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A conversation with Robert Spano, set to begin 10th season as ASO music director

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UPDATE 9/24: For a review of the ASO’s opening night concert, go here.

Robert Spano is sitting in an armchair in his basement studio beneath Symphony Hall, dressed in jeans and a blue plaid shirt, talking about his decade as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Opening night is a little more than a week away.

Sniffling with allergies and coughing a raspy smoker’s cough, he is calculating how many times he’s conducted the ASO. “We’ve been very consistent, year to year,” he says. By contract, he has conducted 10 subscription concerts each season, plus four weeks reserved for special events or tours, and throw in the five programs he led as music director-designate in the 2000-01 season. A grand total of 145 weeks on the orchestra’s podium.

It has taken most of the decade for the ASO to become audibly and unambiguously Spano’s orchestra. A martinet conductor might have gotten there faster, but Spano’s let-the-players-be-themselves approach has likely yielded more satisfying results in the long term. Orchestral musicians around the country famously suffer low job satisfaction — sometimes chalked up to their years training to become soloists, only to feel burdened by the yoke of their maestro and their music union. Maybe it’s the white-tie formal wear.

There are grumbles from ASO musicians, too — that morale is low, that Spano doesn’t rehearse core repertoire adequately and that it often comes off poorly in concert, or that on his watch the ASO won’t likely rise into the elite tier of American orchestras — although the conductor’s tenure in Atlanta has been remarkably free of controversy.

To my ears, the orchestra engages deeply (and sounds comfortable) in a range of contemporary music, a prime virtue. And when the band really clicks in standard repertoire, as it did near the end of last season under exacting British conductor Oliver Knussen, the results are staggeringly good.

For the orchestra during Spano’s tenure, money has been the problem: no new concert hall, no prestige-burnishing tours to Europe, too little commissioned music, despite making living composers active participants in the ASO family.

Spano is back in Atlanta from a busy summer, including his first “Otello” at the Cincinnati Opera and an all-Schumann program with the Orchestra of St. Lukes at the Caramoor Festival in upstate New York. He was also a substitute: teaching at the Aspen Festival in place of David Zinman, who abruptly quit in a leadership brouhaha, and conducting at the Tanglewood Music Festival in place of the ailing James Levine.

As the ASO opens its 66th season this week — a Mozart piano concerto with André Watts and Berlioz’s “Symphonie fantastique” — I recently sat down with Spano to ask a few questions.

Pierre Ruhe: So you’re celebrating your 10th season with the ASO — music director-designate in the spring of 2000 and officially on the job since September 2001. What’s the difference of a decade?

Robert Spano: I feel I can do a lot more with a lot less effort. I noticed the process — the relationship — had changed about five years ago, when I started to feel it wasn’t me and the ASO, but we were one institution. It feels even more that way now than then. A lot of expectations are already in place, and it’s possible to go deeper into the music faster with less, uh, gestural insistence. Sometimes I’ll do the opposite, like spending a lot of time on things we already know well. The last time we did “The Rite of Spring,” it was a feeling of playing like we didn’t know it: let’s do some rediscovery. A fresh perspective, not arbitrarily or cosmetically, but looking for different perceptions, which leads to different executions. I don’t work with a paradigm that’s unchanging. Some people value that, but I don’t. In the moment, I always pretend that I know exactly how it’s supposed to go. [laughter]

Ruhe: Donald Runnicles was named ASO principal guest conductor at the same time you were appointed, and now he’s winding down his time with the orchestra as his career is increasingly based in Europe. I hear from musicians that the ASO is considering who could fill that slot, with many names — among them newcomers Vasily Petrenko and Ludovic Morlot and the familiar Roberto Abbado — thrown about.

Spano: We’ll not rush to replace Donald, since we really don’t need it to do our work. But we’ve been paying attention to guest conductors, looking for a long-time partner for the orchestra. Donald is a great colleague; he has been as much a part of my 10 years here as working with the orchestra. It’s more than just the pleasure of working with him; we talk a lot. So [the ASO] needs to be confident about the person for that position, because having the right principal guest is so gratifying. That person should fill a different niche than I fill, and not necessarily in the same way as Donald to me. There are a lot of possibilities…. The Mozart D minor [Piano Concerto] was planned as one of his farewell concerts [with Runnicles conducting and Spano at the piano, January 27-29]. Now he’ll be here another year, but we’re playing it anyway.

Ruhe: Allison Vulgamore was the ASO’s president when you were hired. Now she runs the Philadelphia Orchestra and Stanley Romanstein is in charge.…

Spano: Losing Allison was a very big deal, she’s such a powerhouse leader. It’s always a little scary to move on. We’d built such a collaborative environment — no “silos” in how to run an office, to use the buzz word — and we wanted to preserve that. But with change comes fresh perspective. Stanley’s got a personality where that takes no special effort. He’s right there in our war room [freewheeling sessions to plan repertoire, involving department heads and artistic leadership]; he’s such a natural collaborator. Stanley’s very good at listening and observing and absorbing. You know, Nietzsche once said, “The mark of an educated person is the ability to withhold judgment, and allow strange things to be observed with an attitude of hostile calm.” That’s not Stanley — there’s no hostile calm [laughter] — but I would say that he doesn’t react to new or strange things as a stimulus; he holds judgment in abeyance. He has no knee-jerk reactions but rather lets information coalesce over a longer period of time to form a more seasoned opinion. He’s a tremendous personality. And the funny thing is, when I got here Allison was a point of continuity with the organization; now I am the continuity. That’s eye-opening for me.

Number 33, Robert Spano. He conducted the national anthem to open the Atlanta Falcons' season. Falcons owner Arthur Blank is a major ASO donor.

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