Mission and History


The mission of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Youth Orchestras is to provide the finest quality orchestral training and performance opportunities for aspiring young musicians in the greater Chattanooga area.


In 1949, a group of Chattanooga Symphony musicians decided that area string, wind, and percussion students needed the opportunity to perform in a full orchestra. At that time, only five or six local schools offered any type of string instrumental music education. The Chattanooga Civic Training Orchestra was founded under the umbrella of the Chattanooga Philharmonic Association, which included the Civic Chorus under the baton of Joseph Hawthorne. Peter Rickett, assistant conductor of the Chattanooga Philharmonic Orchestra, was named conductor of the new Chattanooga Civic Training Orchestra. Rehearsals were held on Saturday mornings at Chattanooga High School on East Third Street (now Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences).

The purpose of the CCTO was to provide players of orchestral instruments experience playing in an orchestra and an introduction to the symphonic repertoire. Over a period of ten years, the popularity of the Training Orchestra made it one of the top orchestras in the area. Although set up by the Chattanooga Philharmonic Association as a training ground for young people, there was no age limit and capable players of any age interested in increasing their knowledge of the orchestral literature were welcome.

The orchestra was reorganized in 1955 as the Chattanooga Youth Training Orchestra, supported jointly by the Chattanooga Symphony and the Chattanooga Public School System. For the next 25 years, the orchestra flourished under the direction of conductors from both the professional orchestra sector and the music education sector, including Chris Xeros, Thomas Beck, Thomas Hall, Robert Crane, Jay Craven, Frank Witherspoon, Richard Cormier and James Stroud.

After several years’ absence in the early 1980s, the orchestra was reorganized as the Chattanooga Youth Orchestra in 1985. Mary Barker, Chairman of the Education Committee of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Association Board, worked with local music educators Linda Pennebaker, Kay Smith, Sandy Morris, and interested parents, including Linda Thompson, to discuss and implement ways to revive interest in a youth orchestra. Orlo Gilbert, director of the Southern College Symphony Orchestra, was the first conductor of the reorganized group. This group started as a string orchestra and grew to include wind and percussion instruments. Mr. Gilbert, along with the Chattanooga Youth Orchestra Board members, was able to build the membership to 80 musicians, indicating a serious desire for a full orchestra. The “premier performance” was presented on November 18, 1986, at the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. The 1987 Spring Concert was held at Brainerd High School.

In the fall of 1987, Philip Rice was named assistant conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony and conductor of the Chattanooga Symphony Youth Orchestra (renamed to recognize the Chattanooga Symphony for its sponsorship). Rehearsals and performances were held at the School for the Performing Arts at Chattanooga High School until 1991. With the Chattanooga Symphony as the parent group of the Youth Orchestra, community leaders, public arts councils, area music educators, patrons and musicians recognized the importance of this ensemble.

Jay M. Craven took up the baton once again in 1988. The performance schedule grew under Mr. Craven’s direction. An ensemble program was added, as well as sectional rehearsals with members of the CSO Orchestra. Jay Craven retired at the end of the 1992 season, and David Conn took up the baton.

In 1993, the baton was passed to Gary Wilkes. Under his direction, the orchestra grew tremendously and a second full orchestra was added. Sandy Morris was hired as the conductor of the Philharmonic Orchestra in 1998.

Recognizing the need for a string training orchestra, the Etude Orchestra was added in 2000. Nichole (Graham) Pitts was hired as the conductor. With interest continually growing, a second string orchestra, the Prelude Orchestra, was added in 2006, with Nichole Pitts also as conductor. Floy Wang, veteran violist of the Chattanooga Symphony and retired orchestra teacher from Girl’s Preparatory School, became the conductor of the Etude and Prelude orchestras in the second half of the 2015-2016 season.

Membership in 2010 grew to 190 as the CSOYO celebrated its 25th anniversary. The crowning event was the Midori Residency, an honor shared by only one other youth orchestra in the nation that season. Midori arrived in Chattanooga for a week of activities with the CSO Orchestra and the CSO Youth Orchestras.

In 2015, the CSOYO celebrated its 30th anniversary season with a host of alumni celebrations and performances. Alumni soloists included Dr. Shannon Thomas, Professor of Violin at Florida State University, Josh Holritz, Associate Concert-Master of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Orchestra, Graduate Musicians Sarah Ransom, bassist, Konstantine Vlasis, timpanist, performing a concerto composed by alumnus composer Lucas Garner, Doctoral Musician at James Madison University.

At the beginning of the 2019-2020 season, Gary Wilkes announced his retirement in the spring of 2020. Unfortunately, his last season was cut short by the COVID-19 Pandemic, when the youth orchestra was forced to closed down in March 2020. A search was launched in the fall and concluded in early January to find a replacement, and Ismael Sandoval was hired as CSOYO Symphony Conductor and also Assistant Conductor of the CSO starting in June of 2020.

The Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Association sponsors the CSOYO in recognition that opportunities for developing the talent of young musicians must be promoted in the Chattanooga area. The CSOYO is also funded in part by the Tennessee Arts Commission and ArtsBuild.