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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