Robert Spano, ASO’s former music director, ignores the pessimists

Robert Spano, who led the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for over two decades, is bullish on the future of classical music and its ability to attract new listeners. Photo: Jeff Roffman

Credit: Jeff Rofffman

Credit: Jeff Rofffman

Robert Spano, who led the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for over two decades, is bullish on the future of classical music and its ability to attract new listeners. Photo: Jeff Roffman

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

Robert Spano, who led the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for 22 years before stepping down a year ago to become music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, remains optimistic about the future of classical music.

“I know there’s a lot of pessimistic talk. I also know that’s been around since I was a kid. Sixty years later, we’re still going!” Spano said last month in an interview ahead of his Spoleto Festival USA debut in Charleston, South Carolina.

The conductor was on hand for an event at the arts festival in memory of Geoff Nuttall, who died in the fall after serving as director of the Spoleto chamber music program for the past decade.

Spano led the Spoleto Festival Orchestra in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Stephen Prutsman as the spirited soloist. Spano and the strings were then joined by cellist Alisa Weilerstein for a gut-wrenching rendition of Gabriel Fauré's mournful “Élégie.”

ArtsATL spoke with Spano ahead of the concert. (Full disclosure: The author, a longtime classical music writer, is senior annual giving officer for the ASO.)

Q: You led the ASO for 22 years, including some difficult times, helping it to emerge from debts and lockouts, restoring the complement, surviving the pandemic without laying off musicians and building a harmonious relationship with the musicians and the administration. Your leadership and collaborative approach were major factors in all of that, but you also refined the orchestra’s sound, and the chorus has remained very strong. Of course, you’re not entirely gone. You’ll be back to lead concerts next spring. What are your hopes for the ASO as it builds on your legacy?

A: I’ve been trying very hard to be a good ex-music director, to keep my nose out and steer clear. Of course, I talk to people and I hear things. I still love the orchestra very much. I can’t wait to be back. I’m also gratified when I hear that great things are happening, like the St. Matthew Passion. I hear it was absolutely wonderful. If I were still to have a vision for the orchestra, it would be that it continues to thrive. It’s truly a great artistic institution. And I think one of the unique things about Atlanta in the world of music is the ASO Chorus. The chorus and orchestra together are something unique in the world.

Q: You’re now completing your first year as music director at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. You’re programming new music, including [from composer] Jennifer Higdon, while showing deference to Fort Worth’s unique heritage by inviting the winner of the Van Cliburn competition to perform with the orchestra. You’ve been getting great reviews. Scott Cantrell [longtime critic at The Dallas Morning News] has noted that you’ve been finding “new versatility and subtlety” in the orchestra’s sound and suggesting that you and the orchestra have a “great future ahead.” What does that future look like to you, and how is your approach different from that in Atlanta?

A: I do try to be sensitive to the fact that some things are transferable, others are site-specific. Even though we have Jennifer Higdon in the last concert, who is such a fundamental part of the Atlanta School of Composers, she has her own place in Fort Worth, predating me. I was quite determined, as we work with living composers, that we not repeat or try to repeat. Because the way things evolved was organic — it certainly wasn’t mechanical. It was a matter of creating these relationships with composers, and a similar process will be necessary in Fort Worth.

Fortunately, my executive director in Fort Worth is very passionate about living composers, so he and I are taking a lot of care about who we’re inviting and what we’re inviting them to do, in a similar way to how we did it in Atlanta but unique to our situation.

The amazing thing about the COVID period in Fort Worth is that we were continuing to have auditions. I’ve already hired 13 musicians, some in key positions, because we were holding auditions all through that time, which was very rare. We still have some positions to fill. We’re on a growth trajectory for the size of the orchestra. We’re currently adding one new position a year for three years, and we’ll see what happens after that.

Q: When you arrived as music director at the Aspen Music Festival and School [in 2011], you talked about your passion for living American composers and how “engagement with new music vivifies our experience of older music.” You said you were focused on “bringing music itself into the future.” In Atlanta, you created the Atlanta School of Composers. And when you return next spring you’ll be conducting world premieres of works by Adam Schoenberg and Jonathan Leshnoff. How do you see the Atlanta school evolving now?

A: It’s not up to me, but I hope it does evolve, and I’m sure it will. The Leshnoff and Schoenberg pieces were commissions that were COVID cancellations. I was always careful not to define the Atlanta school too carefully. People would ask, “Who is in it?” And I would say, “Well, I can tell you at least four or five of them.” But it’s more of a fluid idea than a fixed identity. That’s why it was such a valuable thing to do, and I hope it continues to evolve.

Q: Recently in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote about the feeling that classical music is enjoying a renaissance. Are you still optimistic about music’s future?

A: I know there’s a lot of pessimistic talk. I also know that’s been around since I was a kid. Sixty years later, we’re still going! I have trouble believing the pessimistic reports. Because I’m at Aspen every summer, I see this whole new generation of people with immense talent, intelligence and passion for music. And every summer, my fellow faculty members and I say, “Are we making this up, or are they better?” And we keep deciding they’re really better every year.

The pessimists look at classical attendance from a traditional lens in terms of the numbers, but without context as to who’s going where for what. I remember a few years ago, [ASO Executive Director] Jennifer Barlament had some interesting statistics on how theater, dance and other forms of entertainment were seeing more attrition than classical music.

I can’t think of a time in history when there wasn’t great music going on. In some of the worst situations, some of the most deplorable situations, great music was still thriving. I need only think of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad Symphony,” Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” and Haydn’s “Mass in Time of War.” You know there’s never been a time without great music. I have a lot of faith in that.


James L. Paulk is a longtime classical music writer for such publications as ArtsATL and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is also a former state senator.

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