Robert Spano. Photo courtesy Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Robert Spano is a busy guy with a baton.

The 20-year Atlantan, long-time music director of the Atlanta Symphony and veteran chamber music specialist has departed that Atlanta Symphony role to take up the music directorship of the Fort Worth Symphony. That orchestra says he’ll begin an initial three-year term in 2022. 

In Atlanta, he’s become Music Director Laureate and has taken on the role of co-artistic advisor for the ASO’s 2021-2022 season, which kicked off in September. He’s also been the music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School for the past decade. In both roles, he’s credited with mentoring hundreds of rising musicians and composers.

Composer, conductor, educator, mentor. Spano took time from his multiplicity of commitments to answer questions posed by Atlanta Senior Life contributor  Mark Woolsey.

Q. What played into your decision to switch from music director to music director laureate? What impact will that have on the orchestra and how will it help your career?

A. When I came to the ASO in 2000, I was looking forward to a long-term commitment. I had been guest conducting a great deal and running the Brooklyn Philharmonic, a wonderful orchestra at that time, but one that presented only a limited number of concerts. 

The opportunity to work with an orchestra such as the ASO, for whom I already had great admiration, was tremendously exciting. After 20 years, I can say it was a promise fulfilled. 

At some point, maybe five years in, I felt that we had a real understanding of each other, and it no longer felt that it was the ASO and me, rather, we were one musical entity. It is such a magnificent orchestra! I feel very lucky to have had this musical journey. 

Twenty years seemed a good marker to turn the page. The orchestra has asked me to return in the future as a regular guest conductor with the title of Conductor Laureate. As I’ve recently hired new musicians in important leadership roles, I’m all the more interested to return and hear how the ASO continues to evolve and develop – indeed! Also, with a new music director!

Q. You’ll become music director of the Fort Worth Symphony in 2022. What was behind that decision and how will that mark a new phase in your career?

A. I had hoped not to take a new post right away when I left the ASO, but the dynamism of what’s going on at the Fort Worth Symphony and an enforced COVID sabbatical changed my perspective. It’s an exciting new chapter for me.   

Q. How do you feel you’ve “shaped” the sound of the Atlanta orchestra over your years as music director?

A. The “sound” of the ASO is something we have created together, and I’m probably not the most objective observer of just what that is! But a colleague once told me he described our sound as a perfect combination of precision and expressivity. I hope that’s true!

Q. You have mentioned mentoring many young musicians and conductors in your career. Why is that important-and important to you?

A. I’ve had the privilege of working with many young musicians thanks to the work I’ve done at Oberlin, Tanglewood, Curtis, Aspen, and many other schools and festivals. Music is a living tradition. As many pianists can do, I can trace my pedagogical lineage right back to Beethoven. Passing the torch is fundamentally important.

Q. What is your proudest, most significant, or greatest milestone moment with the symphony?

A. Over two decades we were able to do so many extraordinary and special things, and we certainly had an adventurous spirit! Not every exploration was a big success, but often the less successful events paved the way for the best. 

If I had to pick one performance out of the hundreds, it would be our production of the St. John Passion of Bach. The power of that music so eloquently performed by our orchestra, chorus, and soloists, combined with the transcendental sets created by Anne Patterson, made it unforgettable.

Q. You also helped engineer a financial turnaround for the symphony during your tenure. How did you help and what’s the monetary status of the symphony today?

 A. We have had very real and serious financial challenges along the way, and I’m so grateful we had stalwart members and leadership of our board to guide us through and out of the most challenging times.

Q. Could you talk about your role with the Atlanta School of Composers?

A. There’ve been many questions over the years about the Atlanta School of Composers. The easiest analogy in my mind is a school of fish rather than an institution of learning; although, swimming with the composers we’ve been so fortunate to have in our musical family, we’ve all learned a lot!

Q. Do you ever see yourself stepping back from your many roles and involvements and retiring?

A.  There are too many things to explore to retire.

Mark Woolsey

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.