The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, known under former music director Robert Spano as an ensemble dedicated to performing the works of living composers, may soon add another defining characteristic: champion of emerging conductors.
Cultivating young maestros on the main stage, encouraging diversity through programming and guest artist bookings, and engaging ASO musicians in the planning process are all part of the vision for Gaetan Le Divelec, the ASO’s new vice president of artistic planning.
“An orchestra has a mission to support the development of young conductors, simply because of the fact that you can only learn conducting by doing and doing it in front of a good orchestra,” said Le Divelec, who grew up in Nantes, France, and moved to London in his 20s to pursue a career as an oboist.
A decade on, Le Divelec put aside his oboe and spent 20 years managing the careers of conductors as an artist manager at the London firm Askonas Holt. It was there that he first encountered new ASO music director Nathalie Stutzmann and helped establish the burgeoning conductor as a sought-after guest artist. Le Divelec said there were challenges at the start of their seven-year association — programmers were wary of a woman conductor, especially a maestro in her 50s who started as a singer — but she soon shifted the perception of orchestral artistic directors around the world.
“It was one of the most rewarding collaborations I had in artist management,” he said. “She’s a very demanding artist. She’s very demanding of anyone who works around her. But she is also physically demanding with herself.”
When Le Divelec left Akonsas Holt at the end of 2020, he sent a shock through an industry that was being battered by COVID-19.
“I’m in my mid 50s, and I’d been thinking for a number of years, what do I want to do with the rest of my working life?” he said. “I did have an aspiration to work on the concert-presenting side of things.”
Le Divelec will now work with Stutzmann to shape the programs for each ASO concert — everything from selecting music to booking guest artists and conductors. He assumed the title in July from longtime ASO artistic guru Evans Mirageas, who had returned to the ASO on an ad-hoc basis after the departure of Chief Artistic Officer Elena Dubinets in May 2020.
Le Divelec and Stutzmann dived right into planning the 2023–2024 season.
“For me, it’s nice, because we know each other very well. We share lots of common points. Gaetan is someone very pragmatic but very serious and very passionate,” Stutzmann said. “I think we have the right person for building up.”
The ASO had been on Le Divilec’s radar as an orchestra operating at a top level during his tenure managing artists, but his clients did not work in Atlanta. Spano led the orchestra often, and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles appeared four times a year. Once the rotating lineup of favorite guests was accounted for, there was simply no room for Le Divilec’s clients. This structure helped the ASO develop a family of conductors but limited its stature.
“Because of the slower flow of guest conductors coming through the orchestra, it featured a little bit less prominently on the international map,” he said.
Stutzmann is conducting eight weeks of concerts in her first season at the head of the orchestra, increasing to between 10 and 12 weeks of concerts next season. There are no immediate plans to search for a new principal guest conductor to replace Donald Runnicles, who departs the ASO in June. Le Divelec can fill 10 concert weeks with guest conductors, both new and established, starting next season.
“What’s important is to get conductors which are going to be right for this orchestra — for where it is now and for where it needs to go,” he said, noting that symphony musicians play a role in the process. “I want to encourage them to be original in the way they think about who they want to work with.”
Le Divelec knows he is joining an orchestra that has been defined by artistic stability for more than 20 years. He’ll look to maintain that organizational steadiness while also bringing new ideas and new conductors to the orchestra.
“Across the orchestral world, there is way too much groupthink going on,” he said. “I’d like this orchestra to take chances and take risks and to actually aim to be part of defining the agenda rather than to follow the agenda.”