Conductor  Robert  Spano
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


There is much one can say about the busy career of conductor Robert Spano, but to have become Musical America
s Conductor of the Year for 2008 means that he is sought after by many organizations and his talents are recognized as being solid.  A few more details are listed in the brief biography at the end of this interview, and full infomration and other photos can be found on his website

He had been here before to conduct the Chicago Symphony, and in the fall of 1998 he was back to lead Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss at Lyric Opera.  With a few days between each performance, he was flying back and forth between the Windy City and The Big Apple.  On one of the few days when he was not traveling we set up an appointment and met at the Opera House. 

His interests are wide and varied, so our conversation ranged among these diverse topics.  Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’re a very busy man
conducting, being music director and also playing piano.  How do you divide your time wearing all these hats?

Robert Spano:    Not always very well!  [Both laugh]  I turn into a bit of a ping pong ball between O’Hare and LaGuardia because I do have a lot of things coming up in New York while we’re still doing this run of Ariadne.

BD:    Is it good for you to be away from a production?

RS:    No! [Laughs] It’s not good for me!  I don’t like it, but I’m going to make the best of it!

BD:    Then why do you do it?

RS:    We’re opening our season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and that’s a commitment I wouldn’t miss!  I’m also playing Winterreise just before that with a good friend and colleague, James Maddalena.  We’re doing it at BAM in a rather strange way, in that it’s in a production.  It’s a visual art installation being done by Christian Boltanski, who’s kind of hot in the arts scene in Europe these days.

BD:    Is it right to impose visual upon Schubert, who intended it just to be voice and piano?

spanoRS:    We’ll find out!  [Both laugh]

BD:    So it’s an experiment?

RS:    It’s an experiment.  He’s done this production before, in Germany.  I’ve not been involved in it before, so this will be my first time doing anything of the kind.

BD:    You’re not going to have real snow or anything for the Winter Journey? 

RS:    I don’t think so!  [More laughter]  It’s more abstracted than that, I think.

BD:    In general, how do you divide your time between concerts with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, opera productions, accompanying and all of these other special events?

RS:    I only play about three or four times a year.  I’m not a real active pianist.  I spent one season not playing at all, and was miserable!  I realized I had to schedule fewer concerts and play more because I love to interact with other musicians in that way; I love producing the sound myself.  So I make sure now that I get a few in.

BD:    When you’re conducting, you don’t feel you’re producing the sound?

RS:    In a way I do, but it’s different to interact with an instrument than it is with human beings.  And in truth, I’m not producing the sound as a conductor, per se.  And I missed the piano, so now I make sure I do a little bit of that.  I do about two or three, occasionally four opera productions a season; they obviously take up more time.  That’s about the right balance for me, because my preparation for an opera production is far more extensive — many more hours are involved for me than preparing orchestral music.

BD:    Really?  Why?

RS:    Because I like to research so thoroughly!  I love studying the text and I love studying the backgrounds so I end up doing a lot of reading about things connected to the opera that makes it a richer experience for me.

BD:    Do you find, then, that the stage director has also done so much research?

RS:    Usually.  Well, if they’re worth their salt, they have!

BD:    Do you get involved in the stage aspect, or are you purely Mr. Music?

RS:    It depends who I’m working with.  If I’m working with a director I know particularly well, or if we have a particular connection, we often will tread on each other’s turf, so to speak.  But often I do find that I’m not at all involved in the stage production itself.

BD:    Without mentioning any names or specifics, are there perhaps times when the stage direction goes contrary to what you think it should be?

RS:    Yes, that has happened to me, and I won’t mention any names!  I actually hit a stage director once!  I was driven that far!  That’s made this experience here in Chicago particularly enjoyable, because I love John Cox’s work.  This production is terrific and he’s been great to work with!

BD:    Does this perhaps make you more selective in who you work with, in terms of stage director?

RS:    No, I like finding out.  I think I’ll continue to work with a wide range!

BD:    So it’s all a matter of discovery for you?

RS:    Yeah, right!

BD:    On the opening night and subsequent performances, is it a matter of discovery for the audience behind you?

RS:    I would hope!  I think so.

BD:    Are you conscious of the rows and rows of people ranged out there behind you?

RS:    To some extent, yes; less so in the pit.

BD:    Because you’re more hidden there?

RS:    That’s right, and I like that role.  I like being sort of the unseen influence on everything that’s going on.

BD:    A real Svengali?

RS:    Well, not exactly, but at least invisible!  On the concert stage sometimes it’s kind of a low-level ESP sensation just sensing the people that are there with you.  In fact, I do have that in the pit as well.  I think every performer senses the house.  You get a feeling, whether it’s accurate or not, whether what you’re doing is being well-received.

BD:    Vibes?

RS:    Vibes, yeah, exactly!

BD:    Are you more responsible for what’s going on if you’re in the pit, rather than on the podium?

RS:    Oh, that’s a great question!  I’m not sure.  Opera is more complicated.  I think one of the reasons so many of us conductors are drawn to it is the challenge
the complexity, the number of things that can go wrong, the magnitude of the responsibility, the variables.  It’s really a wonderful challenge!  Sometimes it’s harder to rein things in from the pit.  It’s a different responsibility, but equal.

BD:    Is there a special joy of working with voices as opposed to just instruments?

RS:    Yes, absolutely!  I think that’s the other big attraction.  I tend to fall in love with singers, with their voices, with what they do artistically.  I tend to learn a lot from them and to feel that it informs my music making, even when I’m not working with singers.

BD:    Do they follow you, or do you follow them
— or does it change constantly?

RS:    With different singers, that balance can be different.  Sometimes I feel very much that I’m going with whatever the singer is about to do.  Sometimes the singer will need me to guide something in such a way that it’s good for them, and they can’t make that happen unless I take care of it.  So I have to know what it is that they need in that sense, too.

BD:    You have to anticipate all of this?

RS:    Yeah.  Some of it’s through discussion, some of it’s intuited, some of it’s sort of understood ahead of time, some of it we find together.  It is different with every singer, to some extent.

BD:    Are you ever surprised during the performance?

RS:    Oh, sure!  Oh, absolutely!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Good surprises, I hope, most of the time?

RS:    Most of the time!  Not always!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You say there are so many things that can go wrong.  I assume, though, that most things go right?

RS:    Oh, yeah, we certainly hope for that!

BD:    Have you ever had a real disaster?  And again, you don’t need to be specific.

spanoRS:    I think I will be.  The closest thing I’ve had to a disaster was in Santa Fe this past summer when the lights went out on the stage and in the house.  We were really in the dark!  Everybody kept going, and it took about seven or eight seconds for the emergency lighting to kick in.  Of course that feels like an eternity in the middle of a performance.  But nobody stopped!

BD:   The singers kept singing and the players kept playing?

RS:    They kept singing and the pit kept playing!

BD:    I can understand the singers because they have it all memorized, but the players are reading off of their scores.

RS:    They were close enough to memorize that they could keep it going.  It got a little shabby, but it basically was still happening!  And it was an opera they knew well in the pit
— we were doing Zauberflöte.

BD:    Being completely in the dark, you were invisible.  Were you then completely superfluous?

RS:    I was useless! [Both laugh]

BD:    I hope none of the critics said, “That was the best part!”

RS:    [With a snide tone]  Yeah, that would be something I’d want to hear!

BD:    Let me turn the question on its head.  Have there been performances when everything has gone right?

RS:    There have been performances where it felt like that; I don’t know if it’s true!  Leaving the stage, or leaving the pit, I’ve had nights — and those are rare for me, and I think they are for most performers
— and that’s a great feeling when you really feel that there was some extra force involved.  It was a blessed night and you couldn’t have wanted for anything more.  Yeah, that’s a great feeling!

BD:    Is there such a thing as musical perfection?

RS:    No, not in the sense that I think you’re asking the question.  In my opinion, there is not.  In another sense, there is.  In the sense that I find most of Mozart’s music perfect — but even Mozart’s operas, as operas, are flawed.  They present problems that everybody has to wrestle with because they’re not perfect.  It’s perfect for me if there’s a performance that I really enjoy, whether or not it was perfect if we’re keeping a scorecard of right and wrong notes and that kind of thing.  Then I don’t think there ever is.

BD:    So for you, the bottom line is the impact it makes on each audience member?

RS:    Yes.  And for me as a listener, I have the same criterion
if I’m affected, if it works in that way.  I think all of us who love music love it because it gives us a transcendent experience.  It takes us out of ourselves.  It takes us into this rich world that’s quite ephemeral.  You can’t touch it.

BD:    We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me hit the question straight on
what is the purpose of music?

RS:    Oh that, I couldn’t say!  There’s a lot of great answers.

BD:    Then what is it for you?

RS:    The purpose of music for me?  It makes life worth living.  I think that’s the purpose of music for me!  I love it as another world.  I love it as commentary on the world that we live in.  I love it as history.  I love it as prophecy.  I love it as the present.  I love so many things about it.  There’s that wonderful cartoon in the New Yorker a few years ago, “Life Without Mozart,” and there’s a picture of a desert with an empty beer can and a tumbleweed.  [Both laugh]  And I think you could also say that was life without music.

BD:    Is Mozart, for you, the pinnacle?

RS:    Often.  I have so many composers that I really love, but he’s certainly one of them.

BD:    So I assume, then, he’s one you return to a lot?

RS:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You seem to be such a buoyant and effervescent personality.  Do you like working more in comic operas as opposed to tragic operas, where people get killed off by the dozens?

RS:    Oh, that’s interesting!  No, I like the tragedy, too.  I like the range; I like the gamut.

BD:    Are you able to infuse this kind of drama, then, on the symphonic music that you do with the Brooklyn Philharmonic?

spanoRS:    I hope we do.  I mean to.  One of the things that any conductor benefits from doing opera, in terms of symphonic work, is to take that sense of dramatic timing and sense of theater to the music making that is symphonic.  What any conductor should take from the symphonic world to the opera pit is a kind of structural sense.  That always ends up being one’s primary task, in a way, when conducting a symphonic work, to make sure the largest shape is presented and understood.

BD:    Understood by all, or understood just by the performers?

RS:    By those who can!

BD:    This, of course, begs the question.  In the audience there are going to be people who understand that piece of music almost as well as you do, and people who are coming to their first classical concert ever.  Can you reconcile this at all?

RS:    Sure, because I think any great piece of art, any great piece of music, can be appreciated on a hundred levels or more.  So if someone comes to a concert and they’ve never been to a classical musical experience before, there should be something going on.  If they’re predisposed to appreciate music to begin with, there should be something going on in that concert that they’re going to latch onto, that they’re going to appreciate.  That appreciation is entirely valid.  If that initiate then decides that they want to keep going to concerts, they’re going to learn more about music by hearing it.  There is a level at which musical appreciation is enriched by reading and learning and talking about it, but that’s all secondary to hearing it.

BD:    For you, where is the balance between the art and the entertainment?

RS:    I finally solved that puzzle for myself this year, thanks to Erich Leinsdorf’s new book that was published posthumously, of various essays of his, where he pointed out that
entertainment comes from the French entretenir, meaning to hold together.  So I’m in love with the word entertainment now!  It means that the performer and the audience are holding this, are considering this work of art together!  So I feel like I’m finally out of that dilemma.  [See my Interviews with Erich Leinsdorf.] 

BD:    Good!  So you’ve solved that.

RS:    I’ve solved it for myself, right.

BD:    It will be interesting to see if that solution holds up over the next ten, twenty, thirty years of your career.

RS:    If I stick with it!

BD:    You may not???  You may not stick with it???

RS:    If I stick with that notion, I meant to say.

BD:    Oh, I see.  I was afraid that maybe you were going to get out of conducting!

RS:    Well I never know!  I mean, that’s always a possibility! [Laughs]

BD:    Go and sell insurance, or something?

RS:    I don’t think I’d go that far afield, but I was very much a composer for a lot of my musical life, and I haven’t written anything for the last five, six years, out of a lack of time, and not making the time to do it.  I may have to carve out some time for that again.

BD:    I notice in looking over the kind of things you conduct, there’s a lot of new music.  Being a composer yourself, does this make you a little more sympathetic towards the problems and tribulations of the composer today?

RS:    I think it has.  I think unquestionably it has.  And I do have a great passion for doing new music.

BD:    We’ll come back to new music in just a moment, but does the idea of being a composer help you get in touch with the composers of the past as well as the ones that are still scribbling?

RS:    I feel like it does.  I hope it does.  I mean for it to!  I especially remember what it was like trying to generate music very quickly, when I had performances and I had to get the piece finished and was working on commission.  It creates a certain sensibility, and that feeling as a composer that I remember so clearly, is one of searching for that music.  It doesn’t come ready-made.  The composer is trying to get it right as well.  As performers, we can often feel that the text, the score, is some kind of Gospel Truth, and of course it isn’t.  It is in a way, because it’s all we have as an artifact of this conception.  But sight isn’t sound, and notation is rudimentary music notation at best.  It’s interesting how little it has advanced!

BD:    We’ve gotten beyond neumes, and that’s about it!

RS:    Right, and that’s part of the fun, actually.

BD:    Does this then leave room for interpretation?  And just how much interpretation is valid before it stretches it out of shape?

RS:    That’s always the question!

BD:    Well, when you’re conducting pieces, do you then have to solve that problem with each new piece, or do you just solve it for you?

RS:    I have to solve it with every new piece.  I always find that I’m trying to figure out what that piece is, in the same way that the composer was trying to figure out what that piece was when he was writing it.  And the closer I get to that, the better I feel.  At a certain point, one becomes convinced that one is right!  This is how it goes!  Then coming back to a piece that I’ve done many times, or even if it’s a piece that I did just a few times and I’m coming back to it, I invariably change my mind about any number of things.  I can remember the feeling very well of knowing that this was the way it had to be, only to change my mind a couple of years later!

BD:    Do you disown the previous performances?

RS:    I have to! [Laughs]

BD:    Since you don’t have a huge pile of recordings yet, I can’t ask if you disown them now that your viewpoint has changed.

RS:    That’s right.  At least there’s no evidence!  [Both laugh]

BD:    What would you do if someone said, “I just heard a tape of a performance you gave five years ago,” which you have now disowned, and they say, “It’s wonderful!  It was revelatory!”?

RS:    Actually, that happened to me recently!  I said, “I really hated it when I heard it!”  I thought it had been all right, and then I changed my mind.  It was a Beethoven Seventh.

BD:    You can’t take solace in the fact that at the time you thought it was right?

RS:    Oh, sure.  In a way, I don’t regret it at all.  It was what I believed in, understood, and felt strongly about at the time.  If I were always doing things the same, there’d be something wrong, so in that sense I’m not uncomfortable with that fact at all.  I’m reminded of a line of Nietzsche, “One should never leave one’s actions in a lurch; remorse of conscience is in bad taste.”

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    From the vast repertoire, how do you decide which works you will study and learn and work on and perform, and which ones you will set aside?

RS:    A lot of it’s what I get asked to do.  So much music interests me — I’m quite eclectic in my tastes — that normally I’m interested in something if I’m asked to do it.  But essentially what it comes down to is what’s next on the calendar.

BD:    But you must say yes or no, so there must be some decision-making process there.

RS:    Sure.  At this point in my life I wouldn’t say yes to doing a Cavalli opera because the amount of research I would have to do in preparation!  That’s not my area of expertise.  I’d love to do that, actually, but I don’t have the time right now to do the kind of work that I would want to do to be ready to do it.

BD:    Leave that to the baroque specialists?

RS:    Right.

spanoBD:    But I assume you would jump at the chance to do either a new work or a premiere?

RS:    Absolutely!  I love that role of birthing pieces.

BD:    Are you the mother or are you the midwife?

RS:    I think the midwife.

BD:    Is the composer then the mother?

RS:    I guess so.

BD:    Where does that leave the performers?

RS:    I’m at one with them, I think.  We’re all in that together.

BD:    Is it right of the public to expect new pieces to be masterpieces?

RS:    No, but on the other hand I don’t think it’s right for us to expect any public, including a public made up of professional musicians, to recognize a masterpiece when it comes along.  I think one of the reasons we have this canon of musical literature that we take to be masterpieces is that we’ve had the time to live with them and to hear them over and over and over again to find out how rich and wonderful they are.  It’s always worth remembering how disastrously received so many of those pieces that we now believe to be masterpieces were at their premieres.

BD:    Sure, but are we giving the new works enough times to be heard and absorbed, or are we just trashing them right away?

RS:    I think we are, but maybe we’re a little slower than we used to be a century ago!  For instance, most of the great music of the first half of the twentieth century is now very much part of our musical diet.  I don’t sense that there’s any offense taken when The Rite of Spring is programmed now, or the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra, or La Mer of Debussy.  These are pieces that certainly caused an uproar initially, but now they’re in the stable.

BD:    Do you mean to include in that list Berg and Schoenberg, the atonalists?

RS:    No, I don’t.  They are exceptional in that they have never been taken into the fold, so to speak, and probably never will.  That’s my personal suspicion.

BD:    They will be esoterica?

RS:    Yes, to some extent.  Certainly Webern.  Webern is such an acquired taste.

BD:    Of course, but he has the advantage of being extremely brief.

RS:    True!  So he continues to get programmed, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that people latch onto it.  It’s short enough that they don’t get terribly upset.  [Both laugh]  But I haven’t noticed a growing population of Webern admirers.  Although I’m one and I program Webern knowing that I can get away with it!

BD:    Does it please you to know that the compositional styles now, at the end of this century, are turning back toward more tonality and consonance and romanticism?

RS:    Yes, in fact in terms of my personal taste, I do feel good about that.  I am happy about that.  I also think “new music” got a bad rap essentially in this country when the twelve-tone school of composition was politically the most powerful one, and that was what was taken seriously as music.  We’re no longer stuck with that.  In fact, while that was going on there was actually lots of tonal, melodic, perhaps more traditional, certainly romantic music being written by composers who weren’t taken so seriously by the establishment of composers.  Take Samuel Barber for example.

BD:    I was going to say, Menotti and Britten just had to wait it out.  [See my Interviews with Gian Carlo Menotti.]

RS:    Exactly!  Finally we’re out of that trap, and I’m very happy about it.  The other thing is, there’s plenty of new music around right now that’s downright popular.

BD:    So essentially we’ve lost fifty years’ worth of creativity on the part of the major composers?

RS:    I don’t think we have.  I think we’re rediscovering what was going on during that time, other than Milton Babbitt.

BD:    It almost seems like we’re picking up after an interruption from Piston and Harris and people like that.

RS:    I can’t feel that it was interrupted because this music was always being written.  There were composers always doing this, whether they were getting their due or not.

BD:    Well, they were sort of shoved into the underground, then.

RS:    Right, right!

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of musical composition?

RS:    Oh, absolutely!  There’s so much music being written!

BD:    Too much?

RS:    How can there be too much?  It’s really terrific, and such a wide range of things going on!  I don’t think it’s possible to say that there is a predominant style.  We can look at certain trends and currents and even schools if you like, but there’s no common language.  I find that very exciting.  In a sense, it’s a Tower of Babel situation.  But the other exciting part about that is what happens as Steve Reich encounters African drumming, and incorporates it into Bach-like canons!  That’s fascinating to me.

BD:    Does your predilection for the more tonal and the more romantic new music influence your selection of pieces that you will program and learn?

RS:    Maybe I misrepresented myself earlier, because I like a wide range of things that are going on.  For instance, in Brooklyn this year, our first program has a work by Elliott Carter, who is widely regarded as one of the thorniest composers around! [See my Interview with Elliott Carter.]  It takes tremendous intellectual rigor, but the music is magnificent!  This is the recent piece that he wrote for Cleveland Orchestra, the Allegro Scorrevole, which hasn’t been done in New York yet.  So we’re making up for that.  We’re also doing the Berio Sinfonia which is a 1968 piece, so it’s its thirtieth anniversary.  [See my Interview with Luciano Berio.]   It’s that wild wonderful romp that he wrote for the Swingle Singers and Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

BD:    But that’s really proved itself.  It’s survived.

RS:    Oh, it really has!  Such a veritable lexicon of symphonic literature!  And then we’re doing John Adams’ Harmonielehre, so in a way I feel like those three pieces are very different from each other.

BD:    They’re like three different branches of the tree.

RS:    Right.  I like that they’re so close together in time, and yet they all have a unique way, a unique musical language.

BD:    Do you have any advice for someone who wants to compose music at the end of this millennium?

RS:    I’ve always believed Debussy’s attitude was right, which was to please your own ears.  The best thing any composer can do is write music that they themselves would want to hear, and not try to fulfill whatever agenda they think they have to in order to be successful in whatever way one might define that.  I think it’s possible to hear the honesty
— or lack of honesty of the composer’s voice.  And also do not be afraid to sound like somebody else.  It’s this attitude of originality.  There’s a great line by Camus that I love, “An original artist cannot help but be original, therefore he need only copy.”  In fact, that’s what most great composers of the past, that we’ve so revered, did!  Bach learned to write music by imitating his elders.

BD:    But then he moved music forward.

RS:    I don’t think in a consciously personal way.  I think the romantic attitude, the nineteenth century attitude, of artist as hero, artist as prophet — I don’t think that was part of the picture.

BD:    If none of the composers are moving music forward, why does music move forward?

RS:    I’m not saying they’re not moving it forward.  I’m saying that that happens naturally.  If one’s interest is in writing good music and one learns from models, you end up sounding like yourself whether you try to or not; and you end up moving forward.  Bach is a great example of that because all he did his entire life was look back!  He’s one who encapsulates hundreds of years of music history to the point where he was out of step with his own time, in his own lifetime, and was regarded as passé.

BD    And was immediately forgotten until Mendelssohn brought him back.

RS:    Thanks, Felix!  And it’s great that he pursued that path of his, out of what must have been tremendous conviction that this was beautiful music!

BD:    So you feel there’s really a certain inevitability of music?

RS:    Yes, I guess I do.  When you said that, all I can think of is the Composer in Ariadne, running around saying, “Musik ist eine heilige Kunst,” because in some ways I actually am still operating with that naïve notion.

BD:    Music is a sacred art?

RS:    Absolutely!

BD:    Is music sacred to you?

RS:    In a way, yes.

BD:    Is there a spirituality to everything that you conduct?

RS:    I guess so!  In my understanding of spirituality, spirituality is inclusive, even if you’re doing something that might appear frivolous or maybe too much fun!  I consider that spiritual, too.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Earlier I asked you about advice to composers.  What advice do you have to conductors, and would that change for someone who wants to focus on the symphony, as opposed to the opera?

RS:    I think anyone who aspires to be a conductor has to do both, to some extent.  Inevitably, conductors end up doing more of one or the other.  But those two activities for conductors inform each other so much, I think everybody has to do some of both.  So I would encourage anyone who’s interested to do both — and in this country, aspiring conductors tend to neglect opera.

BD:    Why?

RS:    We’re not set up for it.

BD:    And yet there’s more opera going on today than there has been in years.

RS:    Oh, sure!  But the conducting-training that we tend to have is primarily symphonic.  In the music business, we tended to divide, to pigeonhole people.  This one’s an opera conductor; that one’s a symphonic conductor.  I think it’s an unfortunate state of affairs.

BD:    So you’re defying that for yourself?

RS:    I’ve been lucky!  I don’t feel so defiant, as lucky.  I’ve been able to work in both arenas, and now there’s a very good balance for me.  Max Rudolf, who was one of my teachers, always said the primary personal trait, the primary characteristic someone had to have to be a conductor was to be interested.  [See my Interview with Max Rudolf.]  There are a few things I think an aspiring conductor should especially be interested in
being able to read a score well, so that means studying score readings, studying solfege, studying score playing at the piano — very old-fashioned, old school, kind of grueling, training for the ears and the mind, and the inner ear.

spanoBD:    That’s just fundamentals.

RS:    Right!  And it’s amazing how often those are neglected.

BD:    Really???

RS:    Oh, it’s incredible!  I sometimes fear that I’m on a one-man crusade, even though I know I’m not.  I have plenty of colleagues who feel as I do.  I am teaching at Tanglewood and auditioning people, and because of that I meet a lot of young conductors who are either already quite experienced or just wanted to get experience.  And I’m horrified how often so many of them have neglected that very basic level of musical training!  It’s not in our conservatories the way it used to be.

BD:    How do they get away with it, then?

RS:    No one gets away with it, ultimately.

BD:    How do they progress as far as they do?

RS:    Well, the horrible thing about conducting is how many charlatans there are, have been and inevitably will be.  It’s unfortunate because there is craft and there is skill involved, but that is not always so immediately evident.  Musicians know right away if a conductor knows what he or she is doing, or not.  They often have mixed opinions about whether they like a conductor or whether they want to see the guy again or not!  They can spot a charlatan pretty fast.

BD:    Then they’ll just write him off?

RS:    Sure.  But that doesn’t mean the management will!

BD:    Who should be hiring the maestri?

RS:    That’s a good question.  I don’t know that there’s a good answer to that.

BD:    So it can’t be a democratic process?

RS:    No, I don’t think so.  I suppose it could be.  We could try that!

BD:    Aren’t there a couple of orchestras in Europe that vote on who will conduct them?

RS:    There’s a couple in America now as well
Denver and New Orleans; and the La Scala Orchestra, as a symphonic orchestra when they’re not playing in the pit.  They have a series of about ten concerts a year, very much like the Vienna Philharmonic.

BD:    So then it has to be respect?

RS:    Yes, mm-hm.

BD:    Do you have the respect of the men and women that you conduct?

RS:    I hope so!  I don’t always know.  I try not to worry about it because it can be distracting if you’re trying to get a sense of how someone else is evaluating your work.  It’s very hard to do your work, so I try to not focus on such questions, and keep all my attention and my energy on the tasks that are before me.

BD:    Just do the work?

RS:    Just do the work and hope for the best!

BD:    Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at your present age?

RS:    Oh, wow!  I’ve never thought about my life in quite that way.  I know everyone does these days, but I’ve never been able to do it very effectively!  I’ve conducted in places I would never have dreamed of conducting in.  I was looking through one of those pop psychology books at a bookstore the other day, and one of the questions that caught my eye was to picture yourself ten years ago, where you were, what you were doing, what your perception of your life and your work, and how you would have viewed what you’re doing now from that vantage point.  Would you have thought is this a good thing or a bad thing?  I realized that I would never have thought in my life that I would be doing what I’m doing now!  Ten years ago I was teaching at Bowling Green University in Ohio.  I had never conducted a professional orchestra.

BD:    Did you want to?

RS:    Yes, of course!  I’d always wanted to.  I had also resigned myself that maybe I never would.  I was loving what I was doing!  I was doing opera productions and conducting the orchestra, and I loved working with students; I still do.  I may very well go back to full-time teaching sometime in my life, because I do miss it.  Now I’ve conducted more orchestras than I can count or remember, and I’ve conducted all over the world!  I didn’t know that that would happen.

BD:    Do you consider yourself lucky to have done all this?

RS:    Darn lucky!

BD:    That comes through in your music and your performances.

RS:    I think it must, in some way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    A little while ago you mentioned
good music.  What is it that makes a piece of music good — or even great?

RS:    Ultimately, that’s the great question of aesthetics that’s been going on forever.  My personal answer is not bothering to worry about whether things are good objectively, but just whether they’re good in my life and for me.  So things are good if I like them! [Both laugh]

BD:    It sounds simplistic, but that could be very profound.

Spano CDRS:    I don’t pretend to say that those things are good for everybody, but those are the things that I regard as good.  And of course that’s according to my particular criterion, my aesthetic inclinations, the things I value.  I value craft; I value precision; I value detail and subtlety; I value beauty in a more abstract sense; sensuousness of sound.

BD:    Is that inspiration?

RS:    Yes, I do think it is related to inspiration.  I value that ability to express everything, but in artistic terms, as Mozart said in a letter.  Everything can be said in music, but it must be said musically.  You can’t go beyond the bounds of good taste in music — which doesn’t mean you can’t express everything in those terms.  It’s the relationship of art to artifice, in the sense that one should be able to represent all of reality in art, but with artifice.  That’s very much Debussy’s attitude, too.

BD:    Is this where we lost the atonalists, that they were trying to represent art through mathematics?

RS:    I’m not sure, because there’s some great music of Bach that is equally mathematical.  It also is extremely beautiful!  Those puzzle canons in the Musical Offering are just unbelievable!  The intricacy and his ability to hold that stuff in his mind is just overwhelming to me!  But it’s always beautiful.  At the same time that he was fulfilling an abstraction; he made sure that it always sounded good.  It’s not the first time.  This happened in the Ars Nova, too, in the Middle Ages.  And it was a similar period of lack of interest in what anybody was writing!  And there was a similar lack of interest subsequently, although I’ve heard some of that music, and I’ve loved it!

BD:    Now, don’t get me wrong.  I give the atonalists their time.  I’ve interviewed a lot of composers and much of their music makes a positive impact on me.  But like them or not, I will give them their shot.  They are the ones who have to demonstrate what they’re doing, and I don’t make any value judgment in what I put on the air.  But you have to be more convinced of it because you’re conducting it.

RS:    It’s hard to talk about atonal music because there’s as broad a range of music that we could call atonal as there is of anything else.  We talk about Classical music, and if we use that word strictly, meaning eighteenth century music, then there’s plenty of bad music!

BD:    I would think that’s just uninspired music, perhaps.

RS:    Right, right.  So is much of the mathematical music that we could point to and say we don’t like, new music or what we might call atonal music.

BD:    Are we getting about the same number of great works and masterpieces out of the atonal style as we have out of the impressionistic style or the romantic style and the classical style?

RS:    Yeah, I think so.  I do think so.

BD:    So we’re just too close to it to appreciate it this soon?

RS:    I think so.  Also it’s a question of which particulars we’re talking about.  Wozzeck and Lulu are getting ever-greater success in the world in terms of appreciation and acceptance, whereas Boulez’s Structures for Two Pianos is being heard less and less, and I don’t feel like I’m insulting the maestro because he himself has said that piece was an exercise and an experiment.  Much of his other music is very different; I love a lot of the piano music.  I don’t think the method or the school or whatever we would call it is in itself bad.

BD:    Thank you for coming back to Chicago and thank you for the conversation.  I wish you lots of continued success.

RS:    You do a wonderful interview.

Robert Spano is among the most innovative and imaginative conductors of his generation. Now in his eighth season as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, he has enriched its repertoire and elevated it to greater prominence.  He has conducted the major orchestras of North America, including those in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco.  Among the orchestras he has led internationally are the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala, Czech Philharmonic, Berlin Radio Sinfonie Orchestra, BBC Scottish and BBC Symphony Orchestras, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, New Japan Philharmonic and Oslo Philharmonic.   Mr. Spano has appeared with the opera companies of Chicago, Houston, and Santa Fe, and at the Royal Opera at Covent Garden and Welsh National Opera. 

In August 2009, Mr. Spano returns to the Seattle Opera to conduct three cycles of Wagner's monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen.  In December, he conducts Golijov's Ainadamar with Dawn Upshaw and the Orchestra of St. Luke's in Carnegie Hall and appears with Carnegie's Zankel Band as part of its Bernstein Festival in a program of Bernstein gems.  Other North American engagements will be with the New World Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  He is a guest soloist in Green Bay Symphony, playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466. 

This season's Atlanta programs reflect Mr. Spano's broad and diverse repertoire as well as his commitment to living composers, including commissions from Jennifer Higdon and Christopher Theofanidis, composers closely associated with Mr. Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.  Highlights in Atlanta are opening concerts celebrating Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, an "American Originals" festival, concert performances of John Adams's Dr. Atomic and Joseph Haydn's "The Creation", with set designer Anne Patterson. 

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's long and distinguished recording legacy with Telarc continues to flourish with Mr. Spano.  Their discography includes music of David Del Tredici, Christopher Theofanidis, Jennifer Higdon and Michael Gandolfi, Sibelius' Kullervo, Brahms's Requiem, a recently released live recording of La Bohème and the Grammy award-winning recordings of Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony and Berlioz's Requiem.  Mr. Spano and the ASO have also recently recorded two discs of the music of Osvaldo Golijov for Deutsche Grammophon:  one including Three Songs and Oceana, and the other, the chamber opera Ainadamar, which was awarded two Grammys.

Musical America's 2008 "Conductor of the Year," Mr. Spano was Music Director of the Ojai Festival in 2006, Director of the Festival of Contemporary Music at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Tanglewood Music Center in 2003 and 2004, where he was Head of the Conducting Fellowship Program from 1998-2002, and was Music Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic from 1996-2004.  He is on the faculty of Oberlin Conservatory, and has received honorary doctorates from Bowling Green State University and the Curtis Institute of Music.  Robert Spano makes his home in Atlanta. 

© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on October 26, 1998.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB the following week.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.