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Interview: Robert Spano

Robert Spano has been at the helm of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for 19 years, and has indelibly left his mark on both the orchestra and the musical life of the city in that time. We asked him about what changes he's seen, the process of recording and the importance of working with living composers.

You’ve been with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for 19 years now. What are the main changes have you seen in and made happen in your time there?

One of the biggest things is personnel, because at this point I’ve hired about two thirds of the orchestra. By the time I leave we’ll have an entirely new leadership across the strings, principal oboe, principal trumpet, principal trombone, and more. I'm realising now on my way out what a big change it's been.

We've also had a commitment to American composers, and that’s been an important part of our work. I did feel that was an evolution of Robert Shaw’s work because he was so committed to living composers himself. The other aspect of his legacy that I felt was so important to keep very much alive was our chorus. During Shaw’s lifetime they very rarely sang with anyone but him, and since his death they’ve been singing with all kinds of conductors. And the thing that Norman Mackenzie, who’s his successor leading the chorus, has done so artfully is to preserve their tradition, preserve many of Shaw’s practices and aesthetics but also make them more flexible and capable of doing things Shaw would never have had them do. When I first came, members of the chorus asked me if I would do the Sea Symphony of Vaughan Williams because Shaw hated it and he wouldn’t do it! So it's been wonderful to see their evolution, but also preservation.

The work you do with living composers is clearly something that’s very significant to you, not just with new commissions but also with the School of Composers that you’ve set up. Why is this in particular so important to you?

For many reasons, but first and foremost: working with living composers informs our interactions with dead ones. When you get to deal with the composer as a human being, you realise the reality that music doesn’t exist abstractly. It doesn’t exist in the score, it doesn’t exist in the recording – it exists in our engagement with it. That’s when any piece of music comes alive. These pieces are not objects, they’re possibilities that we engage with, or not. Thinking like this puts a whole different lens on looking at Beethoven’s sketchbooks for instance. You recognise that composers don’t create stone tablets.

So, in Atlanta on my arrival we recognised that there was a role we could play in the larger world that was needed, which was to focus on American composers. It wasn’t so much “this is what every orchestra should do” as “this is what we can do.” We’re in a quintessentially American city and we’re very much an American orchestra so let's promote American composers, essentially of my generation. Another facet of that commitment was to not have a composer in residence, but instead create a family of composers. The Atlanta School was not conscious; we discovered it after about 5 years. What was conscious was nurturing relationships with several composers and the idea was to give our audience the chance to get to know them. Let’s play them repeatedly, let’s do different works, let’s do works they’ve already written, let’s do commissioned works, let’s play them on tour, on youth concerts, let’s record them. Make them part of our family. After about 5 years we realised that there were some stylistic commonalities, despite their obvious differences. It was a clear generational shift from their teachers, so to speak. The use of tonality, and using melody in a more pronounced way than their predecessors, not to mention an influence of popular or world music in their aesthetic. And they all had that, and it was a wonderful surprise. Eventually we had the hubris to start calling them the Atlanta School.

You've also made many recordings in your time over at Atlanta, including a couple of Grammy winners. How do you choose which repertoire to record?

The easy pick is the new music that we want to disseminate into the world. But the more difficult choices have been around music that's not new, and there are a few categories. There are works that are 'old music' in a sense, but haven’t been recorded very much – like the Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony or Sibelius's Kullervo – and then there are things that have been recorded a lot, but we think there’s something special we can do with it – the Berlioz Requiem or Carmina Burana. And then there are things which are just such great projects, we don’t care that there are already many recordings: things like Garrick Ohlsson playing Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, or our recording of Brahms’s Requiem.

We’ve done a couple of recordings live, but generally they've been in sessions. I hadn't recorded much before I came to Atlanta, and I was initially uncomfortable about recording in sessions, expecting that I would prefer to record live. But having now recorded so much in sessions, and with a great producer like Elaine Martone, you start to understand how it all works, and understand that live recordings are wonderful and interesting as documents but recordings in sessions provide you with an opportunity to deal with the recording as a performance, and how we hear things differently when they’re recorded than we do live. I’ve fallen in love with recording as a process. In a sense, during recording sessions you start to play for the microphone, but there’s a bad way to do that and a good way. There’s a way that can debilitate you, where you become overly self-conscious, but there’s another way where you’re sending your performers’ instincts the same way you would to an audience – but your audience becomes the people listening in the booth and the microphone itself. That’s a great way to play to the microphone. 

What’s next for you after Atlanta? You’ve a couple more seasons until your time is done, but what awaits afterwards?

I don’t know. I have no idea, which is kind of exciting – when I’m not terrified I’m very excited! It’s an opportunity for me to think, do I want to write more myself? How much more or less teaching would I like to do? How much more piano playing? Would I rather do more opera? As I sort of juggle all these balls in the air it’s a great opportunity to assess how I want to spend my time. It’s been a wonderful deep plunge being a music director but I think people sometimes don't understand the multifaceted nature of the role and how consuming it can – how much one pours into it! There’s a wonderful reward in that, but it’s also something that then prohibits a lot of other things in your life. So the prospect of not being here opens up that exploration in my own imagination. I won’t have all those responsibilities, so what do I want to do with that time? How do I want to use it? And it’s not clear to me yet. And that’s what makes it scary and exciting.