Robert Spano, a fixture as the music director and conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, announced today that he plans to step down at the end of the orchestra’s 2020–21 season, which will mark his 20th year at the orchestra’s helm.
Spano is one of only four music directors to lead the ASO during its 73 years of existence. At the end of his tenure, Spano will assume the title of Conductor Laureate of the ASO, continuing to conduct the orchestra on a regular basis.
“To end an intense artistic relationship is never an easy decision to contemplate, especially one as fruitful and inspiring as the one I have enjoyed as music director of this outstanding American orchestra,” Spano said in a press release. “Twenty years is a good benchmark to balance the long-term commitment I have made to the ASO with the necessity of looking towards its future as well as my own. I believe that together, many shared goals and dreams have been achieved. After these many years of great personal and artistic fulfillment, this is an institution that I deeply love and I look forward to many return visits in the years ahead.”
Known for his thoughtful leadership, clear artistic vision and his sense of humanity, humility and generosity, Spano has had a significant impact on the ASO and its audiences since he joined the orchestra as music director in 2001, shaping not only its current sound but also its reputation for championing the works of living composers. Spano also has mentored a number of assistant conductors who have gone on to become artistic leaders at other institutions. More than 40 percent of current ASO musicians joined the orchestra during his directorship.
He is one of the longest-tenured music directors of a major US orchestra.
ASO executive director Jennifer Barlament described Spano succinctly as “one of the preeminent minds” in American music. “His masterful grasp of the orchestral idiom, of what it takes to bring the music to life, and of what it takes to engage the community in the adventure of new music, make him one of the most significant voices in the orchestral world,” Barlament said in a statement. “His impact on this institution and this city cannot be overstated and will continue for generations to come.”
The ASO’s board chair, Howard Palefsky, said Spano has elevated the symphony’s international artistic reputation. “Although he will leave his post as music director after the 2020–21 season, I know his vision, passion and creativity will serve as a catalyst, continuing to strengthen the orchestra over time,” Palefsky said. “We look forward to announcing the ASO’s plans to honor Robert’s tremendous legacy to the ASO, Atlanta, and the classical music community.”
A committee will be formed by the ASO to begin the search for Spano’s successor.
Paul Murphy and Daniel Laufer, two leaders of the ASO Players Association, lauded Spano’s tenure with the orchestra. “We are forever grateful to Robert for his unwavering leadership as our music director, his passionate music making, and his staunch advocacy for our orchestra, which we know is so dear to his heart,” they said in a statement. “We are very fortunate to have Robert lead the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for 20 years. Among many wonderful achievements, Robert has demonstrated to the orchestra and to our community that the music of living composers, when nurtured by extraordinary talent like Robert, can be a truly exhilarating experience for all. We look forward to many magnificent performances over the next three years as we celebrate our 75th anniversary and [honor] Robert’s tenure.”
Spano’s time with the ASO has yielded many significant milestones and accomplishments, including a long and fruitful relationship with Carnegie Hall, with nine performances over the past 17 years as well as tours to the Kennedy Center and music festivals in Ojai, Savannah and Amelia Island. Under his leadership, the orchestra has performed some 28 ASO commissions, 13 ASO co-commissions, 49 world premieres, and 32 Atlanta and US premieres. His contributions to the orchestra’s recording legacy, to date, include 20 ASO recordings, six of which have received Grammy Awards.
Spano has also been a key contributor the ASO’s recent financial turnaround following two lockout work stoppages in 2012 and 2014, helping bring positive resolution by co-chairing the Musicians’ Endowment Campaign together with ASO board member John White. The campaign raised more than $27 million to fund 11 restored positions in the orchestra in perpetuity. Since then, the ASO has restored a sense of fiscal soundness, reporting operating surpluses for three consecutive seasons.
Earlier this month, two ASO principal musicians also announced their respective retirements: principal viola Reid Harris and principal cello Christopher Rex. Both musicians joined the ASO in 1979, and have performed for 39 seasons. Over the course of that time, each has performed as a soloist with the orchestra on numerous occasions. Also active in chamber music, both are founding members of the Georgian Chamber Players. Rex’s final performances with the ASO will be on February 1 and 3, which will include a special preconcert recital on February 1, performing music by Beethoven and Schubert. Harris will step down at the close of this season in June.
Rex was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy for seven seasons before joining the ASO as principal cellist. Rex is artistic director of the Madison Chamber Music Festival in Madison, Georgia, and the founding director of the Amelia Island Chamber Music Festival. He is an avid painter, and created the cover art for the Georgian Chamber Players’ 2006 two-CD set, Our Sunday Best.
Rex and his brother, Charles — a violinist for the New York Philharmonic — were the subjects of a film documentary, Concerto, in 2016.
Prior to joining the ASO, Harris served as assistant principal viola with the Baltimore Symphony for four years. In addition to leading the viola section, Harris has served as an important part of the institution’s leadership. He was the first member of the orchestra to serve as a member of the ASO Board of Directors, and he served on the search committees for the ASO’s last two music directors.
“Both Mr. Harris and Mr. Rex exemplify the kind of leadership one seeks within an orchestra: both are musicians of the highest order, and are committed, engaged citizens who have given so much to the ASO over many years,” Spano said in a statement. “We all owe them a debt of deep gratitude for their contributions to making the ASO a great institution.”