The mission of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera is to inspire, engage, and enrich the greater Chattanooga community through music and music education.
Caption: 1930's, Melvin Margolin and the newly formed Chattanooga Symphony
The Chattanooga Symphony traces its roots to an enterprising group of young people looking for an opportunity to play classical music together. Led by Melvin Margolin, several recent graduates and students from Chattanooga High School, joined by a few adult musicians in town, gave the first concert of the Chattanooga Symphony on November 5, 1933.
Earlier efforts to launch an orchestra at the turn of the century had never taken root, but the young players won the hearts of community leaders and music lovers with their tenacity and talent. Melvin Margolin and his friend Borden Jones led the group in its first four years. By 1938, the group had progressed enough to warrant professional leadership and Dr. Arthur Plettner from Juilliard was engaged to become the conductor for the next 11 years.
At the same time, a remarkable pair of musicians was escaping from Nazi Germany and bringing their expertise with them to Tennessee. Dr. Werner Wolff and his wife Emmy Land Wolff had been fixtures in German opera houses. They founded the Chattanooga Opera Company along with Dorothy Hackett Ward from the University of Chattanooga, mounting a production of Il Trovatore with local singers in February, 1943.
Because of their connections in the opera world, the Wolffs were able to draw internationally known stars to Chattanooga to join with local singers. These stars included Beverly Sills, John Vickers, Norman Triegle and Phyllis Curtin. Guest artists with the Chattanooga Symphony over the years include Isaac Stern, Artur Rubenstein, Oscar Levant and Robert Merrill.
In 1985, the Chattanooga Symphony and the Chattanooga Opera merged, becoming the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Association (CSOA), the first and only symphonic and opera organization of its kind in the United States. Vakhtang Jordania served as the Conductor and Artistic Director from 1985 to 1991. A native of the former Soviet Union, Jordania escaped to the West in the 1980's through conducting.
Maestro Jordania guided the CSOA through a period of growth and transition; the establishment of a core orchestra and the comprehensive blending of classic, romantic and contemporary works. Over the years, the CSOA featured famous guest artists including Itzhak Perlman, Gidon Kremer, Jean-Pierre Rampal and Gary Karr.
In 1992, the CSOA and Chattanooga residents welcomed Maestro Robert Bernhardt as Music Director and Conductor. Under his leadership, the CSOA experienced significant increases in concert attendance, community involvement and musical quality and has emerged as a leading regional orchestra. Under his baton, the CSO hosted famous guest artists such as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Stella Zambalis and Edgar Meyer.
The CSO celebrated its 75th Anniversary in the 2008-2009 season with a Gala celebration attended by current and former orchestra members, city and state officials, and of course, the many Friends of the CSO.
In 2009, Maestro Bernhardt announced his decision to take on a different role at the CSO, the organization's first Music Director Emeritus, thus beginning a two year search for the CSO's next Music Director and Conductor. Nine candidates from across the globe conducted the CSO from 2009-2011, allowing the CSO to display its extraordinary musicianship under each new baton.
Maestro Bernhardt's final season with the CSO included the release of Black Tie and Bluegrass, a CD featuring Fletcher Bright and the Dismembered Tennesseans and the CSO's String section.
The 2011-2012 season marked the first for CSO's new Music Director & Conductor, Kayoko Dan. Music Director Kayoko Dan is the youngest conductor in the CSO's history, as well as the first female to serve in this role. The 2020/21 season will mark the organization's 88th year of bringing classical and orchestral music to the greater Chattanooga community.