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In an exclusive interview with ArtsATL, Robert Spano says that as his 20th year with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and his 60th birthday approach, his decision to step down as music director was about “taking the jump” at the right time. “It’s an attempt to do the right thing for everybody involved,” he says.

Spano made the unexpected bombshell announcement last week that he will leave the orchestra, though he will continue to perform with the ASO as Conductor Laureate.

Though he is suffering from the flu and acute bronchitis, Spano led a spirited performance Thursday night at Symphony Hall in his first concert since his announcement. Saturday, however, Spano’s illness forced him to leave mid-show, and he was replaced at the podium by assistant conductor Stephen Mulligan, who also led the ASO at a Sunday performance in Athens at Hodgson Hall.

Robert Spano

Mulligan will stand in for Spano during this week’s concerts at Symphony Hall. Spano was scheduled to perform at a preconcert recital with Christopher Rex, who is retiring as principal cellist with the orchestra on Thursday. Spano will be replaced at that recital by pianist Julie Coucheron.

His tenure at the ASO has been marked by inspired, thoughtful programming and energized performances. Over the next two seasons, for example, the orchestra will celebrate the music of Ludwig van Beethoven and Leonard Bernstein with its “LB/LB” program that will feature six Bernstein works and nine Beethoven symphonies.

Another key part of Spano’s legacy is his passion for modern, living composers. To champion them, Spano founded the Atlanta School of Composers.

Spano recently sat down with ArtsATL to discuss the Bernstein/Beethoven series. Then, in a brief phone interview Saturday, he answered questions for the first time about his decision to leave the symphony, his legacy and his future plans.

ArtsATL: You announced that you will be stepping down as music director of the ASO in June 2021. How did you decide the timing was right to do that?

Robert Spano: I suppose almost arbitrarily. I came to Atlanta in 2000 wanting to stay a long time, because I wanted that kind of musical and artistic relationship that only develops over time. The opportunity to do that was so important. I also didn’t want to stay too long. That’s a little hard to identify, and it’s been on my mind. What’s too long? When is it time to go? It was time for my new contract here, so we identified the 20-year marker as a good one. In a way, it’s kind of latching onto something symbolic and taking the jump because I came to the ASO when I was 40 and I’ll leave when I’m 60. It’s an attempt to do the right thing for everybody involved.

ArtsATL: What one thing do you hope will most prominently mark your legacy here?

Spano: When I look at the body of work that we commissioned and performed of a number of composers, the number of pieces that we have introduced to the world or perpetuated in the world, it’s staggering and it’s wonderful. I kind of rub my eyes because we were doing it all along the way. Reflecting on how much we’ve done, how much beautiful music has come out of that endeavor, and that these composers have a large life in the world now — that’s just thrilling. Not all of them got started here, but many of them did. I think that’s been a really important part of the last 17 years.

ArtsATL: Of course you’ll be returning now and then to lead the ASO as Conductor Laureate. What do you want to do after you leave the post of music director? 

Spano: My next life? I don’t know yet, and I love not knowing right now. I imagine I’m going to find some combination of things. I have been wanting to find more time to write music. With the Aspen Music Festival coming into my life in 2012, the teaching element of my life has become bigger. I have a real passion for doing opera, but I’m often limited in the amount I can do given the demands of being here. I do want all of those elements of my musical life in my musical life, and I always have. Like many people, there are more things I want to do than there are hours in a day.

ArtsATL: So you don’t have set plans yet?

Spano: I need to see how it all unfolds. After this one, I have three more seasons here as music director. That really gives me the opportunity to explore what my life is going to look like and what I’ll be doing. I’m enjoying the adventure of that at the moment. Not knowing is exciting.

Robert Spano with Atlanta composer Alvin Singleton, whose music he has championed with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Spano has given modern composers a place to perform their music. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

ArtsATL: The ASO is celebrating the music of both Leonard Bernstein and Ludwig van Beethoven over the course of this season and next, and the last week’s ASO subscription concert contained important works by both.

Spano: Yes, and it was the first time this season when we’ve had the two on one program, where they are actually juxtaposed. We have other programs that juxtapose Bernstein and Beethoven coming up, but we didn’t make an effort to put them next to each other all the time.

ArtsATL: How did the ASO come to decide to celebrate these composers together?

Spano: The genesis was the simple recognition of Bernstein’s 100th birthday in 2018, which most organizations are paying some attention to, and then realizing we’d like to do more than lip service to that recognition. We won’t be encyclopedic, but a lot of his music is being represented over these two seasons. Then it was realizing if we want to celebrate Bernstein, it would mean doing the music for which he was associated as well as music he wrote. For so many of us, even for a couple of generations, he was our introduction to classical music and to Beethoven. And what more iconic a figure for classical music is there than Beethoven?

They both had a serious sense of personal responsibility of the artist in society, and that linked them in our minds, as well. Just as Beethoven is iconic for classical music in general, Bernstein is iconic for American classical music. There is also the tremendous diversity of style in Bernstein’s own music and certainly in his life as a performer.

It is interesting how much space just tending to that agenda took up in the course of two seasons. We can’t get to everything, but the whole idea of celebrating Bernstein in a more global way than just his legacy as a composer was very important. He felt that his biggest legacy would be as a composer, and I also think that since his death the regard for him as a composer has increased over time, but his legacy is so much more than that.

ArtsATL: We’re dealing with two giant personalities here. Beethoven for all classical music and Bernstein for what he did for American music and culture.

Spano: And classical music in America, because the great European tradition in America was as much of his legacy as the identifiably American.

ArtsATL: It’s worth noting that within his distinguished career as a conductor, Bernstein became music director of the New York Philharmonic at a time when if you were not European you could not land a job as the music director of a major American orchestra.

Spano: But it’s interesting what a short period that was in his lifetime: 11 years at the New York Philharmonic. He never had another post, so his legacy is outside of that music director box in so many ways. I think that has a lot to do with jazz and Broadway, that and his popularity, name recognition, largesse. It was that combination of television, with the young people’s concerts, and the tremendous success of West Side Story. In classical music you can generally count on one hand the people that everybody will know their name. He was that. Instant name recognition.

ArtsATL: The last couple of generations are probably not aware of what he did with televised concerts. It was such an unusual time, the post-World War II era through the 60s, in the sense that America was really just beginning to accept itself as a true arbiter of “high culture.”

Spano: I think of myself as sort of one generation removed from that influence. I’m just young enough that I wasn’t one of the people who worked with Bernstein, like so many others in the profession. I did a little with him the last year he was alive. I was sort of a grandson to him because Seiji Ozawa was his assistant and I was Ozawa’s assistant. Growing up what I remember on television was Evening at Symphony, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. So I’m already just past that sphere of influence of those televised concerts of Bernstein. What I do remember is reading his books, like Infinite Variety of Music, which is a series of lectures, talks and essays. His analysis of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is still in my head. There’s a pervasive influence that goes past, necessarily, that direct link to seeing him on TV or being his student. His influence was so broad that it touches our whole musical culture in some way. Part of that is the distinction between high and low culture gets blurred. That’s certainly been an incredibly important part of the generations after him in terms of American music.

ArtsATL: Beethoven’s career marks an important historical turning point in Western classical music, likewise Bernstein for American culture and everything. They’re kind of like two pillars of a bridge in some kind of way.

Spano: One of the facets that connect them in my mind is they are part of a living tradition. It’s not that Beethoven’s music exists and we’ll always have it. That’s not the way music works. We have to reinvent it, we have to recreate it, we have to re-perform it, re-envision, re-engage it with every generation, and that’s what makes it alive. That’s what’s so telling about Bernstein’s relationship to Beethoven, is that Bernstein as a performer in 1960 America is giving us something that’s fresh, alive, vibrant, powerful, communicative, although basically all we have is this document from the early 19th century, which is not sound to begin with. And yet a lot of us can trace our pedagogical lineage to Beethoven. I studied with Peter Takács, who studied with Leon Fleisher, who studied with Schnabel, who studied with Leschetizky, who studied with Liszt, who studied with Czerny, who studied with Beethoven. So there is this aspect of living tradition which is also that pedagogical tradition of music, which is very real.

For me, the powerful, powerful thing about a real tradition is that it is living. Tradition can mean something ossified, dead, a shell of its former self. Or it can mean the present being informed by the past and the legacy of our ancestors living through us, and it’s not the same as progress. It is about taking the wealth of insight and creativity, and activation of beauty that a great figure like Beethoven or Bernstein gives us and engaging that tradition in a vital way that’s very much alive now, and then, somehow, the past lives in us in the most incredible way.

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