The orchestra was founded in 1945, and played its first concert as the Atlanta Youth Symphony under the direction of Henry Sopkin, a Chicago music educator who remained its Conductor until 1966.The organization changed to its current name in 1947, and soon began attracting well known soloists such as Isaac Stern and Glenn Gould. In 1967, with the departure of Sopkin, Robert Shaw (founder of the Robert Shaw Chorale) became the conductor, and a year later the orchestra turned full-time. In 1970, Shaw founded a choir specially for the orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. In 1988, Yoel Levi became Music Director and principal conductor. Under him, the orchestra played at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Centennial 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Levi became Music Director Emeritus in 2000, and was succeeded as Music Director by Robert Spano.
The ASO and chorus made its first recording, a 2-LP Christmas album entitled Nativity, for Turnabout/Vox Records in 1975, under the directorship of Robert Shaw. This was an album directly based on their annual Christmas concert. In 1978, the ASO became the first American orchestra to make a digital recording intended for commercial release, when it played Igor Stravinsky's Firebird suite and excerpts from Alexander Borodin's opera, Prince Igor for the Telarc label. As of 2008, the orchestra and chorus still record for Telarc, one of the longest continuous associations of an orchestra with a record label. In 2004, the orchestra initiated an agreement with the Deutsche Grammophon label to record several works by composer Osvaldo Golijov, while continuing its ongoing relationship with Telarc which has resulted in numerous Grammy awards.
One of the orchestra and chorus's most famous recordings, however, that of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony conducted by Robert Shaw, was recorded for the now defunct Pro Arte label, and sadly, is not only now out of print, but has not been picked up for re-release by Telarc or any other label.
The orchestra toured Europe under Yoel Levi in 1991; and with its chorus, under Robert Shaw, in 1988. In 2003, the ASOC visited Berlin, where it gave three performances of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under ASO Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles.
The ASO's main concert venue is Atlanta Symphony Hall in the Woodruff Arts Center. It plays an extensive outdoor summer pops concert series at Atlanta's city-owned Chastain Park, and at other parks in the area. In February 2005 the orchestra unveiled plans for the new Atlanta Symphony Center concert hall designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, to be built subject to raising construction funds of approximately US$300 million.
On May 10, 2008, the ASO opened the new US $35 million 12,000-seat Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in north Fulton County in the town of Alpharetta, some 22 miles north of Atlanta, where the ASO will present concerts of its own as well as those by various pops groups. Encore Park and the Amphitheatre are owned by the Woodruff Arts Center, the ASO's parent organization. Including Encore Park and its activities at Atlanta Symphony Hall and Chastain Park, the ASO will present more than 300 performances annually. With a budget expected to increase to US $50 million with the completion of its new Amphitheatre, the ASO has become one of the six or seven largest orchestras in America, by budget size. The ASO's budget includes not only the costs of production, along with orchestra and staff salaries and benefits, but also the symphony's very significant expenditures on education, community outreach, special events and fundraising.