Alabama Symphony Orchestra (ASO)
Alabama Symphony Orchestra As the state’s only full-time professional orchestra, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra (ASO) enriches and entertains Alabamians with concert performances of classical standards and contemporary classical music. Based in Birmingham, ASO performs in concert halls, colleges, high schools, and other venues within the city and across the state. ASO also operates the Alabama Symphony Youth Orchestra for aspiring young musicians.
The orchestra first formed in April 1921 when a group of 52 volunteer musicians performed in the Birmingham Music Festival. In February 1933, the symphony officially formed under conductor Dorsey Whittington, and later that year the Birmingham Civic Symphony Association was incorporated with a budget of $7,000 for the year’s four scheduled concerts. By the 1935-36 season, the orchestra had grown to 80 members with a budget exceeding $400,000, in part as Youth Orchestra of the Birmingham Symphony Association a result of increased guest artist appearances. World War II forced the orchestra to shut down from 1942-49, but entering the 1950s, city officials in Birmingham resurrected the Birmingham Civic Symphony Association and placed conductor and violinist Arthur Bennett Lipkin at the helm. The 1950s saw growth in Birmingham’s classical music culture, including the creation of the Youth Orchestra under concertmaster Herbert Levinson and the establishment of a magazine and concert-program publishing group called the Vanguards. New support organizations sprang up at this time as well, including the Women’s Committee of the Alabama Symphony Association, founded in 1948 as Birmingham’s post-war efforts to revive the orchestra gained momentum, and the Junior Women’s Committee, founded in 1955. In 1956, the orchestra took the name Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Arthur Winograd, a former instructor at the Julliard School in New York City, became conductor in 1960 and during his short stay raised the orchestra’s caliber of performance by recruiting more musicians from beyond Alabama’s borders. He was succeeded by celebrated conductor and violinist Amerigo Marino, who came to Birmingham in 1964 and led the orchestra for the next 20 Marino, Amerigo years. In 1966, the orchestra received a $600,000 Ford Foundation grant, which was matched by ASO fundraising over the next 10 years; it also took over the Alabama Pops Orchestra, incorporating its musicians and assets. The orchestra moved to the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Concert Hall in 1973, and its annual schedule included more than 30 concerts across the state. In 1979, the orchestra changed its name to the Alabama Symphony Orchestra to emphasize the organization’s statewide reach and support. Expansion and critical acclaim under Marino continued until a major decrease in operating funds caused the symphony association to announce the cancellation of the 1984-85 season. In response, a community-led funding drive hurriedly raised more than $120,000 to revive the threatened season. Paul Polivnick, who at the time was an associate conductor of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, was hired to conduct in 1985. In 1988, Polivnick led the orchestra to national attention and critical praise from the Washington Post with a performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Despite such critical success, financial woes again surfaced in the early 1990s, and in November 1993 the Alabama Symphony Association, with roughly 10 times more debt than assets, declared bankruptcy.
The Women’s Committee, however, secured a $50,000 loan to prevent ASO’s assets—such as instruments and the music library—from being sold and created a new parent corporation for ASO, the Alabama Symphonic Association (ASA). The association is the business arm of the ASO, handling such essentials as administration, publicity, and ticketing. The Women’s Committee expanded to include men in 1993 and changed its name to the Symphony Volunteer Council. Its largest fundraising effort is the annual Decorators’ ShowHouse, a showcase of interior design held annually in Birmingham since 1976. Under the direction of EBSCO Media founder Elton B. Stephens, who chaired the ASA through its 1994-97 fundraising efforts, the association established a $10 million endowment and a $5 million operating budget. The ASO returned to performing in September 1997 at its new home, the Alabama Symphony Orchestra in Rehearsal University of Alabama Birmingham’s Alys Stephens Center, named for Stephens’s wife.
Richard Westerfield served as conductor from 1998 to 2004, and in 2006 Justin Brown, who trained as a pianist, took charge as musical director and principal conductor. Brown made it his goal to focus on inspiring youth interest as well as continuing to improve the orchestra’s performance level. In 2010, Brown oversaw the establishment of the Alabama Symphony Youth Orchestra (ASYO). The ensemble is composed of 60 students selected from across the state and performs four concerts a year, including one with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. ASYO provides scholarships to students who come from less financially well off families. In 2011, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, better known as ASCAP, awarded its highest honor, the John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music, to the ASO; that same year, ASO was invited to perform at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
In 2015, the current director, Venezuelan musician and composer Carlos Izcaray took the helm of both ASO and ASYO. In February 2017, he oversaw the launch of the nine-day Sound Edge Festival, which combines classical music with contemporary music in a multimedia setting. For example, ASO hosted an event at the Birmingham Museum of Art that included touring an art exhibit, a screening of the film Koyaanisqatsi, with a soundtrack by composer Philip Glass, and a discussion of the intersection of art, music, and film afterward. The festival continues to showcase these intersections. As of 2018, the ASO employs 53 full-time musicians, complemented by guest soloists, with a yearly operating budget of $6 million and an endowment of about $12 million. The orchestra’s regular collaborators include the Alabama Ballet and Opera Birmingham. The ASO’s concerts include classical favorites, popular film music, and more. Their season includes special events such as a New Year’s Eve concert, Symphony in the Summer at Railroad Park, a Sensory Friendly Concert, and concerts throughout the Alabama community.
Fairleigh, James P. “Alabama Symphony Orchestra.” In Symphony Orchestras of the United States: Selected Profiles, edited by Robert R. Craven. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.