ASO names Nathalie Stutzmann to replace Robert Spano as music director

She will be the second woman to lead a major American orchestra.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has selected Nathalie Stutzmann, French operatic contralto and chief conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway, as its new music director.

Starting next season, Stutzmann, who also serves as principal guest conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, will become the organization’s fifth artistic leader on an initial four-year contract.

Credit: CHRIS CHRISTODOULOU

Credit: CHRIS CHRISTODOULOU

Stutzmann will conduct the ASO Oct. 13-14 in a program featuring Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. She returns to Atlanta in March for Mozart’s “Requiem” and will begin her new role in the fall of 2022, visiting the city for weeks at a time during her frequent appearances. Stutzmann will increase her appearances with the ASO as her calendar clears.

The ASO began searching for a new music director in January 2018, when Robert Spano announced he would step down following the 2020 season after two decades at the helm. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Spano decided to delay his departure. Instead of taking a year off before starting as music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, he became co-artistic director with ASO principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles. Runnicles, who also joined the symphony in 2001, will remain with the orchestra until at least the end of next season.

With the appointment, Stutzmann, 56, becomes just the second woman ever to lead a major American symphony orchestra. The first, Marin Alsop, recently ended her tenure with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

“I am very conscious about what it means. And what it means not only for Atlanta but for the whole country,” she said, noting that she never felt like her gender impacted the search process. “It gives a wonderful sign to all America that in Atlanta, things are different.”

Stutzmann, the daughter of opera singers, grew up studying vocal repertoire alongside piano, bassoon and cello. But she was fascinated by conductors. After a few initial lessons in school, it was clear that teachers were not encouraging her down a path typically pursued by men.

An expressive vocalist singing in an uncommon range, Stutzmann blossomed into an accomplished professional singer with a career’s worth of recordings of both cherished and little-known vocal music. But as she sang, she kept an eye on the podium, learning on the job during nightly appearances with orchestras around the world.

Credit: Brice Toul

Credit: Brice Toul

“I felt always limited by the limits of my voice. I tried extending the contralto repertoire as much as I could,” she said. “To be able to finally express the music I have in me, the only way was to be a conductor.”

Tiptoeing into a new role can be challenging, and Stutzmann was wary of being perceived as a singer who simply wanted to try her hand at conducting. So she sought out prominent orchestral leaders accustomed to hearing her as a soloist. Encouragement by famed conductors Seiji Ozawa and Simon Rattle gave her the push she needed to pursue studies with Finnish conductor Jorma Panula.

“It was very hard, the first years. People were very suspicious — a singer, a woman. The combination of both was terrible,” she said. “When you start you have to prove something, but of course, I had to prove more.”

Stutzmann’s ASO debut had been scheduled as a choral spectacular, a 2019 holiday performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” It was the ideal introduction to the ASO, especially for a singer, but she had to cancel due to illness. The conductor instead first met a pared-down ASO nearly a year later, leading a pandemic-era group of musicians for broadcast from a Symphony Hall with no audience. Chemistry developed immediately, she said. Stutzmann felt the small array of musicians were pleasantly surprised by some of her artistic choices and enjoyed the collaboration she encouraged. Her job as a music director will be to build on that sense of teamwork while projecting a strong sense of leadership and a clear vision. These are all attributes cultivated by Spano that she hopes to nurture while enriching the orchestra with new ideas.

In searching for the next music director, the ASO committee had a mandate to find an innovative artistic voice that could grow the ensemble in a new direction while nurturing what has made Atlanta a success in the past. This didn’t mean reexamining the ensemble’s history, said ASO Executive Director Jennifer Barlament, but the team wasn’t striving to unearth a conductor with a diverse background, either.

“You could go and look for another Robert Spano, but we all felt like that was the wrong thing to do,” she said. “We knew that we needed someone who the musicians would look to as someone that they could learn and grow with, would really push them and bring something new and different.”

After watching Stutzmann lead other orchestras and the ASO ensemble, Barlament was drawn to Stutzmann’s concentrated eye contact with the musicians and the sense that she was truly partnering with the orchestra.

“She really looks like she’s part of the ensemble,” Barlament said. “She has very clear and very strong interpretive ideas, but in the moment she’s very much just in there with the orchestra.”

Cellist Daniel Laufer, who joined the ASO in 1991, was one of seven musicians on the search committee committed to finding a music director that could “create the next chapter in this orchestra.” Musicians needed to feel inspired and connected with Stutzmann’s musicianship, he said.

“The last 20 years between Robert and Donald have established a certain standard that we wanted to maintain and grow from as well,” he said.

Stutzmann is very aware of the ASO’s rich association with Spano and said she does not want to rewrite the ensemble’s history. As part of the collaborative process, she will instead build something unique and very much her own.

“I know how much it means for everyone to choose a new person after 20 years,” she said. “They know how much respect I have for the work which has been done. And I’m just here to follow this work with my own ideas and in my own way. You don’t need to break what has been done because you are new.”