Purse strings are tight, but the sound is strong

With the ASO announcing its 2009-2010 season and its 65th year, we sat down to talk with conductor Robert Spano. Always an intense, high-wire musician, Spano has mellowed in his eight years as music director. He arrived as an agent of change, with a penchant for contemporary scores and intriguing thematic programming.

By necessity, he's become leader of the establishment. He speaks more diplomatically than ever. He's even starting to look like an old Viennese maestro, sporting a dark moustache and silvery goatee. ("How's it look?" he asks a visitor to his studio, in the basement of the Woodruff Arts Center. "I'm not sure about facial hair; I haven't had any since high school!")

Arts groups work hard to pay the bills in the best of times. Today's deep recession has changed the equation. ASO President Allison Vulgamore says the orchestra's endowment has dropped 25 percent since the economic crisis hit —- similar to nonprofits everywhere —- and that this past fall ASO ticket sales were down about 3 percent. This troubling news seemed like a good place to start our conversation with Spano.

Q: How has the economy affected programming for the 2009-2010 season? Projects postponed, abandoned?

A: No, we've yet to cut product, to cut art. This is exactly what we'd planned.

Q: The season opens Sept. 24 with a couple of big standards by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Soon after, there are some ambitious premieres and, uh, odd choices. I'm thinking about the Brahms Violin Concerto ... for piano [Oct. 1-3].

A: When [pianist] Dejan Lazic was here last year, he played me oodles of it. He's taken the solo violin line and thickened it up, made it pianistic.

Q: And he asked you to perform it? Who's paying the commission?

A: He didn't have to ask, I asked him. I said, "We have to do this." And it's not a commission, we're just going to play it, and it'll be the world premiere.

Q: You've rescheduled the world premiere of Wynton Marsalis' new classical symphony on American themes. [Nov. 19-22]. After two postponements, what's its status?

A: I haven't seen a note of it, but I'm glad he's not rushing. Wynton told me, "I've missed deadlines, but I've never been late!" [Laughter.] I understand what he means: The piece is still gestating in his head, and when it's ready to come out, it'll be great.

We've also got new works by our "Atlanta School" of composers —- Osvaldo [Golijov's] suite from "Youth Without Youth" [the Francis Ford Coppola film] and two world premieres near the end of the season from Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi. We're framing those premieres, and the season finale, Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs," with Mozart's last three symphonies.

Q: What might draw the most attention is Angel Lam's cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma ...

A: She's a Hong Kong and L.A. composer, in her early 20s. I don't know her music, but she's been part of Yo-Yo's Silk Road project. Yo-Yo will play the world premiere [Oct. 15-16] here in Atlanta —- plus we're doing Stravinsky's Chinese fairy-tale opera "The Nightingale" on the second half —- and we'll take the whole thing to Carnegie Hall [Nov. 7 in New York].

Q: The Angel Lam is an ASO commission?

A: Carnegie's, actually. We came into the project in the middle; it pre-existed our participation. Carnegie asked us. We'll open Carnegie's China Festival, which is their biggest event of the season. We're honored to be a part of it.

Q: Tell me what music is coming up that you're especially excited about.

A: I did Mahler's Third Symphony years ago [at the Brooklyn Philharmonic]. It's impossible to have a favorite Mahler. They're each so distinguished from each other. In the Third [March 4-6, 2010] there's tremendous optimism, a sense of the redeeming power of life itself. There are difficult lessons, and there's also "what the flowers taught me." [Laughter.] And who knew the Big Bang sounded like Brahms' First [Symphony]?

Q: Have you done all the Mahler?

A: Donald [Runnicles, ASO principal guest conductor] and I have been trading Mahler symphonies over these eight years. Every conductor is a Mahler fanatic. Unlike Strauss, Mahler vividly scores this huge orchestra in chamber-music ways, sometimes just a few voices coming from this huge assemblage on stage! It's crazy! Unbelievable! There's so much confession. Can you imagine getting a transcript of the one conversation Mahler had with Freud? They probably talked about [Mahler's wife] Alma! [Maniacal laughter.] I love it.

ASO season

The full calendar is available at atlantasymphony.org. From the site, you can also watch the recent Webcast press conference announcing the upcoming year.

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