LISTEN: In this excerpt, GPB's Sarah Zaslaw interviews Robert Spano on the matter of legacy.


Jennifer Higdon's composition 'Blue Cathedral' performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

This month, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is joined by Music Director Laureate Robert Spano, the conductor who spent 22 years at its helm. 

May 9 and May 11, Spano returns to the Woodruff Arts Center and Symphony Hall in Midtown Atlanta to conduct Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 1909 Piano Concerto No. 3 with pianist Garrick Ohlsson and two works by contemporary composers, Jennifer Higdon (Blue Cathedral) and Adam Schoenberg (Picture Studies). 

Spano stays on May 16 and 18 to lead Stravinsky’s 1913 masterpiece The Rite of Spring and the world premiere of the oratorio The Sacrifice of Isaac by American composer Jonathan Leshnoff with the ASO Chorus and soloists. 

GPB’s Sarah Zaslaw spoke with Spano about his high-profile residency. 



This interview has been edited for length and clarity.   

Sarah Zaslaw: Welcome back. 

Robert Spano: Thank you. I can’t wait to be there. 

Sarah Zaslaw: It’s been a while since we caught up. Let’s bring things up to up to date a little bit. After your two decades leading the Atlanta Symphony, the pandemic kind of threw your departure [and the selection and arrival of current music director Nathalie Stutzmann] for a loop. What was the exit plan, and what ended up happening? 

Robert Spano:  Well, actually, I should have been gone by the end of 2021. And then, because of COVID, I stayed through the 2021-2022 season, where we did all of our online concerts, because I wanted to help get us out of that period. And that was an amazing time. I mean, we were so lucky, and the management was so wonderful to help us. Many orchestras weren’t able to function during that season. We managed to do all those online concerts and it was fantastic. 

Sarah Zaslaw: Around that time, you took on a new music director post in Texas, at the Fort Worth Symphony. And meanwhile, you’ve kept your post in Colorado as music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, which is a famous sort of high-level music camp, where you also head its professional development program for young conductors. … And then in February of this year, 2024, came the big announcement that you have been chosen as music director designate of the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in D.C. Congratulations! 

Robert Spano: Oh, thanks. I’m so excited about it. When I left Atlanta, I was thinking, "I want more opera in my calendar." This is a great opportunity for me to do that. 

Sarah Zaslaw: The other day, Alex Ross wrote a piece in The New Yorker lamenting conductors who take on posts at multiple institutions and end up flitting between them instead of planting themselves in one community. I think you’re more of a planter. You planted yourself in Atlanta and then in Texas. I take it you will now plant yourself in the nation’s capital. 

Robert Spano: Yes. And the fortunate thing has been, looking at the calendar for the next three years, neither organization is being impinged by my doing both, which is really great, and I feel lucky I can do both. 

Sarah Zaslaw: Revisiting Atlanta this spring, you are conducting back-to-back weekends, both featuring composers with whom you’ve built decades-long relationships. This first program includes both Jennifer Higdon, with her popular Blue Cathedral, which you and the Atlanta Symphony recorded fairly early in your relationship [2003], and then Adam Schoenberg’s 2012 Picture Studies [replacing the premiere of his Concerto for Orchestra, the composition of which is not complete]. 

Robert Spano: Blue Cathedral is a nice nod to the to the past. We’re doing a piece of Adam’s called Picture Studies, and it’s a phenomenal piece of his. This is Schoenberg’s sort of revisiting of [Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874] idea of Pictures at an Exhibition. But in Adam’s case, he’s musically inspired by various artists [not just one]. It’s just a wonderful, kaleidoscope of music inspired by visual art. I’m so glad we’re going to be able to do it since we never have. 

Sarah Zaslaw: I’m interested that you’re rejoining Garrick Ohlsson for Rachmaninoff’s Third [Piano Concerto]. You’ve done it here before. You’ve recorded it here before. I think the two of you have teamed up on that piece elsewhere. Why again? 

Robert Spano: Because it’s so good! I mean, for me, his Rachmaninoff Third is the paradigm. It’s just miraculous what he’s able to do with that piece. I mean, it’s one of those pieces that is notoriously difficult for the pianist and kind of a test of a pianist’s ability. But in Garrick’s hands, it’s child’s play. And so the focus is purely on the music because the technical challenges are just — he’s the master of it, and it’s thrilling to do that piece with him because of his insight into it as a piece of music as opposed to a set of Olympic challenges. That’s one of the recordings that we’ve made that I’m especially proud of.  

Sarah Zaslaw: Your second weekend guest-conducting back in Atlanta includes a delayed world premiere by Jonathan Leshnoff, another man whose music you’ve championed before. You’ll be leading the world premiere of a piece you helped commission called The Sacrifice of Isaac. It’s an oratorio based on this troubling story from Genesis, where Abraham binds Isaac at God’s bidding. Tell me about the genesis of this oratorio and what we can listen for. 

Robert Spano: Jonathan’s music is often inspired. He’s devoutly Jewish and avowedly so, and much of his music is inspired by his faith. He had wanted very much to do this piece. I had thought to ground the program with The Rite of Spring on the second half, and after studying Jonathan’s score, which I have been now for a couple of months, it’s just so wonderful and overwhelming and vast and impressive and emotional that we’re flipping the program around. We’re going to start with The Rite of Spring and then do his Sacrifice of Isaac second. 

I know it’s going to be an overwhelming experience. I can just feel it. He really plumbed the depths of the difficulties of this story emotionally. It’s a strange and difficult story to grapple with, as many have historically. Famously, Kierkegaard wrote those beautiful essays, trying to grapple with what a horrific story this is. Jonathan’s music is just transcendent. Some of it is viscerally exciting and motoric and rhythmically driven in a way that he meets The Rite of Spring, and other passages are mellifluous and melodic and rich and warm. It’s just the most beautiful score. I can’t wait to do it.  

Sarah Zaslaw: At a certain point in one’s life or career or at an institution, you start thinking about the imprint that you’d like to leave behind. I know you’re still in the thick of it, but how do you think about legacy, or legacies, for the institutions that you’ve worked at, or for the music world in general? 

Robert Spano: Oh, that’s a hard one, isn’t it? I don’t tend to think of my work day-to-day in terms of legacy. If I turn my mind toward that thought and that issue, I guess I believe in seeding the future. I really value my work with the young musicians in Aspen. I think the work that we did with living composers in Atlanta is so important because they are the future. I think of all the people I hired in Atlanta as being incredibly important to seeding the future of the orchestra.  

I guess legacy for me is about propagation and perpetuation of something that’s creative and dynamic and beautiful, and therefore it has to be ever-evolving. So it’s not about putting something in stone. I have a wonderful rock in my mountain house [in which is etched the saying], “Nothing is written in stone.” And so I guess my attitude about legacy is not imprinting something in a fixed way, but rather being part of the ever-evolving nature of what we do. And especially in music, it’s so obvious that — maybe more obvious than in visual arts — to say that it has to be an ongoing creative process, not a production of a result that then stands there. 

Sarah Zaslaw: Beautiful growth mindset for the entire field. 

Robert Spano: I like that. 

Sarah Zaslaw: Robert Spano, so great to hear you again. Glad to welcome you back to Symphony Hall. Thank you for your time today, and congratulations again on this exciting new chapter for you.