Under the direction of the gifted conductor and teacher Henry Sopkin, the Atlanta Youth Symphony became the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1947. Although still in its fledgling years, the orchestra flourished under Sopkin's leadership: expanding its repertoire, increasing its programs for young players, and improving the level of musicianship among its members. As it grew, the orchestra was able to attract world-renowned soloists such as Glenn Gould and Isaac Stern, which further enhanced its reputation as a top-notch regional orchestra. In 1964, the ASO, still an organization of part-time musicians, became a founding member of the Atlanta Arts Alliance, which later became the internationally acclaimed Woodruff Arts Center.
When Sopkin announced his retirement in 1966, an arduous search began to find a replacement for this talented and visionary conductor. The job was offered to Robert Shaw, who initially turned down the position because he felt he was not well-versed enough in orchestral repertoire to "stay ahead of the musicians." When he finally accepted the music director's position in 1967, it was obvious that he was equal to the challenge. Shaw immediately expanded the ASO, created the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and raised the expected level of musicianship to a new and highly professional standard. He also began to organize significant tours for the ASO, which brought national recognition and recording opportunities to the group. Under Shaw's leadership, the ASO performed for the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977, and became the first American orchestra to release a commercial digital recording for Telarc in 1978.
The ASO made numerous recordings, won 15 Grammy Awards, and toured internationally under Shaw's direction. In 1988, Shaw retired from his position as ASO music director. Following Shaw's retirement, Yoel Levi became the third music director in ASO history. A conductor of international reputation, Levi continued the tradition of musical excellence for which the ASO became known. In 1995, the ASO celebrated its 50th anniversary season with two nationwide television broadcasts, and a successful tour of the northeastern United States. The ASO performed for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in 1996, which was viewed by more than 3.5 billion people worldwide. In 2001, Robert Spano became music director, with Donald Runnicles as principal guest conductor. The orchestra has recorded over 100 albums, has won a total of 28 Grammy Awards, and performs more than 200 concerts a year.
A focus of the orchestra has been the promotion of new music, having commissioned, premiered, and recorded works by Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, Michael Gandolfi, and Christopher Theofanidis, among others. In continuing this focus, the ASO released Everything Lasts Forever, an album of music by Michael Kurth (a member of the ASO double bass section) in 2019, on their own ASO Media label.