In March, around 150 members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus ascended risers on the Symphony Hall stage and turned to the audience for the first regular-season concert since the start of the pandemic. At the podium, they found not conductor Robert Spano, who had led the symphony and chorus for more than 20 years, but a new face, laying out a gentle downbeat to open Mozart’s Requiem.
Nathalie Stutzmann’s debut with the chorus should have happened in December 2019, during a trip scheduled amid an influx of candidates vying to replace the departing Spano as music director. The conductor instead first appeared with a masked and spaced-out symphony in an empty hall, recorded and rebroadcast to viewers at home. By the time the audience saw her live on that March 2022 evening, the ASO had named her music-director designate. A committee of musicians, board members, and staff selected her after a three-year search prolonged by the pandemic.
Stutzmann, 57, will lead eight series across 24 weeks this season, starting with her first official concert as the fifth music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in October, when she’ll conduct Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. With her ASO appointment, Stutzmann is just the second woman to ever run a major American orchestra. She takes the podium as arts organizations everywhere are emerging from Covid lockdowns hobbled from a long stretch of audience-less concerts. In her new role, Stutzmann will manage postlockdown programming while navigating a hectic schedule of international guest-conducting appearances—all from her home base in Switzerland, a shift from her predecessor, who lived within walking distance to Symphony Hall for nearly his entire tenure.
Stutzmann began her professional career as a contralto vocalist in 1983 but only started leading orchestras a decade ago, after years of concerts and more than 80 recordings. Her intention wasn’t to break conducting barriers; she simply felt limited as a musician, and the timing seemed right. “People were starting to talk about women conductors, which was totally new 10 years ago,” she said. “It was totally new to have women in orchestras playing 40 years ago.” What’s most exciting to members of the Grammy-winning ASO Chorus, though, is Stutzmann’s bona fides as a singer. “Every part of her speaks in a musical way, so she’s able to convey so much,” said 30-year chorus member Wanda Yang Temko. “We are revitalized.”
Stuzmann inherits an orchestra whose most pressing concern is Covid’s recent impact on revenue. Ticket sales for the ASO declined during the fiscal year starting May 2020 by nearly $7 million over the previous year. Ticket sales fell from 65 percent of the total operating revenue to 14 percent. (The ASO reduced its expenses during that period by more than $6 million, with slashed budgets and pay cuts across the board.)
The pandemic interrupted nearly a decade of relative calm for the orchestra, which followed a contentious period; in 2012 and 2014, ownership locked out musicians after contract negotiations failed, leading to protracted picketing and simmering ill will. This summer, symphony musicians agreed to a new deal that runs through the 2024-2025 season. (Singers are volunteer.) Still, the ASO will face turnover: This season will bring a new artistic director, Gaetan Le Divelec, who has been working with Stutzmann since May. Principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, another two-decade ASO veteran, will leave next year.
Spano is moving to Texas for his new job as music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. Stutzmann, meanwhile, will live in Atlanta for multiple weeks each time she leads the ASO but has no plans to move from her home in Geneva. Though it could be difficult to make her presence felt in Atlanta, Matías Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra—where Stutzmann is principal guest conductor—has seen her engage with audiences despite the distance. “What’s really important is that she’s deeply connected to the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony, and to the audiences and community,” he said. This first year may constitute a warming-up period, made somewhat more difficult by other obligations demanding Stutzmann’s attention: She will remain chief conductor of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway for one more season. When we spoke most recently, on the last day of May, Stutzmann had just taken a break from preparing for her Orchestre Métropolitain debut to wander through the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. She had flown to Canada from San Francisco, where she led that city’s orchestra in Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Earlier in the month, she’d led the Pittsburgh Symphony for the first time. This frenzied pace will continue: In 2023, she will lead the Metropolitan Opera in New York in back-to-back productions, in addition to other guest-conducting appearances.
Back in Atlanta, Stutzmann’s contract runs through the 2025-2026 season. After that? “She’s got a lot of other people chasing after her,” said ASO Executive Director Jennifer Barlament. “She’s in high demand, and I think will only become more so.”
This article appears in our September 2022 issue.