Maestro: With the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano redefines 21st century classical music

The conductor is a champion of contemporary composers
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Robert Spano Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

This article originally appeared in our September 2008 issue.

Arpeggios of warm, dark notes from a clarinet chase the distant thunder of a double bass, and lively violin bows flirt across their strings while the oboes sigh. Robert Spano speedwalks to the podium, a coiled spring of a man. He listens with his whole body, leaning forward with the taut focus of a thin cat watching a fat bird.

Players settle into their seats on the Atlanta Symphony Hall stage, ready to rehearse Rachmaninov, wearing everything from ripped-knee jeans and cowboy boots to blue dress pants and brown shoes. They could be hanging out at a MARTA stop, or waiting for the Thrashers to score. There’s coughing, a scraping of chairs across the floor, the flutter of scores slapped open. Positioned between the French horns and the harp, a visitor hears fragments of scales in a babel of musical voices, sophisticated variations on toot, whistle, plunk, and boom. Light glints off the gold and silver flash of the horns, the strings’ antique forest of rich wood grain, the sophisticated black and silver of the woodwinds.

Peering through his round Harry Potter glasses, Spano raises his baton, fourteen inches of whip-thin, supple walnut. With his gaze he summons the attention, skill, and collective breath of ninety-five fractious and gifted musicians and funnels it into a pinprick of concentrated power. There’s an interval of silence, then Spano gestures violently with both arms, and the opening chord bursts into the air.

Spano dances. His hands trace tight parentheses as he bounces on the balls of his feet. During a legato passage, he sways like a seaweed in a tide pool, and the sound smooths and lengthens. When he lifts a finger to his lips, shhhh, the violins soften. Spano switches from a scowl that summons a crescendo, to a beatific smile as a passage of particular clarity lifts from the cellos. He flings an arm straight at the brass with a snap that vibrates down to the tip of his finger. The baton is a blur.

The way Spano does it, conducting music looks like a full-on sport.

When the first movement ends, he shifts and rolls his shoulders like a boxer between rounds, and flashes a smile. “Let’s go on,” Spano says to the players, adding, “Tiring, isn’t it?” with a wheezy laugh, thinned by his Benson & Hedges habit.

After an hour and a half, the musicians take their break; it’s a union shop and there are strict rules. A violinist marks her score. A horn player rolls and stretches his lips against his teeth. Spano sprints outside for a smoke. It’s a mild winter day with cloudless blue skies, and he doesn’t need the shelter of the Woodruff Arts Center’s monumental Midtown facade. He isn’t tired; he’s wired. Like a battery plugged in to recharge, he’s sucking up the juice. “Rachmaninov sounds so modern,” Spano says happily.

He should know. A composer before he became a conductor, and a former director of Tanglewood’s Festival of Contemporary Music (2003-2004), Spano’s at the center of a whirlwind in classical music that’s blowing the dusty doors off the symphonic world. Classical music no longer means musty masterworks by dead white guys or dissonant twentieth-century pieces by acerbic technicians. Contemporary composers are creating works of spellbinding ingenuity that are completely modern, and Spano is commissioning, performing, and recording the picks of the litter.

Although he tries to be a composer’s advocate, not an interpreter, Spano says that there is no literal musical truth. It doesn’t exist. “Sight is not sound,” Spano explains, his hands in constant motion, a private semaphore. “Scores are more like maps. They’re not the terrain. Once you are in the actual sonic territory, you have a lot of decision to make.” Spano’s got to have a clear idea of how the music should sounds and be able to communicate exactly what he’s listening for with series of gestures. He needs an intimate knowledge of classical and modern repertoire and familiarity with an intimidating range of musical styles. Did we mention tricky nuances of phrasing and tempo?

Spano’s definition of his job is simpler. “Get up there and figure out what that particular orchestra needs on that particular day at that particular moment, and make something great happen.” So he studies, he crams, he researches. He listens to the competition, he sprinkles the score with notations and comments in the margins. But a time comes when the preparation and study and practice have to stop. How does Spano know when he’s done enough?

“Because it’s time to go to rehearsal,” Spano says with a laugh, his expression ricocheting from quizzically benign to sardonically amused.

Inside Bean Addiction, a coffee shop on the ground floor of Chicago’s Presidential Towers, Spano queues up behind hockey-jersey-clad customers and orders the fist of the day’s three twenty-ounce Styrofoam tumblers of coffee. Outside, the sleeting, biting weather is in the low teens, but inside the plush complex, it’s an eternally temperate zone. Spano, in a short-sleeve black T-shrit and black jogging pants with white stripes down the side, settles in at a table. He has the hair of a tonsured monk, the pallor of the cloister, and his fingers tremble, either from barely repressed emotion or whopping amounts of caffeine.

The week before, he’d stood teary-eyed in the spotlight at Lincoln Center and accepted the 2008 Conductor of the Year award from Musical America for “artistic excellence and achievement for the arts,” but not with tears of joy. Spano had badly scratched his cornea while in rehearsals at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“I was on painkillers for a couple of weeks. I was asleep all the time, except to get up to do the opera,” Spano says. “I thought, how am I going to do this, and for the first time in my life I started drinking Red Bull. Isn’t that what the kids do? They do drugs and drink Red Bull to go dancing. And I thought, well, I’m drugged and I gotta go dance.”

His journey to Conductor of the Year started in Elkhart, Indiana, self-proclaimed “band instrument capital of the world.” Raised by a musical family in a musical town, Spano was the middle child of three musical sons. His father made flutes for Gemeinhardt and played clarinet; his mother played piano. His older brother played piano and oboe, and his younger brother apprenticed to his father, becoming a second-generation flute maker.

“It’s like I was born into a medieval guild,” says Spano. He started piano lessons at six and added his dad’s flute two years later. “I was a marketing tool,” says Spano, laughing. “I was a nerd. I played music all the time. I loved it.” His first piano teacher, Ray Barbour, told him something that became the leitmotif of Spano’s life. “He said, ‘A talent is not a gift; it’s a responsibility,'” Spano recalls.

Undaunted by the implication of hard work and responsibility, and inspired by musical heroes like Franz Liszt who practiced ten and twelve hours at a stretch, eight-year-old Spano put in six hours practicing the flute one day. He bragged to his dad, who said, “What are you, an idiot? If you can’t get it done in a couple of hours, it’s never gonna work.” To this day, Spano relies on his down-to-earth father for advice on decisions that are difficult to live with and hard to execute. “HE asks me, ‘Well, are you right?’ and I realize that settles it. Just do the right thing.”

In fifth grade, Spano added violin to his repertoire and composer to his resume. He wrote his first work, a fantaisie for solo violin inspired by the Paganini caprices, infamous pieces of extraordinary difficulty intended to show off the technical prowess of the composer. Along with the obsessive practicing, the future maestro grooved to King Crimson and Chopin, the Talking Heads and Tchaikovsky. He was converted to contemporary composers by the American iconoclast George Crumb, who was writing music that used a toy piano, a musical saw, and an electronically amplified string quartet.

At age fifteen, Spano entered a competition honoring America’s bicentennial, and his piano composition, “Suite of Songs form the American Revolution,” won. The Michiana Summer Symphonette asked young Spano to orchestrate and conduct his winning piece. “I thought, well, why not?” Spano recalls. He took a few down-and-dirty baton-waving lessons, and off he went for his first podium.

“It was an extraordinary experience” Spano says. “A miracle.” Not just the emotional thrill of hearing music he’d conceived in his mind. And not only the electrifying sensation of summoning the talent of eighty musicians with a gesture. At a stroke, it solved the question he’d been wrestling with: what to do when he grew up.

Relieved of the pressure to pick one instrument in order to excel, Spano kept playing the flute, violin, and piano, and added the French horn, viola, and organ, figuring the more instruments he was intimate with, the better his skills as a conductor would be.

While Spano talks, he’s been tapping his fingers soundlessly on the chair arm. When asked what he’s playing, he looks puzzled before he looks down, surprised, at his hands. He’s in automatic multitask mode, practicing for his Brahms piano trio performance scheduled in a few weeks.

The coffee shop’s overhead speaker bleats a syrupy choral version of Rod Stewart’s “If you want my body aaaand you think I’m sexy . . . ”

“That’s gotta be turned down,” Spano says, and springs to his feet. He stalks over to the clerk at the cash register, orders his second carafe of coffee, and as he returns, the volume lowers by a hair.

“We have a serious noise pollution problem,” Spano says unhappily. “I don’t care if it’s the greatest sound ever made, when it’s being blasted at you, it’s inappropriate. It’s criminal what we are doing. We are training ourselves not to listen.” Asked for his solution, Spano is uncharacteristically curt. “It’s really simple. Turn. This. Shit. Off.”

After studying conducting at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Spano taught at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “When I was teaching, I was applying for assistant conductor positions and nothing worked out—all I got was a tremendous pile of rejection letters.” The disappointment of knocking on doors that didn’t open forced Spano to reexamine his life and redefine success. “Failure on that level makes you realize what’s important,” he says. “While I was licking my wounded ego, I was forced to realize that I was still conducting great music with talented young people all the time.”

Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa opened the door for Spano in 1990. Ozawa, who paired white turtlenecks with the traditional tux, was one of the first jet-set conductors, taking his skills worldwide. Spano learned how to be a conductor, a music director, and a performer with the charismatic Ozawa as his mentor. “The most important thing I learned from Seiji is the sheer amount of energy that’s required to do something really powerful,” says Spano. “I hope I stole a lot from him. I certainly meant to.”

Spano’s three-year stint with the BSO launched the next phase of his career: three years as an itinerant guest conductor. It’s conductor career building 101. You form relationships with soloists and make connections with composers. You’re seen and heard in new markets. Guest conducting is like speed dating for a conductor and an orchestra—both hoping for that chemistry and looking to ignite a spark that leads to a mutually satisfying liaison.

Some blind dates are disastrous.

According to Spano, the ahrdest thing for ayoung, aspiring conductor is to be met with hostility and uncooperative behaivor. Spano declines to name the parties involved, but there are orchestras on his naughty list that he won’t ever work with again. On his nice list: the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New World Symphony in Miami, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. In 1996, Spano was tapped to be the music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Along with the experienced hammered out of his three years of touring, Spano brought his commitment to contemporary composers to the table. It was a good match. During his eight-year tenure, the feisty Brooklyn Philharmonic stole the spotlight from the senior New York Philharmonic and was lauded by critics form the New York Times and the New Yorker to the Financial Times. Spano’s innovative programming and laser-like intensity delivered more than forty New York premieres, including world premieres by Philip Glass and Christopher Theofanidis. Spano’s adventurous choices caught the ear of trendspotters, and he made the media rounds: CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman and CBS Sunday Morning, as well as A&E’s Breakfast with the Arts and PBS’s City Arts.

Spano was sitting in the catbird seat when the ASO came calling.

Acclaimed choral conductor Robert Shaw’s baby for twenty-one years, the ASO had undergone a turbulent period under the baton of his successor, Israeli maestro Yoel Levi. Levi excelled in imparting precision during his twelve-year tenure, but lacked crucial people skills. Ignominiously ousted with a “thanks, but no thanks,” response after he tried to retract his resignation, Levi bequeathed a disciplined but emotionally bruised ensemble to his successor.

The board, staff, and musicians of the ASO, still reeling from the rancorous on-again, off-again split, had ground rules ready for their next conductor. They opted for a collaborative leadership, a radical approach for a traditionally autocratic culture. Spano was hired along with principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles in 2000. The duo agreed to share responsibilities in an unprecedented creative triune partnership that included ASO President Allison Vulgamore as the “facilitator.”

“It’s closer to the democratic ideal, much messier and more gratifying,” says Spano about welcoming input from everyone involved, from the players to the ASO triumvirate. He believes the ASO has become a national model for another way to run an orchestra. “A true leader is able to galvanize a collective will, not just impose his own will.” Spano is enchanted by the alternate English meaning for conductor as a channel for heat, electricity, sound. It’s lost in translation. The French chef d’orchestre and the Italian direttore d’orchestra both refer to the traditional boss-man meaning. Though tyrannical was the industry standard, Spano sees himself as a conduit for consensus. “Look, as a conductor, I’m not making any sound. My role is to coalesce the talent of people int he room to make beautiful sounds together. If that’s not happening, I don’t get the musical satisfaction.”

“He doesn’t have a dictatorship management style,” agrees cellist Joel Dallow, now in his ninth season with the ASO. “He knows who everybody is, he knows their first names.” Dallow says Spano spent his first season having lunch with every person in the orchestra, six or seven at a time, asking for their thoughts, feelings, and concerns.

According to Norman Lebrecht, author of The Maestro Myth, until late in the twentieth century, orchestras were white male enclaves of prejudice and chauvinism, commanded by arrogant tyrants. Women, minorities, and gays were firmly shut out by pervasive discrimination. While a few hardy pioneer souls like Sarah Caldwell, Dean Dixon, and Jeffrey Tate breached the barricades, orchestras have lagged behind in representing the diversity of society, and conductors bring up the rear.

But it’s not over until the fat lady . . . well, you know.

The gender balance has changed dramatically in recent years, and women now make up nearly half of the players in the ASO. Females broke into arts administrator positions in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, and women like the ASO’s Cecylia Arzewski become concertmasters. Yet there has been only one woman music director in the history of the twenty-four elite U.S. orchestras (those with budgets over $10 million): Marin Alsop, who took the top spot in Baltimore in 2007.

The opening of the door has been horribly slow, Spano agrees, and although two of his assistant conductors have been women, he denies any suggestion that he has favored female applicants. The process of selecting an assistant conductor is exacting. Several hundred applicants are sorted through a complicated system that involves the American Symphony Orchestra League, then winnowed further until six remain. Each prospect conducts the symphony in an audition, doing the same piece of music. His current assistant conductor, Mei-Ann Chen, was the last person to audition. “When she stepped on the podium, we were done,” Spano declares with a snap of his fingers. “We knew. And that has nothing to do with whether she’s a woman. It’s how it sounds. I hire women because they are good. In terms of musical evaluation, I am gender blind and race blind, and I expect that from the world.

At the start of the twentieth century, composers like Arnold Schoenberg abandoned listeners in the wilderness of dissonance. Milton Babbit shrugged off alienated audiences in his notorious 1958 High Fidelity article, “Who Cares if You Listen?” Contemporary music was branded with the stigma of their fearsome reputations. Patrons ran shrieking from concert halls with their hands over their ears.

“It was a radical break,” says Paul Schleuse, assistant professor of musicology at Binghamton University in New York. “The whole story of twentieth-century music, the reason orchestras today play mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music [like Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven], is because the poster boys for modernism were more interested in working out their own musical ideas than communicating with an audience.”

But avant-garde attitudes inevitably shifted again. By the end of the twentieth century, composers were making use of tonal, tuneful musical forms and turning back toward the audience. Some of these modern composers, like David Del Tredici, Michael Gandolfi, Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, and Christopher Theofanidis, though distinctive in style, have in common a tendancy to blur the distinction between the popular and classical culture; are influential by multi-culti forms of music; and count Björk, bluegrass, and Brahms among their influences. Spano is a kindred spirit, and he’s commissioned new works, conducted premieres, and recorded lucrative, Grammy-winning performances with them. The ASO higher-ups have christened them the Atlanta School.

Jennifer Higdon, whose orchestral piece “Blue Cathedral” is one of the most frequently performed new works in the United States, points out that because Spano is also a composer, he understands how a piece is created and how to take it apart in an constructive way. “Sometimes I feel like he reads my mind,” Higdon says. “He’ll have the composer sit on the stage and during rehearsal will lean over and ask, ‘Is that what you wanted?’ It’s always a collaborative spirit.”

Christopher Theofanidis, whose exotic and lyrical Rainbow Body and The Here and Now were both recorded by the ASO, cites the power of Spano’s influence. “Robert mentioned Rainbow Body at Tanglewood, and I got a dozen calls from conductors wanting to program my work, sight unseen, on the strength of his recommendation. That’s what Robert’s word is worth,” says Theofanidis, 2003 winner of Masterprize, a prestigious international competition for composers. At Spano’s suggestion, Theofanidis is writing his first symphony.

Osvaldo Golijov, the Argentinean-born, Israeli- and U.S.-educated composer who’s a smoking-hot contemporary composer celeb worldwide, has been friends with Spano since their days at Tanglewood, when they caroused “over a lot of beers” and contemplated the possibilities of music together. Spano, who conducted the Ainadamar premiere at Tanglewood and conducted the American premiere of La Pasión según San Marcos with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, also recorded Goljov’s irresistible synthesis of chamber music, wailing klezmers, tango, and Gregorian chants with the ASO. Audiences adore the polyglot piece, and critics claim it is changing the way classical music is performed and heard. The Spano-Golijov connection is the kind of prestigious coup that’s proof of Spano’s power as an artistic rainmaker.

“I think he’s doing something we haven’t seen since [Leonard] Bernstein. They both believed in brains and a big heart, and both are able to deliver,” says Golijov in his charming but unsteady English. “Because of the strength of his personality, he can do even music that is not in his aesthetic. Contemporary music is infinitely varied, but you can ask composers anywhere, in Finland, China, or Argentina, and they would all be glad to work with Robert.”

The composers that Spano cultivates have successfully countered the dismal reputation of twentieth-century contemporary music among skeptical and conservative Atlanta audiences. Proof? The ASO has seen an increase in attendance during Spano’s tenure and won ASCAP’s 2006 Orchestra Award for “Adventurous Programming.” The 2007 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s $1 million dollar grant to the ASO should help keep the momentum going.

“The constant buzz around Spano attracts top soloists and composers, recording contracts, and excitement on a national level,” says ASO cellist Dallow. “I like being nominated for Grammys.” So far the ASO under Spano’s baton has brought home six Grammys for the mantle.

The ASO’s 12,000-seat Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park in Alpharetta opened this summer, and booking acts like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as well as ASO shows, seems on track to generate a new income stream while offering an outdoor venue to lure patrons in the burbs. The ASO operates the Alpharetta concert pavilion (that’s owned by the Woodruff Arts Center) unlike Chastain Park Amphitheatre, where it only appears as an act.

There have been a few sour notes along the way. They lost veteran concertmaster Cecylia Arzewski, who retired at the end of the 2007-08 season. It was reported in the fall of 2007 that ASO’s debt has risen to $1.3 million, with an additional $800,000 shortfall expected, partly because Chastain didn’t’ ring the cash register as often last summer.

But the biggest stumble has been the failure to attract funds to build the ambitious Santiago Calatrava-designed music facility that was revealed to great fanfare in 2002. The campaign, headed by heavy hitters such as Arthur Blank (who upped his initial $15 million donation to $35 million in 2005) called for $30 million to construct the postcard concert hall in Midtown on Fourteenth Street. When the campaign was $190 million shy of the total, fundraising stalled out in 2007, while the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, new home of the Atlanta Opera, was funded, built, and opened to acclaim.

“It’s because a lot of private funders want to see a diversity of supporters. Notably absent from the ASO fundraising contributors to date is the public support from the state and the city,” points out Lisa Cremin, director of the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund. “[Cobb County Commission Chairman] Sam Olens is a visionary elected official who chose to get the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre started with the issuance of a bond. Government leadership primed the pump, and private dollars followed.” Which begs the question: What is up with the city of Atlanta’s willingness to plunk down $32 million in a failed attempt to woo the proposed NASCAR Hall of Fame, but zip for the ASO?

There’s talk of repositioning a tweeked version of the Calatrava design over the MARTA station behind the arts center, which would drop the cost by an estimated $100 million while simultaneously shaking loose federal transportation funds, but nothing is firm.

In July 2007, there was press speculation in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Spano had been passed over for top positions in more prestigious orchestras elsewhere. Spano vehemently refutes any suggestion that Atlanta could be a pit stop on his route to bigger and better things. “That’s baloney. Atlanta is not a stepping-stone for me. Atlanta is where I stepped to. It’s an arrival point, not a departure point,” he insists. “I worked my whole life to get this job.” Spano points out that several other orchestras were hiring at the time, and he had quite the dance card. “I didn’t want the other orchestras,” he pounds out each word on the table, a drumroll of insistence. “I wanted Atlanta,” he says, and breaks into a grin. “The orchestra is HOT.”

Inside the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Art Deco hall, the stage curtain glows in shades of vermillion, apricot, and persimmon. The patrons in the lobby are packed shoulder to shoulder, silk charmeuse by crepe de Chine, tuxedo by dinner jacket. At Lyric’s Civic Opera House, the common denominator isn’t age; it’s wealth and a willingness to pay for the privilege of world-class opera. Tonight the hottest ticket in town is Sopano conducting John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic, a musical landscape of fatal hubris and hallucinatory visions, three grueling hours that explore the psychic fallout of constructing the atom bomb at Los Alamos.

It’s a harrowing evening, not least because the most pleasurable moment is listening to the sopranos of the chorus sing an ode to the plutonium core. The house is packed, but not everyone comes back after intermission. Spano hears patrons sobbing in the rows behind him as he lowers his baton in the pit. The bleak finale, including a Japanese voice repeating, “Water, please, the children,” is met with a moment of stunned silence before the clapping and bravos from the audience began. There’s an audible surge of applause when Spano takes his bow.

The next afternoon, Spano leads the way up steep escalators and through labyrinthine corridors to the corporate studio apartment he’s rented for his Chicago sojourn. For a man who just drove an orchestra and singers toward inexorable doom, he seems pretty chipper.

“I don’t stay in the emotion of the piece. I can go in an deal with the work, and I leave it there,” Spano says as he brews coffee. The anonymous room echoes the lobby’s tame beige and taupe décor, but the view, twenty-seven floors above the wintry Chicago landscape, gives it the feel of an aerie.

Along with performing Doctor Atomic, Spano is preparing for the next ASO concert. There’s a well-thumbed Rachmaninov score on a low black coffee table in front of the television, along with a small silver ruler for annotating the score, three single-space pages of errata notes from the ASO librarian, two gold packs of Benson & Hedges, and a scatter of pens.

Spano unexpectedly works by the flickering pixels of cable TV. “The TV is never off. It’s companionable. House, Monk, Psych,” Spano ticks them off. “Law & Order is genius.” Books lean neatly against the wall, stacked four and five deep, Spano’s portable library. “I read read read read read read,” Spano says. “I’m in a big Jungian phase.” There’s Cosmos and Psyche by Richard Tarnas; an Italian language instruction book; poetry by John Donne, Baudelair, and Mary Oliver; an Oppenheimer bio; a volume about the Kabbalah; and Jung’s Synchronicity, The Undiscovered Self, Man and His Symbols, and The Mysterium Coniunctionis.

His preshow ritual embraces routine, and the most important thing is a nap. “There’s something I tap into, something in the subconscious,” Spano says. If his phone rings after four o’clock on a performance day, it’s someone who either doesn’t know him or who doesn’t know he has a concert that night.

When he conducted the marathon of Richard Wagner’s epic opera Der Ring des Nibelungen in Seattle (four nights, fifteen hours total performance time), a career milestone endurance test, and, in Spano’s case, a triumph, he worked with a trainer. He did Pilates, ran, and ate six small meals a day. He even quit smoking, but lit up again when he bought a mountain house in Ellijay.

“I was so ecstatic. The paperwork was done, it was my house, there was that glorious view, and I really wanted to celebrate. I thought, ‘I can just have one cigarette. I won’t start smoking again,’” Spano says. “I smoked a pack sitting there.”

Back home in Atlanta, in contrast to the Presidential Towers rental, Spano’s Midtown bachelor pad looks like a local branch of the metaphysics and music library. The entryway is lined with ten jam-packed cherry wood bookshelves. There’s a twenty-volume set of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Tchaikovsky and Tarot, meditation and Mozart. There are shelves devoted to the I Ching and Bach. The hefty European intelligentsia tome The Man Without Qualities shares shelf space with kid-lit The Story of Ferdinand, a bull who preferred to smell flowers instead of fight in the ring.

The loft is modern in a 1990s exposed-ducts-and-stained-concrete kind of way. The corner unit overlooks Peachtree Street and is drenched with light from windows that run the length of two walls. Three door-sized mirrors lean against the wall. There’s a big, bright, cartoony painting of a blond man standing in a pool of aqua water. Everything else is bone, black, and gray, except for the purple chenille shawl on the back of his ebony Steinway Small Concert Grand.

Far from at a loss about what to admire about his adopted city, he’s spoiled for choice. “I love all the predictable things,” Spano says. He runs in Piedmont Park and admires the orchids at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. He also hangs out at Silk like it’s his mother’s kitchen (owner Anna Hsu chooses his dinner), applauds Georgia Shakespeare’s productions of Loot and Metamorphoses, and browses the shelves at the Phoenix and Dragon Bookstore.

Like everyone else, he says Atlanta’s downside is traffic, but he’s found a way to beat it. If I leave at midnight after the Saturday night performance, I can get to Ellijay in ninety minutes.”

His agent, Jason Bagdade of Opus 3 Artists, organizes Spano’s creative calendar, sifting through the offers of scouting opportunities so Spano can tackle big career-enriching projects like Wagner’s Ring cycle and Adams’s Doctor Atomic. The agency percentage cut varies, depending upon the project. “I’m handled like an athlete,” Spano says. “The big projects need careful managing.” With concert dates as well as composing, performing, and piecing together the next season of the ASO on his plate, how does he cope? “Do the next most pressing thing; otherwise, it won’t get done. It’s the code of any workaholic.”

Though Spano denies he has any intention to leave the ASO, he admits it will probably happen. “At some point they’re gonna need a different influence. It will happen inevitably. Music directors have shelf lives.” In his fourth year, looking for a challenge, he took on Wagner. “When I came back, I had five things I wanted us to do, and it was a great feeling. I realized I can regenerate.” Bagdade asked recently if Spano was unhappy in Atlanta and he replied, “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. Doing exactly what I’m supposed to do. Which is kind of surprising to me. It’s luck, wonderful luck.”

An erudite and earthly conversationalist, passionate about music, literature, and his enthusiasm for his adopted city, Spano is tight-lipped about money.

According to Woodruff Art Center’s tax records, Spano’s ASO salary is $630,110. There are guest conducting fees, recording residuals, endorsements, and his role as 2006 artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival. He’s headed to the conducting fellowship program at Tanglewood Music Center (1998-2002) and is on the faculty of the Oberlin Conservatory. It adds up. It’s less often reported that he has contributed $35,000 a year for the last five years to the ASO’s Annual Fund. He refuses to discuss his income or other charitable contributions and says only, “I find it uncivilized to talk about one’s money.”

Spano is equally reticent about his personal life, preferring privacy over candor. “I have great connections with family and friends. So I’m not lonely, which is amazing given that I’m a single person.” Asked if he wants a serious relationship, Spano says, ”I would have said ‘absolutely,’ but now I’ve lived as a single person for so long, I don’t know. I wouldn’t rule it out.” He feels like the mother of John Irving’s novel The World According to Garp, who can’t convince people that she doesn’t want to be married. “But I have really great friends, and for the moment that’s okay. Even in this world of pairs.”

A new skill he’s learned is the art of leisure. “I worked too much. I couldn’t keep up. I was going to go completely loony,” the forty-seven-year-old Spano admits. “After a certain point, workaholism is not fun anymore.” He has started building in some downtime, with the intervention of his agent. “It took years to turn the ship,” Spano says. “I’m busy now, but there’s time to prepare and study, and time to relax.” He took an entire week off in 2007. “It was great,” Spano says with the enthusiasm of the convert. “I will take more time in the future, I can tell. That’s why I love my house in Ellijay. I can do whatever feels right. Stare at the mountain for a couple of hours, or fall asleep in a chair, with a book in my lap.”

The bland vanilla concrete box of symphony hall fills slowly. Dimming lights set off a prickle of anticipation. Spano stands before his altar like a pre-Vatican II priest with his back to the congregation. He’s there for the miracle, offering himself as the channel for transubstantiation, transforming the wafer and wine of the score into the body and blood of living music. A shaman with a beat, Spano begins to dance again, swaying like a drunk trying to walk the line, jolting from the base of his spine, plucking precise swoops in the air like he’s suturing a wound. He pulls a hand toward his heart, urgent, intense, give me moremoremore.

The orchestra responds with glorious music that breaks through the muffled quality of the crummy acoustics that blight even the best performances and are like a smeary, greasy film on a window with an incredible view.

The final chord brings patrons to their feet. Spano bows deeply, once, twice, and you realize that when the last note is played, it’s done. Vanished. All his effort and preparation disappear into the atmosphere like the smoke curling up from his cigarette.

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