Audience to return to Symphony Hall for ASO’s 77th season

As planned, Robert Spano will jettison a sabbatical next season to lead the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with longtime collaborator Donald Runnicles.
Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

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As planned, Robert Spano will jettison a sabbatical next season to lead the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with longtime collaborator Donald Runnicles. Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Roffman

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conductor Robert Spano is staying around for another year to welcome audiences back to Symphony Hall. Instead of taking a sabbatical after stepping down as music director after 20 years at the helm, he will help lead the ASO during its 77th season, which starts September 19.

Donald Runnicles, principal guest conductor since 2001, and Spano will share artistic advising duties as co-artistic advisors for the 2021-2022 season.

The new season, which begins with a performance of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, isn’t just a rehash of last year’s originally planned 2020-2021 program, although many highlights remain. The new season closes with Spano leading the orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 – a performance holdover from the season that never was – and three of the five world premieres slated for this coming year were scheduled to be performed last season. Many of the guest artists and conductors that were to appear have adjusted their schedules accordingly.

“We wanted to give Robert a chance to conduct the great events we had planned for his final season as music director,” said ASO executive director Jennifer Barlament. Though the hall will be open for in-person listening this fall, the ASO is still finalizing audience capacity and protocols. Virtual broadcasts of ASO concerts will continue.

Credit: Kay Hinton

Credit: Kay Hinton

When planning safety measures, Barlament consulted with a team of medical experts, some of whom sit on the ASO’s board. She knows the plan they’ve put in place may have to be adjusted by the fall, but is confident audience attendance is safe. New safety investments include updated airflow and ionization systems.

“Even if it’s not 100 percent of the hall and even if people have to wear masks, it will be possible to get back to in-person live concerts,” she said, “and we really couldn’t be more excited about that.”

The pandemic also dashed any hopes of a proper celebration of the ASO Chorus, which turned 50 last year. Choral works are planned to resume in March, with the chorus set to perform requiems by Mozart and Durufle in addition to the Mahler symphony.

Barlament called the season a “proper send-off” for Spano, who was to begin his term as ASO’s music conductor laureate in 2022 after a sabbatical. Instead, Spano has accepted his new title a year early and will work closely with Runnicles, who has signed a new contract with the ASO through the end of the 2022-2023 season. The two are used to working closely together to shape season offerings, but this year, Runnicles will share more of the conducting duties than in the past. More than a dozen guest conductors, including frequent visitors like Nathalie Stutzmann and Gemma New, will also help out. These guests could be interviewing to succeed Spano in the music director post. The search process was slowed due to COVID-19 and has no end date.

Diversity among guest musicians, conductors and featured composers is a major current running through the season. The ASO counts 23 compositions by female and traditionally underrepresented composers during the season, including compositions from Sarah Gibson, Anna Clyne, Brian Nabors and James Lee III. World premieres include Xavier Foley’s “Concerto for Double Bass” and Conrad Tao’s violin concerto.

As for the musicians themselves, the ASO is still defining orchestral safety protocols. Barlament said the ensemble will look more traditional than the socially distant, masked orchestra seen during streaming performances. She said the “vast majority” of the orchestra is vaccinated – though there is no vaccine mandate for musicians – and this allows the ASO to be a little more flexible with on-stage arrangements.

“I just can’t emphasize enough how critical vaccination is to our being able to return to normal life and all of the great things that make normal life wonderful,” Barlament said, “like going to concerts.”

5 can’t-miss performances

October 13 and 14: Nathalie Stutzmann returns to the ASO to conduct a program that includes Missy Mazzoli’s “Dark with Excessive Bright.”

November 19: Two world premieres highlight this new music program, which also features “Everything Lasts Forever” by ASO bassist Michael Kurth and guest pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin.

March 17 and 18: Stutzmann is back once again to conduct the ASO Chamber Chorus in Mozart’s “Requiem.”

March 24 and 26: Guest conductor Jonathon Heyward leads the ASO and guest artist Xavier Foley in the bassist’s new concerto.

June 12: Robert Spano bids the ASO farewell with Mahler’s third symphony. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, the ASO Chorus women and the Gwinnett Young Singers assist.

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