Q&A: Robert Spano reflects on his ASO tenure and new job in Fort Worth
JAMES L. PAULK·JUNE 7, 2023
Robert Spano, who led the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra through an extraordinary 22-year tenure before stepping down a year ago, made his Spoleto Festival USA debut May 26 in Charleston as part of a unique event that celebrated Geoff Nuttall, who died last fall.
Nuttall led the fabled Spoleto chamber music program for the past decade, infusing it with his infectious energy, wit and talent. “Virtuosic debauchery” was the term favored by his friends that best described his work here. As first violin in the St. Lawrence Quartet, he was internationally respected as an artist, but his connection to Charleston and Spoleto was intense.
The featured event of the festival’s opening weekend, the concert included an array of guest artists and ensembles, including Anthony Roth Costanzo, Paul Groves and James Austin Smith, among many others. In a style that echoed Nuttall’s chamber concerts, each piece was introduced by a presenter who reminisced about Nuttall.
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 Fauré’s mournful, Élégie, a work which seemed especially appropriate both for the dedication to Nuttall and for Memorial Day weekend.
The orchestra then retreated, and the balance of the program consisted of chamber and vocal works.
ArtsATL spoke with Spano on the day prior to the concert. (Full disclosure: The author, a longtime classical music writer, is senior annual giving officer for the ASO.)
ArtsATL: Tell us about your connection to Geoff Nuttall.
Robert Spano: Geoff was an amazing musician, but also an amazing human being. Tremendous energy; tremendous passion; great collaborator. We shared a passion for some of the same composers. This event is a testament to his life’s work — that all these people are coming together to celebrate that. It makes us happy to see each other. Even in death, he is bringing us together: people I haven’t seen in years. That’s sort of the point: to remember that beautiful part.
ArtsATL: 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?
Spano: 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.
ArtsATL: You’re now completing your first year as music director at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. You’re programming new music, including 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?
Spano: 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.
We’re also looking to expand the classical part of our season, and we’re looking for new venues to do that in because we do not own our home in Bass Hall. We’re a tenant of that performing arts organization. So, for us to expand the calendar, we have to find new venues in the area to present in. The exciting thing is that new venues have been built in the past few years. There are a lot of things going on about the growth of the orchestra, and even the personnel of the orchestra. It’s exciting — it’s a moment where the institution seems ready for this growth spurt.
ArtsATL: When you arrived as music director at the Aspen Music Festival and School, 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?
Spano: 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.
ArtsATL: Last week 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?
Spano: 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 think it will settle itself given the talent and the intelligence of the young people who are so committed to music in the world. And maybe it was ever thus. We all tend to think of what we have as having been there for a very long time. Well, orchestras have existed in the form that we experience for less than a century.
So how it’s structured, how it’s presented, and when — that might change. But I have a lot of trust.
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.