Tom Witte’s 42 Years With the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — a Biased Reflection

Tom Witte, my father, retired in June of 2015, completing a 46-year career as a professional horn player. 42 of those years have been as second horn of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Robert Shaw hired Dad in 1973, when the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, like the city it celebrates, was an upstart.

The path forward for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, like that of many other leading orchestras, is a matter of much discussion today. While musicians endured two stormy and regrettable lockouts in recent years, it appears at the time of this writing that civic support may be turning a corner.

What is clear is that the ASO’s 70 year ascent into the realm of America’s great orchestras was crafted through hundreds of musical partnership between stars like Brice Andrus and position players like Tom Witte, each specialist able to imagine and create something magical.

Dad ended his career as the longest serving current second horn in America and his tenure with Atlanta is among the longer in American orchestral history. That alone is worth celebrating. 46 years playing a brass instrument, through hypertension, and arterial surgery, through cancer, and surgery, through hernias, and surgery, through divorces, kids, family, all absent focal dystonia and through the myriad injuries of flesh and spirit common to orchestral artist-athletes, is something only those who sit on stage night after night, day after day, can truly appreciate.

How many services did Dad play with the ASO from 1973–2015? Did any other ASO musician perform on stage more during that time? As daunting as his longevity and that of his section mates is, the evolution and growth of his and the orchestra’s musicianship is even more remarkable.

Astonishingly, one person has been playing in the horn section longer than Dad, Atlanta native and Georgia State University alumnus Brice Andrus. Brice began initially as assistant principal and then third horn with the ASO when Dad arrived. In 1975 Brice moved from my father’s right side, as third horn, to his left, becoming principal horn. That year, in tandem, Brice and Dad helped to build first a horn section, then a brass section, and ultimately an orchestra that became internationally acclaimed even as it remained locally committed.

Brice and Dad played as first and second horn for 40 years — longer than any other current pair in a major American orchestra, and perhaps longer than any two current players in the world. Together they formed the linchpin of arguably the ASO’s most consistently remarkable section, the ASO horns.

Among Dad’s legacies is the recorded history of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. From its first digital experiences with Robert Shaw on Pro Arte through New World Records to a defining organizational marriage with Telarc; from recordings of Golijov for Deutsche Grammophon, and Glass for Sony Classical, to its current venture as ASO Media, the ASO is among the most recorded orchestras of the last 50 years. Dad’s played on more than 80 of the organization’s 100+ CDs, including many of the ensemble’s 27 Grammy winners.

His recorded repertoire? Adams, Barber, Bartok, Beethoven, Berlioz, Brahms, Britten, Copland, Dvorak, Gandolfi, Golijov, Gorecki, Higdon, Hindemith, Holst, Janacek, Kodaly, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Mussorgsky, Orff, Prokofiev, Puccini, Ravel, Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rossini, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Sibelius, Strauss, Stravinsky, Theofanidis, Vaughan Williams, Verdi, and Wagner among others.

Big stuff, that.

The ASO, together with its unequaled chorus, built a reputation on large repertoire that first requires, then celebrates, the power and finesse of a great horn section.

He doesn’t speak much, my Dad. In fact, he can brood. In part, that’s why I write. His is the kind of career not often celebrated. He’s not a soloist. He’s not outspoken. He rarely gets, nor seeks, individual attention.

That’s not to say he’s not fiercely proud of his durability and his role as a creator and steward of Atlanta’s greatest team. I am, certainly.

In the mid-80s Bruce Kenney, Richard Deane, and Susan Welty won posts with the ASO. Bruce came on as fourth horn in 1985, Richard as third horn in 1987, and Susan as assistant principal in 1988. The full section played together in that form for 25 years, until 2013. That was the year the New York Philharmonic wisely recruited Richard, where he now serves as associate principal horn.

Were there bumps and bruised egos? Absolutely. Still, the lasting and meaningful things Brice, Tom, Richard, Bruce, and Susan share are non-verbal. They have a 25-year musical friendship of alliances and allowances as a section: I will get you to your solo here, and you cover the notes above the staff there. I will come up to your pitch here, and you cover that stopped note down there. At their best, sections make sacrifices discretely and nightly so that the larger goal, the music, is served with one voice.

For a quarter of a century, 1988–2013, the ASO horns were a marvel of section virtuosity and stability, making their ASO subscription-series solo debut on Robert Schumann’s Concertpiece for Four Horns and Orchestra, Op. 86 in 2010. At the time of Richard’s departure, these five formed the longest continuously serving horn section in the nation, and were widely recognized as the equal of any.

Over years the ASO horns learned how to amplify each other’s strengths. Bruce and Tom voiced octaves, thirds, and especially seconds, fourths, and sevenths, with an uncanny ear for harmony and counterpoint, a taste for difference tones, and an eerie ability to anticipate and match the entry of their colleagues throughout the orchestra. Among the three high horns, solo artists all, there were distinct roles. Richard provided astonishing power and stamina in the upper registers. Sue played notes higher than should be possible, clarion and clear; served as assistant covering the terrifying and touchy, so Brice could save for the next solo lick; serving as associate principal and/or 5th horn and first Wagner tuba when Bruckner was on the bill.

Brice, in the solo chair, is a story unto himself. Forty years in his chair is like forty years running four-minute miles. No current principal horn in the world has a career as long, distinguished, or unfettered by doubt, injury, or technical collapse. Dulcet and durable, he.

With Dad’s retirement, 42 years of non-verbal agreement, intuition, muscle-memory, interpretation, and imagination will come to an end in Atlanta. His contribution to the ASO’s ascendance is a civic treasure.

Dad and his mates came of age in an era when a great brass section was a bold brass section. Chicago, Vienna, Boston, London, and Berlin were sonic models, especially through recordings by the London, then Decca, Philips, and, Deustche Grammophon labels. These orchestras had great halls that were resonant and supportive. Moreover, their recordings were made by sound engineers who employed dozens of microphones, and, like John Culshaw, famously played the mixing board as a harp, dialing up the horns here, toning down the bass-drum there.

Not so, Atlanta.

The ASO achieved international acclaim in spite of its hall. The ASO horns had no appropriate acoustic shell to blow against until 2013. Telarc’s approach to recording was superb though distinctively minimalist, preferring a handful of microphones distantly placed so as to capture the natural sound of an orchestra in its environment.

As a result, the ASO horns had to roar to compensate for their hall. Roar they did, matching and frequently surpassing the recorded chutzpah of the orchestras they admired and to which they were increasingly compared. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, the height of the CD era, an orchestra’s international reputation was made upon the quality of its recordings. Mahler and Strauss, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, Barber and Copland, these works demanded an orchestral moxy and presence that was unsupported by ASO’s pre-2013 hall.

Somehow the ASO horns did it, moving in the 1980s to a matched set of Lawson horns with consistent intonation tendencies, a uniformity of timbre, and a capacity for power without edge. Recently, as sensibilities changed, recordings carried less weight, and careers lengthened, the section moved to smaller and lighter instruments offering a broader array of colors.

Over the decades, the ASO horns developed a reputation for touch and taste, as evidenced by their recordings of Sibelius’s Karelia Suite (the end of the first movement, a marvel), Barber’s Knoxville, Summer 1915, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, and Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Unquestionably, they brought brilliance, as evidenced by recordings of Sibelius’s symphonies 1, 5, 6, and 7, and tone poems, including a personal favorite, Pohjola’s Daughter; the Barber Essays; the Shostakovich symphonies 1,5, 8, 9 and 10; the Janacek Glagolitic Mass (the enormous opening of which, for me, symbolizes Robert Shaw and Tom Witte’s matched spirits), and a near-cycle of Mahler symphonies 1,2,4,5,6,7, and 8.

Listening, one would never know how hard the orchestra had worked to make Woodruff ring like the Musikverein.

And the reviews?

Perhaps the breakout review for the ASO was written by Alex Ross, now the interwebs’ most read music critic and noted author of The Rest Is Noise, then a New York Times reviewer. Ross reviewed the ASO’s February, 1993 concert in Carnegie Hall with then music director Yoel Levi. The ASO has performed at Carnegie for years, first under Robert Shaw, subsequently with Levi, and now with Robert Spano. Prior to 1993, NYT reviews, viewed as a national report card of sorts, gave the upstart band and A-for-effort, if not yet for word-class accomplishment. The tenor turned in 1993.

Levi and Atlanta brought Beethoven’s Eroica, a showpiece for horns, and a benchmark for an orchestral second horn in particular.

About the ASO’s Eroica of 1993 Ross wrote:

The Atlanta Symphony’s performance of the Beethoven Symphony №3 on Thursday night had the character of a demonstration, and an impressive one at that. This orchestra is not generally ranked among America’s best; Yoel Levi, in his fifth year as music director, has set out to prove otherwise. He has, first of all, established an uncommon precision of ensemble. Even in Beethoven’s most rebellious moments of syncopation, the attacks landed with a crispness that is often missing in the day-to-day work of some better-known orchestras. The assurance of the playing became almost distracting, as one waited for flaws to appear; but even the rugged horn solos of the scherzo were note perfect.”

If Robert Shaw had been the ASO’s heart and soul, Levi was its analytical mind. Musically, Shaw was to Levi what Kirk was to Spock. Sequentially, the two helped the orchestra evolve more fully as an organism in ways that, for many, Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles have since been able to balance and unite.

Since 1993, perhaps, the New York Times and thus the Atlanta Journal Constitution, considered the ASO among the nation’s greats, a perception substantiated by Carnegie Hall’s presentation of the ASO on its 2016 Great American Orchestras series along side bands from Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and San Francisco.

I reflect.

My father was born in 1947.

In 1959, after playing a middle school band concert at the Michigan State Fair, young Tommy learned that his father had passed away suddenly, leaving the 12 year-old to be “the man of the house” for his German immigrant mother, Helga, and younger sister, Chris.

In 1967, Tom married his middle school band-mate, clarinetist Arlene Witte, a future music-educator and force of nature of the highest order. They have me in July of that year, too soon. Tom is 19, Arlene, 18.

In 1969 Dad graduated from the University of Michigan, an epicenter of the Vietnam protests of the era (to this day, Dad is not yet Republican), and began his career as a professional musician with the Toledo Symphony.

In 1970, after Mom graduates from Michigan, Dad wins a post with the San Antonio Symphony, playing summers with the Sante Fe Opera.

During the summer of 1973, Dad wins consecutive auditions, first with the New Orleans Philharmonic, and then with the Atlanta Symphony. At the time, New Orleans was the more established orchestra , and had a reputation as a farm-team for the Chicago Symphony, every red-blooded American brass player’s dream. We move to Atlanta, against conventional wisdom of the day. Mom and Dad chose wisely.

In 1973, when Dad was hired, orchestras from Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and San Francisco were considered among the world’s greatest. Atlanta’s was not then. It is now. Witness Carnegie’s 2016 packaging of the ASO with her storied peers.

Atlanta’s accomplishment is a living testament to hundreds of musicians, managers, staff, board leaders, and philanthropists, some who have come and gone, others who came and stayed. Each cared and mattered, as did the ASO’s audiences.

What ever the future may hold, the ASO’s record with Tom Witte is clear.

Through a 42 year career that began in September of 1973, and ended on June 5, 2015; in helping to establish the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and it’s superb horn section as a foundation of civic, educational, and musical excellence; in crafting recordings of international acclaim; and in giving performances worthy of settings in Bartow and Berlin, Vinings and Vienna, Piedmont Park and Paris, Newnan and New York -

Through all of this, and more, Tom Witte and his colleagues became greats.

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