The Atlanta of 1947 was a very different place from today, but it’s still hard to fathom lines of people snaking around the block on Sunday afternoons to enter the Fox Theater for a classical music concert. Sure, tickets were free, post-war money was tight, entertainment options scarce and the novelty of air conditioning a keen enticement (major league sports wouldn’t grace Atlanta’s landscape for nearly two more decades). Nonetheless, attracting capacity crowds of 5,000 for classical programming remains quite a coup.
It was the Atlanta Pops Orchestra that pulled off this impressive feat. For decades the Atlanta Pops was woven into the city’s fabric—it inaugurated the Chastain Park stage in 1952 and played at the 1980 opening of Hartsfield International Airport. Depending on who’s doing the counting, it even predates the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra by a couple of years.
On Friday and Saturday, Oct. 2 and 3, 2015, the Atlanta Pops will celebrate its 70-year history with a two-night anniversary gala at Oglethorpe University, an event that also happens to coincide with Oglethorpe’s 100th year on its Peachtree campus. It will also offer a glimpse into the sort of cultural dialogue the group sees as its future. Over the course of the two nights, the Pops will feature collaborative performances with a wide array of area talent, including roots rocker Michelle Malone, hip hop pioneers Arrested Development, the genre-bending guitar/cello duo Montana Skies, Alpharetta artist HeaveN Beatbox (whose TEDx Talk is a must-see), and Dacula native/frequent Zac Brown Band collaborator Levi Lowrey. More traditional Pops fare is also well represented via pieces with trumpeter Cecil Welch, Riverdance veteran Scott Porter and vocalists Chris Wright and Joe Gransden. “This is the Atlanta of today, 2015, and these are the styles I want the Pops to showcase,” says Kevin Leahy, the group’s percussionist and a member of its executive board.
This type of genre-crossing is nothing new to the Atlanta Pops; in its heyday it backed up the likes of Isaac Hayes and Georgia native Gladys Knight, and its 50th anniversary show at the Fox in 1995 featured a segment with guitar legend (and childhood Georgian) Chet Atkins.
For most of its existence, the Atlanta Pops was essentially synonymous with its founder and conductor Albert Coleman, a larger-than-life personality who escaped the Bolshevik Revolution as a youngster on the roof of a moving train with his mother, who was a bareback-riding circus performer. Coleman arrived in Atlanta in 1944 to become the on-air bandleader for WSB radio, delivering three hours of daily afternoon drive time orchestral music (again, imagine an era in which an AM radio station could afford its own in-house orchestra). Through sheer force of will, Coleman juggled his own budget, combined it with a grant from the Music Performance Trust (the local musicians union), and birthed the Atlanta Pops Orchestra.
The orchestra enjoyed solid civic support as its heyday continued through the 1960s. In the early 70s, however, as the focus of the city’s cultural scene shifted toward the newly opened Woodruff Arts Center and the ASO, the Atlanta Pops found itself gradually fading from the footlights. The Pops tweaked its mission, becoming musical emissaries for mid-size towns across Georgia and the southeast, where it found a more conducive environment. “Many of these smaller communities have converted old movie theaters,” which are good fits venue-wise, according to Leonard Altieri, Atlanta Pops chairman, who also points to these cities’ local Arts Councils and their dedicated marketing dollars. Following Coleman’s retirement in 2002, the Pops faced the textbook challenge of moving forward without the leader with whom it was inextricably linked. “There was a fallow period for a few years,” concedes Altieri, who was also a longtime performer in the orchestra. The October gala marks the group’s first intown performance “in recent memory,” says Leahy.
The Atlanta Pops features an ensemble ranging in size from 28 to 35 depending on the program. Roughly half of the group is comprised of working musicians, with several making their main living as faculty members. Not all sport the traditional classical backgrounds you might expect, either—Leahy has manned the drum kit for 80s roots rock mainstays the Bodeans and local favorite Shawn Mullins, for instance. The age range of the players—mostly late 30s/early 40s with a few outliers in their 20s and 50s—“isn’t that different from our 1940s era, based on the photos I’ve seen,” says Leahy.
Twelve years ago Altieri and the board made the difficult financial decision to cut the size of the group in half (“we then needed one bus instead of two to get to dates”) and to shift to “less symphonic” programming. “The main thing is not to play anything longer than ten minutes—that’s what the Pops market is,” he explains. In 2010 Dr. Jason Altieri, Leonard’s son, was appointed the Pops’ conductor and music director, succeeding John Head.
“A traditional Pops orchestra does Arthur Fiedler and marches in the summertime, Christmas music in the winter,” Leahy elaborates. “One of our goals for the gala and our future is to start connecting the orchestra to musicians of all backgrounds. I think of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ or Randy Newman’s ‘Louisiana 1927,’ these pop songs with orchestras behind them—to me you’re blending these beautiful worlds. We’re not redefining the Pops, or throwing away the old library. We’re re-energizing it, investing in arrangements for the Atlanta of today,” he continues, noting Arrested Development leader Speech and the work of HeaveN Beatbox as prime examples of the cultural dialogue he’s hoping to engage.
“Irving Berlin and ‘Frozen’ will still be in the repertoire,” Leahy assures us, but adds, “this is the Atlanta of today. We have this 70-year library, going back to Irving Berlin and Gershwin and all that—we’re looking to integrate the two.” Leahy also stresses that he does not view the Pops as being in competition with the ASO. If anything, Altieri sees ten other regional orchestras as the closer programming overlap, pointing to the fast-growing LaGrange Symphony Orchestra as an example, as well as troupes in Augusta, Columbus, Rome, Chattanooga, Carrolton and Johns Creek.
When asked to outline his aspirations for the Pops’ 70th anniversary come 2020, Leonard Altieri responded, “To be equally well known regionally and locally. To bring the Pops back to its former level of prominence, and grow it from there.” October’s two-night 70th anniversary gala is a fine start.
Tickets to the gala celebration 70 years of the Atlanta Pops Orchestra and 100 years of Oglethorpe University are $35 for one night and $55 for both. Purchase tickets here.