Meet Robert Spano, new music director at the Aspen Music Festival

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Alex IrvinRobert Spano, on the possibility of becoming the music director of the Aspen Music Festival: "It was on my mind how wonderful it would be. But my personality led me to think, 'Oh, that will never happen.' That's the beauty of pessimism: You get nice surprises."

ASPEN – There have been four stages in Robert Spano’s reaction to David Zinman’s resignation, in April of 2010, as music director at the Aspen Music Festival and School.

First, for Spano, there was sadness. Though he and Zinman were not especially close, Spano had worked with Zinman a handful of times, with Spano making a series of appearances in Aspen during Zinman’s 12-year tenure. Spano, who had conducted in Aspen with some regularity since his first performance here, in 1993, could not have been happy to hear of the organizational clashes that led to Zinman’s abrupt resignation.

Then, while Spano was here last summer, as a guest conductor and to work with the students in the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen, he had a glimmer of opportunity, thinking about the vacant music directorship. “It was definitely on my mind how wonderful it would be if I were able to do this,” Spano said. Quickly, though, hopeful stage two was washed away by stage three – severe doubt: “My personality led me to think, ‘Oh, that will never happen.’ But that’s the beauty of pessimism: You get nice surprises.”

The final stage was that nice surprise. In mid-March, during meetings of the Music Festival’s board of trustees and national council, Spano was introduced as the new music director (or, for this summer at least, music director-designate). According to Alan Fletcher, the Music Festival’s president, the hiring was a no-brainer for the selection committee, which comprised board members and Music School faculty. “It was an easy selection. He had very strong support,” Fletcher said at the time.

Spano arrived in Aspen for the summer last week, and the full impact of stage four was settling in. Or it could even be a separate stage of its own: the arrival at the beginning of a trail, when all looks promising, glorious, serendipitous. Sitting on a bench at the Music School’s rustic Castle Creek campus, on a sunny day, with students toting instruments to their early-summer classes, Spano was filled with the possibilities that the eight weeks of concerts and the education of the next generation of musicians held.

“What makes Aspen great?” the 50-year-old Spano asked. “It’s the multiplicity that’s so impressive. That’s the salient feature that leaps out right away – the breadth. The orchestral program, the opera program, the piano program, the composition program, the new music part of it. Everything I love in music is here. To have so much going on in one place, that’s an embarrassment of riches.”

Speaking with Spano, I observed his giddy, kinetic energy. When I expressed my fondness for Osvaldo Golijov, a noted composer with whom Spano collaborates regularly, he jumped up and asked a Music Festival staff member to order me three CDs of Golijov’s music: (2007’s “Oceana,” featuring songs, orchestra-and-vocal music, and a two-movement piece for string quartet, and the 2006 opera “Ainadamar,” both featuring Spano as conductor; and “La Pasion Segun San Marcos,” released last year). A short while later, he jumped up and ran across the lawn to greet Christopher Rouse, one of the Music Festival’s composers-in-residence, then ran back to continue our conversation. He also interrupted himself mid-sentence to remark that he was “always the fourth music director” – meaning Spano was the fourth director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, which he led from 1996-2004; the Atlanta Symphony, which he took over in 2001, and still leads; and the Aspen Music Festival. “I don’t know what that means. I just thought it was a little funny,” he said.

My experience of Spano matched perfectly my impression from nearly 10 years ago, when I first interviewed him. Back then – when he wasn’t stepping into the leadership of one of the most prominent summer music institutions – Spano crackled with energy, and was charmingly quirky.

It is a far different persona than that of his predecessor. Spano is 24 years younger than Zinman, an enormously significant difference in itself. Zinman also had the presence of an Old World conductor – reserved, magisterial. He was more respected than beloved, although the respect, especially for the dramatic rise on the musical level that occurred over his 12-year tenure, was profound.

Among the things Spano told me about himself was that he was not an old-school conductor, who sees the orchestra “as a complex piano” that he gets to sit at and play. “I relish the music that happens when the members of the orchestra are participating members in the process. For me, the orchestra’s more like a complex chamber music,” he said. When I commented on his loose personality, he said, with no affectation, “I’m not so dignified.”

“It’s definitely a change of the energy; it’s an infusion of a different energy,” said Ed Berkeley, the longtime director of the Aspen Opera Theater Center and the chairman of the Music Festival’s music committee, a body that represents the faculty. (Berkeley specified that he was not making comparisons between Spano and Zinman.) “It’s clearly a younger energy. But it’s not just a question of age. Robert is an explosive musician. He’s a very thorough, careful, scholarly person, but he’s also got an explosive persona. I think people are excited by it.”

“Robert brings not only his gifts as a conductor, educator and pianist, but the sense of exuberance and enthusiasm and endless, tireless will to, and wish to, effect something here,” said Asadour Santourian, the festival’s artistic advisor. “And at all times, he’s very respectful of the organization’s history and the people who make up that history. I’d say we’re going to have serious fun.”

• • • •

Spano was raised in Elkhart, Ind., which, though its population is just around 50,000, is known as “the band instrument capital of the world.” In the middle of the 19th century, the C.G. Conn company, makers mainly of brass instruments, settled in Elkhart, and over the decades many other instrument manufacturers, most notably Selmer, which eventually merged with Conn, also came to call Elkhart home. (On the other side of the cultural spectrum, Elkhart is also known as “the RV Capital of the World,” thanks to the presence of the Thor Motor Coach company.)

Spano’s father, Tony, was a flute maker, and went to Indiana to work for Conn. Tony is a clarinetist who played in local orchestras and before that an Army band, while Spano’s mother, Dolores, is a pianist. “Music was just always there,” recalled Spano, who started on piano at 6, then flute – “for obvious reasons” – and at 9 yearned for a violin.

It was also at 9 that he began composing, and he got serious at 14, when he found an influential teacher. He entered the Oberlin Conservatory as a composition student, having been influenced by such modern-thinking figures of the ’60s and ’70s as Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. He mentions “Black Angels,” George Crumb’s 1970 work for electric string quartet, as particularly influential. Growing up with an awareness of such contemporary composers, Spano said, “It was great. Great.”

But Spano also became aware of what he calls “a hegemony of aesthetic” – only a narrow range of expression was considered worthy. “There was 12-tone and its successors, and then there were the chance people” – in particular John Cage, who left many compositional decisions to such random techniques as the I Ching. “There wasn’t a lot else that was taken seriously, at least not by the authorities. We didn’t think of Samuel Barber and Leonard Bernstein and Britten and Corigliano seriously. We weren’t taught to take that seriously.”

Like many young classical musicians, Spano had an Aspen experience. His, however, did not include the typical one of playing in an orchestra alongside his teachers and basking in the beautiful mountain surroundings. Spano’s application to the Aspen Music School, back in the ’80s, was rejected – “at least once,” as he recalls.

“I was used to rejection,” he said. “I suspect I’m not unique, but most anyone who works in music faces a lot of rejection letters. At a certain point, you apply for a lot of things, and most of them don’t work. But the ones that do, they create your particular path.”

There have been enough successes since to allow him to look at the Aspen rejections with that kind of detachment. After earning a degree in violin performance at Oberlin, then switching to conducting at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, he began to climb the ladder, returning to Oberlin to head the opera program, then serving as assistant conductor at the Boston Symphony under Seiji Ozawa.

Taking over the Brooklyn Philharmonic, in 1996, seems a case of excellent timing and a perfect match. The borough of Brooklyn was just starting to come into its own as the hipper cousin to establishment Manhattan. Over his eight-year stretch in Brooklyn, Spano was able to develop innovative programs and cultivate a passion for new music and young composers. In 2001, he took over in Atlanta, and it was more of the same: an elevation of the organization’s profile, deep praise for the music, a full embrace of the fact that there was new music to be composed, performed and appreciated.

• • • •

Spano’s tendency toward present thinking is reflected in his outlook on the Aspen Music Festival’s recent turmoil. To him, that is past. In March, I asked Spano what he made of the recent turmoil at the Aspen Music Festival, much of it resulting from the decision to scale down the duration of the summer season, from nine weeks to eight, and to reduce the faculty by about a dozen positions. His response was, “There are some things I don’t have to know, and probably shouldn’t know.” Last week, Spano said he has educated himself further in that less than glorious history: “But my job is to forge the future. And part of that is letting go the things that are done.”

Spano isn’t only interested in taking the Aspen Music Festival into the next decades; he’s interested in bringing music itself into the future. When Spano’s hiring was announced in March, Alan Fletcher said Spano fulfilled the four criteria the Music Festival was looking for, one of which was a commitment to new music. (The others: a renowned performer, a renowned teacher, and “an understanding of what Aspen is.”) At the time, Spano said that the Music Festival must have known about “my passion for living composers and American composers. They must want it, or they wouldn’t have hired me.”

For many, classical music hit its apex two or three centuries ago, when giants like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven roamed Germany and Austria. For Spano, though, music in centuries past was squeezed into one, or at best a few, narrow categories that were acceptable. Recent decades have seen a broadening that he finds exhilarating.

“The music culture we live in is seemingly infinitely varied,” he said. “It’s so many different musical languages, styles. I love what’s happening with composers these days, reflecting all the things that are happening. So many are influenced by popular music or world music or the music of other traditions. It’s a wonderful melting pot of music going on, an incredible variety.”

Which doesn’t exclude a love for 18th century symphonies, or early 20th century 12-tone music. But Spano takes the view that even a piece of music 200 years old, that has been performed thousands of times and dissected by conductors and scholars for every bit of meaning, is not a relic, but a living thing.

“The engagement with new music has vivified our experience of older music. It’s invigorated out understanding of how composers are searching,” he said. “Nineteenth century music isn’t a stone tablet. It’s terrain that we have to travel; it’s exposed to us in our own time. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is not an object. It’s a wormhole into a set of possibilities.”

• • • •

While Spano has his feet planted in the present, and his eyes set on the future, he didn’t mind looking into the past for a moment. When I asked him his first impression of Aspen, when he first arrived here to guest conduct, around 1993, he became semi-nostalgic. And for a change, it wasn’t the music he focused on, but the mountains.

“I felt dwarfed by the landscape itself. In a beautiful way,” he said. “Awestruck. That this is not human scale. I felt like I’d entered the land of the gods.”

The original plan was for Robert Spano to ease into the head artistic position at the Aspen Music Festival. But some botched scheduling at the Santa Fe Opera, where he was going to perform, made him fully available this summer, and Spano is making the most of it, with four conducting appearances plus some turns at the piano. Here’s where to witness the maestro in action this summer.

Sunday, July 3: Spano debuts as the music director-designate, conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra in a program of Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer,” Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and R. Strauss’ “Don Quixote.”

July 15: The Aspen Chamber Symphony welcomes the new guy. The program includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4; two works by Ravel – Tzigane, with violinist Daniel Hope, and the Piano Concerto in G major, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet; and Finding Rothko, by Spano’s associate and former Aspen Music School student Adam Schoenberg.

July 31: Spano leads the Aspen Festival Orchestra in Barber’s Violin Concerto, with Aspen alum Robert McDuffie, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5.

Aug. 8: Audiences get a fresh look at the two heads of the Aspen Music Festival, as Spano, on piano, and violinist David Halen perform a study of “Woman Holding a Balance,” by Festival president Alan Fletcher.

Aug. 20: With mezzo-soprano Karolina Pilou, Spano performs Lieberson’s Neruda Songs.

Aug. 21: Spano closes the summer, leading the Aspen Festival Orchestra in a concert of works by Brahms, Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony.