Spano and Stravinsky: How ‘The Rite of Spring’ shaped a career

Robert Spano and the dancers of glo in "The Tower," set to "The Rite of Spring," a memorable collaboration for the maestro from 2014.

Credit: Photo by Gillian Anne Renault

Credit: Photo by Gillian Anne Renault

Robert Spano and the dancers of glo in "The Tower," set to "The Rite of Spring," a memorable collaboration for the maestro from 2014.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

Conductor Robert Spano assumes the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s podium again this month, his first appearances here since 2022. On May 2 and May 3 the venerated ASO music director laureate conducted a mixed program featuring pianist Garrick Ohlsson.

On Thursday, May 16, and Saturday, May 18, he will lead the orchestra in two pieces: the world premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff’s oratorio “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” followed by a work that has become strongly associated with Spano in Atlanta — Igor Stravinsky’s brutal masterwork, “The Rite of Spring.”

Most classical music mavens are familiar with the scandale the “Rite” engendered in its 1913 Paris premiere with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Audiences were appalled by Stravinsky’s “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts” and voiced their displeasure with a passion later described as a “near riot.” Part of the problem was the unorthodox choreography of the brilliant, and brilliantly tormented, dancer/choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who had already scandalized Paris with his blatantly erotic staging of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun.”

But Stravinsky’s musical portrayal of primitive life confounded everyone. No composer of l music had created such rhythmic complexity before. The “Rite’s” unique combination of lyricism and irregular meters, and the movements of the dancers on stage meant to evoke primitive cultures, drew titters and outright rage from first-night listeners.

"There was a startling effect when they put me and the piano in motion around the stage," Spano says of his 2014 "The Rite of Spring" performance with the dancers of glo. "The whole thing was incredible.”

Credit: Photo by Gillian Renault

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Credit: Photo by Gillian Renault

A century later, that uproar seems quaint, even amusing. The “Rite of Spring” is now one of the most popular works in the concert repertory and still enjoys a healthy life in the theater, most notably in the Joffrey Ballet’s re-creation of the original production in 1987 and in the raw 1975 Pina Bausch version, which was recently revived for an all-African cast.

Curiously, the work even entered the family-friendly entertainment arena more than 80 years ago with Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” where its driving rhythms underscore a depiction of the Earth in pre-Paleolithic times, a primitivism of another sort.

Stravinsky’s “Rite” has also enjoyed more than 100 commercial recordings, dating to the first from Pierre Monteux, who led the world premiere (and who, upon encountering the score, reportedly left the room muttering that he would stick to Brahms). Modern listeners may choose from the considerable standard set by Pierre Boulez in his first recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, a passionate account from Leonard Bernstein, the precision of Igor Markevitch or the unbridled brutality of Valery Gergiev. The choices are virtually limitless.

Spano’s relationship with the piece began in childhood, with the influence of his clarinetist father, Tony Spano. “My father is a wonderful musician, and he was also an audiophile,” Spano recalls. “He had a particular love for early 20th century music. I had a compilation set of LPs, and ‘The Rite of Spring’ was on it. It was a childhood favorite.”

He first conducted the work with the New Japan Philharmonic in Tokyo. “I was doing my best Boulez impression, using minimal gestures that weren’t athletic at all,” he laughs. “But the closer we got to that final dance, I was drenched in sweat. I will never forget that feeling of abject terror!”

Abject terror notwithstanding, Stravinsky’s seminal piece has played a key role in Spano’s career. He has led the “Rite” with the ASO multiple times, in 2004, 2007 and 2010. He recently performed the piece in Detroit and Aspen, and in 2025 will revisit it with the Fort Worth Symphony, where he now serves as music director.

In 2014, the ASO’s Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles (at piano on right) joined Conductor Robert Spano for the two-piano version of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

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Credit: Courtesy of Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Atlanta audiences also had the opportunity to hear excerpts from Stravinsky’s four-hands piano version of the score when Spano shared the podium (and a pair of “dueling pianos” per ArtsATL reviewer Mark Gresham) with Donald Runnicles in concert in 2014.

“There’s something about playing the piano version,” Spano reflects, “just the thought that Stravinsky and Debussy were playing it [that way] for rehearsals. When you play it, it’s clear that Stravinsky wrote at the piano. He was not one of those composers like Bach or Britten or Strauss, who wrote at the desk. There’s a tactile sense to the music when you do it on keyboard.”

Spano particularly treasures his performances of the piano version at glo with choreographer Lauri Stallings, also in 2014.

“We did it with two pianos and two percussionists,” he remembers. “It was wonderful. The piano was on a platform with wheels. At moments I would leave the platform and interact with the dancers. There was a startling effect when they put me and the piano in motion around the stage. The whole thing was incredible.”

He also played the piano version in a 2018 collaboration with Immerse ATL and Staibdance as part of the Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta’s Emerson Series.

Spano’s traversals of the piano version inevitably inform his readings of the full score, though he observes, “I don’t know exactly how. The piano version has a visceral excitement of its own. It’s a totally different experience. Sometimes these things are not conscious design; they are more of a seeding of your understanding of a piece.

“I worked with a wonderful opera director at Oberlin,” he continues. “We did tremendous research on everything we did. Someone asked how that translated into her direction, and she said, ‘I have no idea, but I’m tilling the soil and I’m trusting it will affect the harvest.’ I thought that was so insightful.”

Stravinsky’s “Rite” will be performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra along with the premiere of composer Jonathan Leshnoff’s oratorio “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” which Spano feels is a particularly appropriate pairing. “It’s got a lot of lyricism and tenderness,” he observes, “but it also has these driving modal rhythms that stand up to that aspect of ‘The Rite of Spring.’”

Besides his current leadership in Fort Worth, Spano remains a force at the Aspen Music Festival and will seize the reins of Washington National Opera in 2025. For now, though, he is excited to come “home” to Atlanta, and of course to “The Rite of Spring.”

“Leaving Atlanta was hard,” he says. “This is my musical family. There are new people, a new principal clarinet and principal horn. I’m so excited to meet them and to see my old family.

“I can’t wait. I’m just champing at the bit.”


Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Spano

Thursday, May 16, and Saturday, May 18. $26-$130. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000,


Mark Thomas Ketterson is a Chicago-based arts critic and writer. He was the longtime Chicago correspondent for Opera News and has also written for Playbill, the Chicago Tribune and other publications.

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Credit: ArtsATL

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Credit: ArtsATL


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