By Amy Wenk
Dressed in elegant attire with pearls adorning her neck, 101-year-old Ruth Dabney Smith Allen shared her musical past at her home in the Lenbrook retirement community off Peachtree Road.
The Buckhead resident has devoted her life to classical music. A music instructor and concertmaster well into her 90s, Allen helped found the Atlanta Community Symphony Orchestra (ACSO), which celebrated its 50th anniversary Nov. 15.
Although she is no longer able to play, the violin that inspired it all still sits atop the grand piano in her apartment.
“My father played the violin, and he had inherited a nice instrument from his uncle, who played all over Virginia, so I was looking forward to playing on this violin,” said Allen, who was born in Raleigh, N.C.
Although not professional musicians, her parents, John and Ruth Heywood Smith, loved to play together, she said, adding that her mother fancied the piano. “I would go to bed and hear them down in the living room playing.”
When she was 8, Allen began taking piano lessons “because the violin teacher wouldn’t take me until I’d had two years of piano.”
It was about that time when her family moved to a stately home in Ansley Park. There she later became friends with “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell, a neighbor.
From a young age, Allen excelled in violin and piano. She attended Washington Seminary, a school established by two great-nieces of George Washington’s that merged with The Westminster Schools in the 1950s. There she was a violin pupil of George Lindner, the head of the Atlanta Conservatory of Music.
In the 1920s, articles detailing the teenager’s budding talent appeared in publications such as the Atlanta Constitution. She was labeled “one of the most popular young artists of the city,” as referenced from scrapbooks Allen donated to the Atlanta History Center.
In 1925, she won summer scholarships to the Chicago Musical College in both violin and piano and began teaching music. Just 17, she worked as assistant piano teacher at North Avenue Presbyterian School.
Around that time, she won a contest allowing her to study under renowned violinist Leopold Auer, who had taught at the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia, instructing such famous violinists as Mischa Elman and Jascha Heifetz.
“They were the finest soloists anywhere,” Allen said. “I had only a few lessons with him. He wanted me to come on to New York … but our family just didn’t have any money for me to live on my own in New York.”
Allen furthered her education during the summers, earning a bachelor’s degree at Syracuse University.
The rest of the year, she taught music and instructed students. For more than 70 years she gave private lessons and taught at institutions including the Washington Seminary and Agnes Scott College.
“I had some very gifted (students), and it was nice watching their careers blossom,” she said, noting her pupils play in orchestras in such cities as Baltimore, Boston and Atlanta. “Whenever they come to town, they usually come to see me.”
Influence in Atlanta
Allen was involved with the Atlanta Philharmonic Society when it organized in 1931.
“It was during the Depression, when nobody had any money for anything,” she said. “We incorporated the orchestra of professional people who were out of jobs, and then the rest were just volunteers.”
Allen soloed with the group and served as concertmaster and first violin until the mid-1950s.
In 1957, she helped organize the ACSO as a longtime member of the Atlanta Music Club, which was founded in 1915 to promote music education and community enrichment.
The idea came up while Allen was teaching summer camp in Brevard, N.C. The music club president, Mrs. Charles Chalmers, discussed with her a growing problem in Atlanta.
“She called me over, and she said, ‘What can we do? We are giving scholarships to students to come up here, and they get all excited over playing symphony music. They come home, and there’s not a thing for them,’ ” Allen said.
The club had formed the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) in the 1940s from a youth orchestra. Adult musicians were gradually added, and by 1951 the ASO was composed of professionals, leaving young musicians without a place to perform.
“They gradually just drifted away,” she said. “So we aimed this mainly at the young people, and the music club funded it.
“I wrote several other cities that had community orchestras to get their input on how they started, and then we called together a group of people we thought would be interested, especially educators.”
They were in favor of the idea and offered the club the use of schools for practice.
“The only fee would be to the janitors to stay a little extra and in the winter to pay a little on the heat,” Allen said.
The club hired Harry Kruger, the ASO’s assistant conductor, as the first conductor. Rehearsal began in January 1958 at Bass High School on Euclid Avenue.
“We had a good turnout for it, and so then it was off.” Allen said. “I was their executive secretary, which meant I paid the bills. I went to the Monday night rehearsals and checked the attendance and that sort of thing. And I served as concertmaster one time when their regular concertmaster had to be absent for schoolwork for several months.”
Today, Allen spends her days reading and enjoys visits from her three stepdaughters, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Her husband, Roger Wolcott Allen, is no longer with her, but she has three caretakers at Lenbrook and enjoys her skyline view of the city, which grew up before her eyes.