Michael Palmer conducts Atlanta's classical music legacy
By Michelle Hiskey
Michael Palmer conducts the School of Music Orchestra
On Atlanta's musical timeline, Michael Palmer has appeared at key moments in history — first as a protégé conductor with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and now as the maestro for the Georgia State University School of Music's Orchestra.
The very title of his GSU position — the Charles Thomas Wurm Distinguished Professor of Orchestral Studies — harkens back to the city's renaissance after the Civil War. Wurm was the youngest son and musical heir of Ferdinand Wurm, who in 1872 established Wurm's Orchestra, which entertained every U.S. president from Harrison to Taft and "also played for Jefferson Davis, ex-president of the Confederacy," noted a newspaper report of a century ago. Cataloguing the orchestra's fame "would be as futile as the numbering of the sands of the seas."
Fast forward to the late 1960s. Fresh out of music school himself, Palmer joined Robert Shaw in building the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and promoted high-quality performing opportunities for young musicians. Palmer founded the ASO's Youth Orchestra — not his first. As a teenager in Indianapolis, he had recruited an all-star youth orchestra and gave his first downbeat at age 14.
While performing throughout the United States, Europe and China, Palmer stayed in touch with his Atlanta contacts. A decade ago, a call came from famed concert singer and longtime friend Florence Kopleff, GSU's first artist-in-residence and a significant arts donor to the university: "Come back; we need you." He did in 2004, with the Wurm Professorship becoming official in 2006 through a gift by Wurm's grandson, Atlanta developer Thomas G. Cousins.
Today, like his mentors before him, Palmer stokes the inspiration inside young musicians. "A constant pillar of support," said Hao-An "Henry" Cheng (M.Mu. '10), an aspiring conductor. "He is committed to help students achieve something greater than they think they can."
Palmer, 67, hopes his GSU legacy will be even stronger as ties between the music school and the ASO continue to grow. Principal cellist Christopher Rex is GSU's new professor of cello, and former GSU student Brice Andrus is the ASO's principal French horn.
"All great orchestras exist in cities where there are great schools of music," said Palmer, mentioning Cleveland, Boston and Philadelphia. "It's a very exciting time to be here."