Conductors of symphony orchestras are called “maestro,” and they rarely don horsehead masks and dance around the stage.
But these kinds of things happen at a Robert Spano concert, and did happen at a performance of “cloth/field,” which not only featured dancers spinning Spano’s piano in circles while he performed his original music, but also included Spano’s terpsichorean debut.
Spano credits his collaborator, Lauri Stallings, founder of the innovative dance troupe Glo, for drawing him off the podium and onto the dance floor. “She finds ways for those of us with no skill to be part of the pageantry,” he said modestly, in a recent interview.
That 2014 performance stands out in our memory and in Spano’s. He recently reviewed his career as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which began in 2001 and will end with the 2020-21 season.
Spano, 56, spoke about his time in Atlanta during a conversation in the “conductor’s suite” at Symphony Hall. Spano is not tall, but a substantial, midsized package of enthusiasm, with a merry laugh and an energetic gait. On this day, he’s wearing a silky short-sleeved shirt and professorial horn-rimmed glasses.
The conductor’s suite, a small, piano-equipped, windowless bunker, was, on this particular day, redolent of the solvents being used to seal the concrete floors of the nearby Alliance Theatre during its ongoing renovation.
So far, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra hasn’t been able to enjoy the kind of expansion or radical renovation that have improved the facilities for its fellow Woodruff Arts Center tenants, the Alliance Theatre and the High Museum. (The High doubled its space in 2005; the transformation of the Alliance will be complete this fall.)
In 2006, the symphony floated plans for a new hall, but that idea was shelved after the financial crisis of 2008. Spano hints that a change is coming, in the form of a renovation that will transform the hall’s acoustics from good to great. “It would be just as exciting as a new hall,” he said.
“It’s something that I think will happen eventually and the question is, how quickly? And I would imagine that we’ll be able to make progress in that direction before I leave, but not finish it (while I’m still here).”
Such a project would be a fitting cap to Spano’s Atlanta tenure, a time that has seen some grim low points and some exalted highs.
Spano was music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic when he was chosen as Atlanta’s designate in 2000, and for four years he led both ensembles before deciding to direct all his energies to Atlanta.
When he arrived, he quickly set about pursuing one of his signature achievements: the fostering of new music.
According to the ASO, Spano’s orchestra has performed 28 ASO commissions; 13 ASO co-commissions; 49 world premieres and 32 Atlanta and U.S. premieres.
“When I came here, I heard from people — not in Atlanta, but elsewhere — saying you can’t do new music there,” he said. “I was reading Tom Wolfe’s ‘A Man in Full’ right when I was hired, and I remember him describing the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as an institution that had to end every concert with ‘Bolero’ to make sure everybody was happy.
“But that hasn’t been my experience at all,” he said. “We did make a decision right when I came here to cultivate relationships with these American composers and at the same time to cultivate an audience for them. … It was a very simple kind of strategy: Play them more than once, let them speak to members of our community — so we did composer interviews every time we played them — put them on our touring (programs), put them on youth concerts, record them, play pieces that we didn’t necessarily commission … and I think really that’s what worked: cultivating real relationships with these composers.”
The composers he championed — including Jennifer Higdon,Christopher Theofanidis,Michael Gandolfi and others — were tonal, tuneful, and influenced by pop or world music. And they had one other thing in common: Their music was being played here. So Spano came up with the audacious concept of calling them the Atlanta School of Composers (even though only one was from Atlanta).
Their work was unlike the 12-tone music of their teachers, and Spano recognized the change as a revolution. “It’s a discernible shift aesthetically in the history of American music,” he said. “The recognition that they share these characteristics made me look back and recognize that this is a historic moment in American music. It’s like looking back and seeing the change from the Baroque to the Classical, from the Classical period to the Romantic period.
“It was never designed to create such a thing, per se. It was a recognition of what had been transpiring.”
Will the history books go along with the idea? Time will tell.
Spano can also be proud of progress since 2014, when the musicians in the orchestra were locked out for the second time in two years over salary disputes. The orchestra was in debt, its membership reduced and relations with management were rancorous.
Since then, the orchestra’s complement has been replenished, the community has endowed new positions and the ASO has steadily finished with a budget surplus.
He has also taken the orchestra on some creative multimedia adventures. An upcoming performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” will include actors from the Alliance, puppets and projections.
Spano says he doesn’t know where his plans will take him after he leaves the ASO. “It’s my family. It’s my musical life,” he said. “The thought of not being here is unimaginable. But at the moment, knowing I’m leaving in three years puts in relief just how grateful I am to be doing what I’m doing here.”
Upcoming events with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
• Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti will play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 19, and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 21. The performance will be preceded by a chamber recital featuring ASO musicians at 6:45 p.m. The recital is free to all weekend classical ticket holders.
• Carlo Rizzi will conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 26; 8 p.m. Saturday, April 28; and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 29.
• Robert Spano will conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in collaboration with the Alliance Theatre in a production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” in nine performances May 9-20.
For ticket information, go to atlantasymphony.org. The ASO performs at the Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta.
AJC’s new podcast: accessAtlanta
Looking for things to do in and around Atlanta? We have lots of ideas, and we’ll be sharing them in a new weekly podcast, with new episodes debuting Thursday mornings.
In today’s episode, listen to Robert Spano talk about his career with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with AJC features reporter Bo Emerson. It is a revealing interview with the music director, whose career has spanned more than three decades. Plus host Shane Harrison shares things to do in Atlanta during the next 10 days, including the Big Shanty Festival in downtown Kennesaw.
>> accessAtlanta PODCAST: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's Musical Director, Robert Spano
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.