Robert Spano returns to conduct new works for ASO

The music director laureate continues to foster new compositions.
Robert Spano is now music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

Robert Spano is now music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Courtesy of Jeff Roffman

Since leaving the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at the end of the 2022 season after more than two decades at the helm, conductor Robert Spano hasn’t slowed down. The maestro is currently music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and still heads to Aspen for eight weeks each summer to serve as music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School.

In January, Spano added to his list of duties principal conductor to the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra & Music School while the organization looks for a permanent music director. In 2025, he will begin his tenure as music director of the Washington National Opera.

That’s just what a modern conductor is, Spano admitted, before saying it looks “on paper” like he’s busier than he really is.

“I know a number of colleagues who, like me, are trying to learn the definition of no,” said Spano, speaking from Naples, Florida, where he was preparing to conduct and perform piano in a series of concerts for the Naples Philharmonic featuring violinist James Ehnes, a frequent Atlanta collaborator.

“So often it’s because something is so attractive and interesting and exciting that you just want to do it. Even it if is going to tax you a little bit.”

Spano brings this seemingly boundless energy back to Atlanta in May for the first time since he left the ASO. On May 9 and May 11, he and the ASO welcome pianist Garrick Ohlsson for a performance of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto. Also on the bill are new works by two members of Spano’s Atlanta School of Composers: “Picture Studies” by Adam Schoenberg, a composition they have never performed, and Jennifer Higdon’s “blue cathedral,” a highly in-demand work that Spano helped popularize.

The concert was originally planned to feature a concerto for orchestra by Schoenberg, an ASO commission through the Spano Fund for New Music, but that will be performed in a later season. The Higdon piece “was sort of the beginning of the Atlanta School of Composers,” Spano said. “And it just went like wildfire all over the place.”

The following week, on May 16 and May 18, Spano teams up with the ASO Chorus and an array of soloists for the world premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” an ASO commission. Tenor John Tessier, countertenor Cody Bowers and baritone Joseph Lattanzi, an Atlanta-area native, will help present a composition characterized, Spano said, by the contrast of “very lush, very emotional” music with a highly rhythmic energy.

“Studying the score has really sent me to the moon,” he said. “I think it’s going to be explosive.” The concert opens with “The Rite of Spring,” by Igor Stravinsky.

Bassist Michael Kurth, who has played in the ASO since 1994, is looking forward to Spano’s return. It was Spano who encouraged Kurth to compose for the orchestra and began programming the bassist’s works, resulting in the release of his debut recording, “Everything Lasts Forever,” in 2019.

“I think his style of conducting and making music will seem refreshing to many in the orchestra and the audience,” he said. “Of course, the ASO is doing amazing things with Nathalie Stutzmann, and we have a lot of room to grow under her, but any time you’re granted insight into a brilliant mind like Robert’s, it reveals something new about the music, and even something new about yourself.”

Over the past two years, the orchestra has changed significantly. Six retirements occurred at the end of the 2021 season, among them principal clarinet Laura Ardan and percussionist Bill Wilder. Last season, associate principal horn Susan Welty also retired. Bassoonist Andrew Brady and cellist Rainer Eudeikis are among the musicians who have left the ASO in the past two years for other opportunities. This leaves the door open for new musicians to learn from Spano, Kurth said.

“There are so many new players in the ASO that haven’t had the opportunity to make music with him much or at all,” Kurth said. “They’ll have a great experience getting to know him.”

After spending so many years in Atlanta, Spano recognizes he’ll perhaps always be seen through the lens of his work with the ASO. A lasting part of his legacy is his championing the work of living composers and bringing new compositions to the Atlanta ensemble.

“I’m very proud of what we did together,” he said.

His connection to Atlanta remains strong. His office apartment in Midtown contains a vast score library — “I’m not moving it!” he says — and he keeps a house in Ellijay. That mountain retreat gives him the opportunity to recharge, play the piano, prepare scores and compose.

And he keeps a close eye on the ensemble in Atlanta — from a distance.

“I’m trying to be a good ex-music director and stay out of it,” Spano said Spano. “I am emotionally completely invested; it’s impossible not to be.”


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Robert Spano. 8 p.m. May 9 and May 11. $35-$111. 8 p.m. May 16 and May 18. $26-$130. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000,