ASPEN - Back in the 1980s, the Aspen Music Festival did not want Robert Spano. An aspiring conductor at the time, who had studied at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Curtis Institute of Music, Spano applied to be a summer student at the Aspen Music School. He was rejected.
A quarter century later, the Aspen Music Festival is welcoming Spano with a full embrace. The Music Festival has announced that the 49-year-old is the organization's next music director, filling a post that had been vacant since last April, when David Zinman resigned from the position he had held for 12 years. According to Alan Fletcher, the president of the Music Festival, Spano was the first choice of the selection committee, which was made up of board members and Music School faculty.
"It was an easy selection. He had very strong support," Fletcher said.
Spano is set to spend seven weeks in Aspen this summer, during which he will hold the title of music director-designate. He is set to conduct four concerts this season, and, like last summer, will be one of three conductors leading the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen. He will move into the role of music director in 2012. Spano will continue serving as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which he has led for a decade. His contract in Aspen, which runs for a five-year term, began on Saturday, coinciding with meetings here of the board of trustees and the national council.
"I've been there eight summers over maybe 20 years, and every time is fantastic," Spano, speaking from his home in Atlanta, said of his experience with Aspen. "The kids are fantastic, the music, the place is fantastic. It's a joy to make music there. It's all pretty exhilarating."
Fletcher said there were four essential requirements the Music Festival was looking for in its new music director. "The profile we established last summer was: a renowned performer, a renowned teacher, a commitment to new music, and an understanding of what Aspen is," he said. "There wasn't just one person who had that, but Spano's name kept coming up. When we'd speak to musicians, festival leaders all over the world, and ask, 'Who do you think we should be looking at?' and in every conversation, he came up."
Jonathan Haas, a longtime Aspen Music School faculty member who heads the percussion department, was optimistic upon hearing of the hiring. Haas, who lives in New York, heard much about Spano when the conductor led the Brooklyn Philharmonic, from 1996-2004.
"When he was in Brooklyn, he was very well-liked by the musicians. The musicians were very, very positive," Haas said.
Haas also worked on a concert with Spano last summer, and came away with a good feeling. "He's clear, he's concise, he knows what he wants and he's pleasant in the way he communicates it," he said.
The hiring takes place against a background of some organizational turmoil. When Zinman resigned last spring, it was unexpected, and came amidst conflict between Zinman and Fletcher. There were divisions in the Music Festival that were expressed in extreme ways. Over the course of a few months, Fletcher was fired and rehired, given a vote of no-confidence and granted a contract extension. Much of the tension stemmed from the downsizing of the festival season - from nine weeks to eight, and the cutting of 11 faculty positions - in 2009.
So in addition to artistic and pedagogical duties, Spano will be expected to do some organizational healing.
"Absolutely," Fletcher said. "That's one of the exciting things about this weekend. It's a turning point for the organization, and we can all have enthusiasm about it."
"As far as what this will do for the festival, I think this is nothing but good," Haas said.
Spano said that his dealings to date with the Music Festival led him to believe that the organization was already on its way to closing the divisions. "It sounds to me like there's a lot of positive change and they're growing out of the difficulties and coming into the next phase," he said. "I certainly think I'm a part of that. And there are some things I don't have to know, and probably shouldn't know."
If Spano might be able to sidestep dealing with the past, he will definitely be counted on to bring the Music Festival into the future - or at least, the present - on the musical side. Spano's career has been marked by a dedication to new music, and he will be expected to continue putting contemporary composers in the spotlight in Aspen.
"No doubt, I'll be moving in that direction," he said. "Because it's such a big passion of mine and such a big part of my life. I'm sure they knew that about me - my passion for living composers and American composers. They must want it, or they wouldn't have hired me."
The Music Festival wanted it. According to Fletcher, the new music director "had to really bring a significant engagement with the music of the future. I think he's a great fit with that. It's always been true of Aspen that we've had a leader who cares about new music. But this emphasizes and renews it."
Fletcher said the hiring of Spano is about a new chapter for the Music Festival as much as it is about new music.
"David [Zinman] did great things for Aspen and created a real legacy," he said. "Now it's Robert's turn, and he'll create his own legacy. That's the nature of succession."