June 28, 2017

by ANdrew Alexander, for the AJC

Some musicians love to compose new music. For better or worse, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano says he’s not that sort of musician.
“I always find it really daunting and challenging and nauseating,” he says of the composing process. ”I think it’s because, as a performer, every moment you look to the next thing. You just have to keep putting it out there, and you can’t second-guess yourself. When you’re composing, it’s the opposite. Everything you do is subject to scrutiny and examination … I find that process very painful.”

Nonetheless, the conductor, best known to Atlantans for his work behind the podium, has just released a recording of his own music on the orchestra’s label, ASO Media. The recording encompasses two of Spano’s piano works that he performs himself: “Hölderlin-Lieder,” settings of three poems by early Romantic German poet Friedrich Hölderlin recorded with soprano Jessica Rivera performing the text, and “Sonata: Four Elements,” a piano work in four movements based on the symbolic elements of the ancient Greeks: earth, air, water and fire.

Composing may not always be the most pleasant process, Spano says, but getting the music in his mind down onto paper is crucial. “There’s a sense that there’s something there you want to capture,” he says. “There’s something in the air that’s asking to be born, and you want to be sure that it’s cared for in its most pristine and pure state. As you whittle away and work and change it, you get closer and closer to the sense of ‘That’s it, that’s it!’”

Spano says he first encountered the poetry of Hölderlin in the early 1990s when he was teaching at Oberlin. “I was just enraptured,” he says of his first encounter with the work, which he happened upon in a bilingual translation in a bookstore. “It’s not just the beauty of the poetic language, it’s his sublime ideas. … That history of philosophy intersecting with poetry is especially beautiful to me.’”

He says that he began setting a few poems to music back then, but other responsibilities forced him to put the project aside. It wasn’t until the recent past he thought to pick it back up again. In 2012, a residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat in the Sarasota, Fla., area gave him the rare opportunity to devote significant time to focus on composing.

“I intended to write the piano music that’s on the CD,” he says. “The day I was going to leave, those two songs were sitting on the piano. I thought, ‘Those would be really good for Jessica Rivera. I should really finish what I started.’ I didn’t tell her about the idea then. I just thought, ‘I’ll take it with me, maybe on the side I’ll do some fooling around with this really old material.’”

The songs turned out to be a preoccupation during his residency, and with Rivera in mind as his muse, he was able to complete the series of songs.

“There’s a challenge in trying to describe her voice,” he says of the soprano, who has performed frequently with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. “It’s the richness and the warmth and the depth just in the sound itself that’s so mesmerizing. But it’s not just the quality of the voice, it’s also her sensitivity and intention. It’s her use of text, the way she connects with language. And her very refined sophisticated understanding of how things are unfolding musically, so it’s this marvelous combination of heart, mind and vocal cords that’s just incomparable. There’s something special about what she does that only she can do. I thought of her singing those songs. I knew I just had to write more.”

Spano and Rivera recorded the songs in the studio with longtime ASO Media producer Elaine Martone in the booth. Spano also recorded his solo work “Sonata: Four Elements,” a meditation on the elements and their symbolic meaning.

“Jung was very much on my mind,” he says. “No one element in this larger metaphysical sense is easy to pin down. They’re all multivalent, as any symbol is. … Certain physical aspects were also very much on my mind at different times. I would think of shafts of light on the water, or the way the waves rolled or the gurgling sounds that water makes, or the kind of refraction that crystals have.”

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano and soprano Jessica Rivera performed the 2016 premiere of Jonathon Leshnoff’s “Zohar” in Symphony ... Read More
Overall, the project was so long in gestation and creation Spano says he’s still in disbelief the project is now complete. “I’m still rubbing my eyes,” he says. “It’s the result of things that came out of such different parts of my life and different places. When it’s finally done, it’s not even quite believable.”

As for what’s ahead now that the recording is a reality, Spano says he’s working on setting some poems by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke for mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, and he’s also creating a violin sonata specifically for ASO Concertmaster David Coucheron based on an infamously challenging Baroque piece called the “Devil’s Trill.”

“It is a phoenix-like experience,” Spano says of the recent path of the orchestra, which managed to survive a difficult labor battle marked by a devastating lockout in 2014. “Even though it’s been a couple years now, it’s a coming out of the ashes. We have a new executive director, and soon we’ll have a new board chair, a new head of the Woodruff Arts Center. And there’s the incredible excitement with the influx of new musicians. In recent years — not all of it due to the strife, some of it has been natural attrition — there have been a lot of openings to fill. … There’s this whirlwind of activity. We have these new faces and new talents and new sounds. This is a whirlwind of change at every level of the organization. That’s exhilarating. Scary and exhilarating.”

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