Questioning the conductors: Robert Spano

The first thing I noticed about Robert Spano when I met him for the first time last summer was the exhilarating energy that surrounds him. His mind races through more thoughts than are possible to keep up with. His wit is quick and sharp (often at my expense). In my conversations with Spano, good ideas and pending projects were the jumping off points for other ideas, and other projects he’d like to do sometime. Listen to Spano talk and you know classical music deserves broader attention from the public.

Spano and I reunited late Tuesday afternoon after the orchestra just finished a double rehearsal of John Adams’ epic symphonic work Harmonielehre. Before we started talking on tape, he genuinely raved about the quality of the SSO’s playing and had plenty of jokes to lighten the mood. Harmonielehre, is not an easy piece — as you can hear in the video posted bellow. And, it is even harder for an orchestra who has never performed it before — which is the case for the SSO.

I was excited to see Spano again and to experience his insight on a non-Ring musical project. But I was just as excited to hear about how he turned the Atlanta Symphony — an orchestra known for stodginess — into an inventive, forward looking cultural institution. His thoughts on the subject are interesting. He says plainly that in Atlanta “there is no ghetto for new music.” But, he also is realistic about his audience and what is needed to bring them along. There are plenty of examples that validate Spano’s careful attention to new music, his orchestra, and the audience. Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize comes just as the Atlanta Symphony prepares for her concerto for the group Eighth Blackbird. Higdon is one of the composers Spano has championed during his time in Atlanta. Then there was the sell out concert performance of John Adams’ Dr. Atomic with the Atlanta Symphony last fall.

Shortly after the SSO announced the 2009/2010 season and long after Gerard Schwarz had announced his decision not to seek a contract extension, I wondered whether Spano might be a good fit for the SSO and the city. Only the search committee knows for sure the qualities being sought in the next music director. And, only the conductors (many of them guest conductors this season and next) in the mix for the position know if they are interested in the job. Yet, as I thought about it then and think about it now, Spano as music director appeals to me. His zeal for contemporary music, ability to help an orchestra grow, intellectual curiosity, and love for the city remind me of the qualities Michael Tilson Thomas brought to the San Francisco Symphony. Could Spano be Seattle’s MTT? We’ll have to wait and see.

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2 thoughts on “Questioning the conductors: Robert Spano

  1. I attended Thursday nights performance and witnessed SSO’s first performance of Harmonielehre. Simply put, it was astounding. I have long wanted to experience Harmonielehre live and am very thankful to Robert Spano and the SSO for performing it. If I weren’t already out of town for the weekend I suspect I would have attended every performance. If I could have one constructive criticism it is that the mallet percussion was perhaps at times a bit too loud. Perhaps as the players attain more mastery and comfort with the piece the dynamics will begin to settle a bit but I would still strongly recommend that other attend the performance this weekend if you can. I’m still reeling from the experience.

    Dejan Lazić’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto was amazing. Such an impressive work and a very masterful performance.

    Pohjola’s Daughter was wonderful, as well. It was not a piece I am too familiar with but after hearing it performed I am sure to revisit it soon. Sibelius is fantastic.

    Kudos to Mr. Spano for his bold program. Programming a John Adam’s piece as the second part of the performance was a bold step for Seattle, imo. Unfortunately a number of people did depart during the intermission and successively smaller groups left after the first and second movements but the attendance was strong and remaining audiences reaction was quite enthusiastic. If Mr. Spano programs like this on a regular basis I would really urge the hiring committee to try and get him to Seattle!

  2. I’m glad you liked the performance. Spano as MD would definitely be different. For starters, I think he brings a comprehensive artistic vision to the job. He understands music needs context. He understands too that you have to build toward goals. He understands concerts can and should be an event. Your heart should beat a little faster with anticipation when you step through the Benaroya Hall doors to hear a concert. You can’t just pull a piece from column A, column B, and throw a concerto in the middle and call it a concert. He has tremendous respect for the orchestra too — always a nice quality to have in a MD. I effused about Dausgaard a couple months back. He too would also be a fine choice, but he brings a different set of attributes to the podium. Spano as MD has the potential to integrate the orchestra into the cultural fabric of the city in ways similar to what has happened in LA, SF, and even at his home orchestra of Atlanta. Since you may never get a chance to hear Harmonielehre again, you should go back Saturday, and stay for the meet the artist reception afterward. And tell him what you thought. But for May Day! May Day! I would buy a ticket for another round of Spano and the SSO.

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