“We are back and ready to play for our great Athens audience… Let the music begin,” said Athens Symphony Conductor Susan Dinwiddie before the orchestra’s concert at the Classic Center in downtown Athens on Apr. 18.
The performance marked the long-anticipated end of a 16-month hiatus for the symphony caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not since their annual Christmas concerts in 2019 had the symphony performers played before a live audience. Its return to the stage brought a much-needed sigh of relief from the symphony’s longtime supporters here in this community. Now in its 44th season, the Athens Symphony is a local ensemble of dedicated and skillful volunteers that lives up to its motto, “More Than Music.”
The Athens Symphony is an institution in our city that has been a part of Athens cultural life since its concerts under the baton of Albert Ligotti began at Clarke Central High School’s auditorium in 1978. Ligotti conducted the symphony until 2012. He died at the age of 88 in 2015.
Born in New York in 1927, Ligotti was a University of Georgia faculty member and an accomplished musician who had performed with many orchestras, including the Boston Pops, the Metropolitan Opera Company, the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic under musical legend Leonard Bernstein. Ligotti looked the part of a symphony conductor, and a bronze sculpture of the maestro by artist Gregory Johnson is displayed in the lobby of the Classic Center, where the symphony has been performing since 1996.
Dinwiddie is now in her 10th year as conductor of the Athens Symphony. She brings years of teaching and performing experience to the job as she leads the symphony with concert selections that are challenging mixtures of classical standards and musical surprises. Associate conductor Brad Maffett and assistant conductor Josh Bryan are able additions to the orchestra. Their efforts ensure that the Athens Symphony continues to inspire and entertain its loyal audiences. Since its founding, the Athens Symphony has been a community effort to bring free concerts to all comers. Athens businesses and the local government sponsor and support the orchestra, along with financial contributions from local citizens. This year, many supporters gave contributions to the Athens Symphony in memory of Terry Kay, the beloved Athens writer who died last December. Kay was a popular narrator of the symphony’s annual Christmas program, a job he enjoyed and performed flawlessly.
The Athens Symphony’s Apr. 18 concert included works by Gordon Jacob, Charles Gounod, Edward Elgar, Edvard Grieg and Gustav Holst. COVID-19 precautions were in place to protect musicians and the audience during the concert.
The return of the Athens Symphony was a much-needed glimmer of light and beauty here in a city that has been haunted by the specter of the pandemic for more than a year. At the finale of the concert, Dinwiddie received a much-deserved round of applause when she said that she and her musical teammates “are the happiest people on the planet right now.” The return of the Athens Symphony spread that happiness to a community that has been too sad for too long.
More free concerts by the Athens Symphony are scheduled at the Classic Center later this year. The symphony’s fall concert will take place on Nov. 7, and the orchestra’s Christmas concerts will brighten the holiday season on Dec. 11 and 12. The Christmas concerts are community favorites that are particularly close to my heart since my wife, Joy, and I attended an Athens Symphony Christmas concert on our first date back in 2002. Visit the orchestra’s website at athenssymphony.org for more information about the symphony and its upcoming performances.
In a world buffeted by the pains of plague, poverty and pandemic, institutions like the Athens Symphony provide inspiration and uplift right here in our small corner of Planet Earth. In these times of disunity and discord, the symphony underscores the truth that poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow voiced long ago when he said, “Music is the universal language of all mankind.”
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