August 10, 2006
Robert Spano refers to himself as “an Aspen reject.” Spano applied several times to be a conducting student at the Aspen Music Festival and School, and was never accepted. Spano could just as well call himself a Berkshires reject; his applications to Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer music festival in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains, were likewise turned down.Spano is at peace with those rejections. It was a long time ago, and he understands the difficulty of assessing a conductor via tape recordings, and measuring one aspiring conductor against another. In addition, Spano, now 45, has climbed the mountains both in Aspen and western Massachusetts.When he conducts the Aspen Opera Theater Center’s production of Benjamin Britten’s comic opera “Albert Herring” this week, it will mark Spano’s seventh or so appearance with the Aspen Music Festival in the last dozen years. Spano has likewise established himself in Tanglewood. An assistant conductor with the Boston Symphony in the early ’90s, Spano has taught at Tanglewood for 15 years.Spano has had a wealth of educational experiences since those years when he couldn’t get into Aspen or Tanglewood. He spent several years teaching; worked under Seiji Ozawa at the Boston Symphony; and led the Brooklyn Philharmonic from 1996-2004. He has made the most of those learning opportunities; Spano, entering his sixth season as the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, has been called “the most comprehensively gifted American conductor to emerge since James Levine, Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Slatkin” by The Boston Globe, and, more succinctly, “a phenomenon” by The New Yorker.”Working in academia,” said Spano, who has taught at Bowling Green University and Oberlin College, his alma mater, “trying to make a student orchestra better, was a great opportunity for my own education. Joining the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it was amazing to live around a great orchestra like that. I learned a great deal from Ozawa by bothering him often with questions. The wonderful thing about that position was they gave us our own subscription concerts.”Spano cut himself loose from any tight affiliations when he left Boston. For three years, he was an itinerant guest conductor; in 1994, his first year of globe-trotting, he says he was in a different city every week.
“Giving concerts all over the world, and finding the differences in orchestras and having to learn an orchestra’s sound in a very short amount of time, was another kind of education,” he said.After three years of road work, Spano settled in New York. But he wasn’t looking to make it in Manhattan. Rather, he took his first leadership position with the Brooklyn Philharmonic which, by geographical circumstance, operates in the shadows cast by some of the world’s most prestigious arts organizations just across the East River. Spano took the opportunity to broaden his learning curve. Instead of taking a back seat, the organization rose to prominence. In particular, Spano raised the ante on contemporary music, presenting such recent operas as Thomas Adès’ “Powder Her Face” and John Adams’ “Death of Klinghoffer,” as well as numerous world premieres.”In Brooklyn, it was a particular challenge, because you’re up against some of the biggest cultural institutions,” said Spano. “You have to really think about what you’re doing. So it was an exploration in musical language and programming.” The New York Times praised Spano for turning the organization “from a respected ensemble in an outer borough into an essential contributor to the cultural life of greater New York.”It wasn’t a lack of focus that led Spano to be rejected by Aspen and Tanglewood all those years ago. He was raised in a musical family, and the biggest challenge was deciding which instrument to specialize in; Spano played piano, flute and violin as a boy.His path became clear the first time he picked up a baton. At 14, a piano piece Spano had composed to commemorate the American bicentennial won a national prize. A few months later, he gave it full orchestration, and was determined to conduct it himself. With a few lessons in beat patterns from his violin teacher, who was also the high school conductor, Spano made his debut.”It’s a great place to hear an orchestra, the podium,” said Spano, who was raised in Indiana. “It’s sense-surround. It helped me bring my musical intentions into focus.”In high school, Spano rounded up his friends to play a few concerts a year. At Oberlin, which he entered as a composer and left with a degree in piano, Spano actually ran the conducting department for a year, while the school looked for a permanent faculty member.
“I was lucky to be able to learn these things through my hands and ear, and not just as an idea,” he said of all the experience.In Atlanta, Spano has applied what he has learned most effectively. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, he points out, was already the largest cultural organization in the Southeast, but Spano has given it even greater weight. The orchestra’s recording of the Berlioz Requiem earned a Grammy Award for best choral album last year; Spano and the orchestra earned two Grammys in 2003, including one for best classical album, for a recording of Vaughan Williams’ “A Sea Symphony.” Earlier this year, the Atlanta Symphony made two New York appearances, at Lincoln Center and at Carnegie Hall, in a three-week period.Apart from making first-rate music, Spano has been focused on making that music most relevant to Georgians. “Part of the life of a conductor is being a conductor, and part is being a music director. You’re the face of the institution,” he said. “Any institution needs direction, a vision, so it’s finding the aim of the institution.”Spano’s vision is an expansive one. He sees Atlanta as mirror of America in being a melting pot of cultures, so he aims to embrace a broad swath of classical music. So in addition to Verdi’s Requiem and an all-Beethoven program, the orchestra’s recent season included works by contemporary composers Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentinean-born Jew with whom the Atlanta Symphony has a close relationship, and Steve Reich.”I love that richness of cultures,” said Spano, who directed Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music in 2003 and 2004, “and I feel that an orchestra can reflect that facet of society. So it’s not entirely about 300 years of German music.”In pushing the boundaries of the repertoire, Spano has also developed the orchestra’s capacity to speak various languages. “One of my interests is to widen the vocabulary, and be stylistically appropriate to whatever we’re playing,” he said. “It’s great to see that happen. We play very differently when we play Mozart as opposed to Golijov. We’re running the gamut.”Among the recent composers Spano has highlighted is Britten, the landmark British composer of the 20th century. He has conducted “Billy Budd,” Britten’s operatic adaptation of the Melville novel, four times, and his “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” twice, including once in Aspen. “Albert Herring,” which Spano has conducted at Bowling Green and Oberlin, will be presented at the Wheeler Opera House Tuesday and Thursday, Aug. 15 and 17.
“He’s a composer I’m eternally fascinated with,” said Spano, who has also conducted much of Britten’s non-operatic work as well. “And he’s such a great opera composer. He’s able to capture a mood, an emotional situation, very keenly, very insightfully.”The result in ‘Herring’ is, it’s really funny. So it’s a delight. It’s perfectly etched music and theater, and at the same time, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.”
Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Shostakovich are all on the program for the final week of the Music Festival, which wraps up Aug. 20. But likely to cause as much of a buzz is a relatively little-known contemporary American composer, Alan Fletcher.Fletcher, who is also in his first summer as president of the Music Festival, has the world premiere of his “Dreams of Rain” in a Chamber Music concert Monday, Aug. 14. The piece, for piano trio, was composed over 10 summers Fletcher spent in Costa Rica.The inspiration for the work was the year when the afternoon rains, a reliable fact of life in the Costa Rican summer, failed to materialize.”It was an ecological disaster,” said Fletcher earlier this summer. “These puddles of water didn’t form and the golden toad, the symbol of Costa Rica since Mayan times, didn’t come. They never came back. No one talked about it then, but now it’s seen as one of the earliest warnings of climate change. The piece was about that sound of the rain, and waiting and waiting for it to come.”It was a weird feeling: ‘Why was nature changing?’ Looking back, it has this whole meaning I didn’t intend in a conscious way. But often, a musical meaning establishes itself; it isn’t placed there consciously.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org