivray, a musician representing many of the musicians, approached volunteers Rae Trimmier and Joan Parker to discuss the future of the orchestra. Through the combined efforts of many musicians and volunteers, a plan was devised to ensure that the orchestra would not be gone for long. Ten Birmingham women guaranteed a loan from SouthTrust Bank for the purchase of the orchestra's tangible assets. Upon approval of the Court, the assets were sold to the new organization - The Alabama Symphonic Association.
The Women's Committee voted to change its name to The Symphony Volunteer Council and broadened its organization to include both men and women. They continued to present the Decorators' Showhouse, the profits of which are donated to the Symphony's endowment fund. Birmingham's business leaders sought financial support from state and local governments and worked with the business community to renew interest in financial support for the future new Symphony.
The orchestra's financial prospects improved dramatically when Mr. Elton B. Stephens joined the rebirth efforts in 1994 and accepted the position of Chairman of the Board of Directors. Mr. Stephens, with the help of many dedicated volunteers, set out to achieve the daunting task of raising funds for both operating expenses and an endowment. Under his leadership, the board devised a no-debt policy and began soliciting gifts to build a $10 million Endowment Fund and a $5 million Operating Fund.
These efforts were further validated when Dr. Charles A. "Scotty" McCallum, former president of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, accepted the position of the President of the Board of Directors. Mr. Stephens, Dr. McCallum and the board of directors prepared budgets and operating plans. A contract with the musicians' union was negotiated and accepted.
After these initial steps were taken to ensure the Symphony's return, the board began working to put together a full-time staff to run the Symphony. Hired in 1995 as the Director of Development, Kathy Yarbrough was the first full-time staff person employed by the Alabama Symphonic Association. Gustav Meier was retained as Artistic Advisor to organize the orchestra's inaugural season and Douglas Gerhart was hired to serve as the Executive Director.
The musicians of the previous orchestra were invited back to the new organization. Eventually forty-eight full-time musicians were hired to form the core of the ASO. A decision was made to hire additional musicians on a pay-for-service basis initially with a plan to add additional full-time musicians over time.
1997-Present: Expansion & Future Plans
In just four years, the rebirth of the Symphony was a success. The first notes of the new Alabama Symphony Orchestra were played on September 11, 1997, under the leadership of Artistic Advisor Gustav Meier and Principal Conductor Mark Gibson. An international search for a music director began in 1997, concluding with the appointment of Maestro Richard Westerfield to the post. Mr. Westerfield's impressive credentials included positions as music director of the Harrisburg Symphony and as associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under world-renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa.
During Mr. Westerfield's six-year tenure as music director, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra flourished under his baton, displaying artistic excellence and operating in financial stability. Maestro Westerfield received critical and audience acclaim for his interpretation of a broad repertoire of classical compositions, with an emphasis on choral and baroque works. He concluded his leadership of the ASO with Mahler's mighty "Resurrection" Symphony on the Jemison Hall concert stage of the Alys Stephens Center in May 2004.
The ASO inaugurated a search for its new Music Director with the 2004-2005 season. Concert audiences had the opportunity to hear and see some of the world's most talented conductors during the two-year search process. In the 2004-2005 season, Christopher Confessore also began to lead the ASO in many performances throughout the state as resident conductor of the ASO. Mr. Confessore, who currently serves as music director of the Brevard Symphony Orchestra in Melbourne, Florida, joined the Alabama Symphony Orchestra in 2000 as associate conductor.
In a unanimous decision by the orchestra's Search Committee, British conductor Justin Brown was named to the Elton B. Stephens Music Director Chair of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra on November 23, 2005. Brown then assumed leadership of the Alabama Symphony Orchestra with the commencement of the 2006-2007 season.
The ASO has grown significantly, both in size and scope, during the seven years since its "rebirth." The core number has grown to 53 full-time musicians. While the 1997/98 season offered only three concert series and three special event concerts, the ASO now has the following subscription series: Wachovia Masterworks, AmSouth SuperPops, Coffee Concerts presented by BellSouth RealPages.com, Protective Life Corporation symphony@6, Indian Springs Gateway, Red Diamond Family Concerts, Concertmaster & Friends, American Songbook and Compass Bank Sounds for Summer. Special event concerts scheduled for 2005-2006 include the holiday classic, Messiah; The New Year's Eve Concert and Reflect & Rejoice: A Community Tribute To Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The ASO also offers a very successful series for school children–Young People's Concerts. Each season, thousands of students attend a total of six YPCs. Teachers receive study guides in advance to help prepare students for these concerts and to enhance the educational experience.
On June 29, 2011, the ASO received the John S. Edwards Award for its strong commitment to new American music, demonstrating an enthusiasm for performing the works of living composers in addition to keeping the more traditional repertoire alive.
The ASO continues to be an integral part of the cultural fabric of the state. In addition to the concert season in Birmingham, run-out concerts have included Tuscaloosa, Anniston, Decatur, Point Clear, Montgomery (Huntingdon College), Florence, Dothan and Enterprise. The ASO's association with the Alabama Ballet and Opera Birmingham flourishes as the orchestra accompanies many of their performances. This season the ASO will also collaborate with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Alys Stephens Center, Summerfest Performing Ensemble, and the Birmingham Concert Chorale in concert performances.
The Alabama Symphony Orchestra now looks to the future and the boundless opportunities it holds for expanding its programs and activities in new and exciting ways. Working together with leaders in Birmingham, Jefferson County, and the State of Alabama, the ASO is moving ahead with renewed commitment to its ever-broadening mission of making professional, symphonic music available to every resident in our state.
- Justin Brown (2006–)
- Richard Westerfield (1997–2004)
- Paul Polivnick (1985–1993)
- Amerigo Marino (1964–1984)
- Arthur Winograd (1960–1964)
- Arthur Bennett Lipkin (1949–1960)
- Dorsey Whittington (1933–1942)
- "ASCAP 'Adventurous Programming' Awards Presented at League of American Orchestras Conference in Minneapolis". League of American Orchestras. Retrieved July 21, 2011.