When Robert Spano took over the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra 10 years ago, it was still trying to recover from tough times, including a musicians' strike and a contentious relationship with their previous conductor. But Spano managed to turn the orchestra into a world-class ensemble as well as an incubator for new American music.
Spano grew up in a musical family, composing and playing flute, violin and piano. As conductor, he's made it his mission to showcase new music in Atlanta while also championing the music of a group of composers now known as the Atlanta School.
"We had the idea, not to have a composer-in-residence, but rather to work with a few composers regularly over time and not play just one work of theirs, but to play existing music of theirs, second, third, fourth performances," says Spano. "Also, to commission and do premieres of their music, to record it, to repeat it, to make them part of our musical life, our musical family."
One of the members of the family is Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon. She's had six works performed and recorded by the orchestra, including "City Scape," a musical portrait of Atlanta.
"You know, for a composer, that sort of an experience is the complete dream," says Higdon. "I mean, it's just incredible to have a phenomenal orchestra with a really committed music director who believes enough in a piece to record the work on a major label and get it out there in the world. I don't think it gets any better than that, to be quite honest."
Higdon remembers that when Spano first got the job, there were doubters.
"They said, you know, 'Atlanta is a Southern town, it's conservative, it's a social scene at the orchestra, new music isn't gonna fly.' And I remember talking to him about this. I'm like, 'How do you feel about them saying this?' And he said, 'Not a problem. I know what to do. I'm gonna go in. I'll be convincing on the podium, you know?' He says, 'This is journey we all need to take together.' And, he was already, right off the bat, planning, kind of, long-term."
Spano knows his audience and doesn't want them just to appreciate these composers, but to love their music. Before new pieces, he presents videos and gives talks. And concerts featuring work by the Atlanta School of Composers are regularly filled almost to capacity. While these composers have different personal styles, they write in an accessible musical language. And Spano says there's one thing they all share.
"They're interested in tunes. They use tonality and they're all interested in either popular or world music or both. And that influences their writing and is part of their musical language."
An internationally-recognized artist, Spano has led many major orchestras in the U.S and abroad over the course of his 20-year career. He remains in demand as a guest conductor. He's also a dedicated teacher, and spent five summers heading the conductor training program at the Tanglewood Music Festival. That's where he met Argentine-born composer Osvaldo Golijov. The two are frequent collaborators and Spano has presented a dozen of Golijov's works in Atlanta.
Golijov believes working with Spano makes him a better composer. "I feel that Robert is not just the conductor for my music, but he's a great editor. He's someone that challenges me in sometimes very provocative ways. Like, he doesn't take the text as sacred, he elevates me, he questions me."
Spano says his proudest accomplishment over the past 10 years has been to foster, nurture and record new work.
"I get excited about being part of a process where the person who's writing the music is also going through a voyage of discovery in their own musical life and in terms of what they're writing, what they're writing for, what forces. And to be part of that is just exhilarating."
He expects that sense of exhilaration to continue. Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra just announced they've created a new record label - ASO Media - so that they can continue to record new work.