As real as it gets: music director Robert Spano leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (source: of ASO)

ASO announces virtual reinvention of 2020-21 fall season

Jon Ross | 13 AUG 2020

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will open its 2020-2021 season on the last weekend of September with music director Robert Spano leading and violin luminary Gil Shaham as soloist, just as it was announced in April — but that’s where the similarities to the ASO’s previous plans stop. Gone are the vastly orchestrated contemporary pieces, the raft of guest conductors and the awe-inspiring choral works. The audience will be missing too.

Pandemic realities have forced the ASO to pivot to what the organization calls “reimagined fall programming,” starting on September 26. Nearly everything about the performances has been changed and optimized for a smaller orchestra recording performances to stream over the Internet – even the valedictory celebration for Spano, who was set to leave the orchestra at the end of the season after two decades at its helm. Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles will lead the majority of this fall’s concerts. Both conductors will share duties leading the orchestra next season as well, which will feature many of the scuttled works that were set to be performed this year.


“For any orchestra, the first consideration is how many people can you have on stage. And then you go from there,” said ASO Executive Director Jennifer Barlament, who noted that the 2020-2021 season plan had gone through many iterations over the course of the summer. Until the first week of July, the ASO was planning on welcoming at least a small audience into the hall.

“Given where the state guidelines are right now, which is no more than 50 people in public gatherings at a time, we’ve made the decision for the fall for our classical series programming to reimagine everything with smaller ensembles on the stage,” she said. “We’ve made the decision to not invite audiences into the hall quite yet. If things get better, we will certainly revisit that.”

ASO executive director Jennifer Barlament.

ASO executive director Jennifer Barlament.

The reduced ASO ensemble will perform seven concerts this fall, recorded by robotic cameras for distribution through the ASO’s Virtual Stage.

“Part of the rationale for pre-recording is that we’re being incredibly diligent about safety and health precautions in the hall,” she said. “We’re even keeping different groups playing different pieces on the same program separate. There is a very detailed plan.”

Orchestras throughout the country have taken a broad approach to pivoting in the face of covid precautions. In May, the St. Louis Symphony announced a series of intimate, live experiences starting in August. That was changed this week to an all-virtual program. The New York Philharmonic canceled its fall concerts on June 10, and in San Francisco, plans for Essa-Pekka Salonen’s first season as music director were quickly shuttered. A month later, the Los Angeles Philharmonic followed suit. The Fort-Worth Symphony and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra recently announced plans for in-person concerts this fall. (Spano is scheduled to guest conduct the Fort Worth ensemble in January and March.)


Eliminating a carefully planned celebration for Spano, and a 50th anniversary fete for the ASO Chorus, is a necessity in Georgia. The ASO Chorus will not be able to perform Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” the yearly “Messiah” spectacular or any of the other planned concerts this fall because of the risk that choral ensemble singing could turn into a super spreader coronavirus event. Emerging research, as well as myriad news reports, support that decision. Performing arts coronavirus research is being conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Maryland, and a coalition of organizations led by the National Federation of State High School Associations. In a YouTube comment on the August 6 panel discussion of the NFHS research, ASO Chorus member Brian Petty expressed his reservations about singing in large groups.

“Personally, I will choose not to participate until we have better treatments and/or a more vigorous body of research on which to base a risk analysis,” he wrote. “May we all emerge from this in good health and safety, and in good shape to start singing again when it’s not so dangerous.”

The mighty ASO Chorus will not be performing this season. (

The mighty ASO Chorus will not be performing this season. (

Barlament and the ASO are committed to keeping all parties healthy and safe during the reimagined fall season. Health protocols for the musicians include masks, distancing and hygiene practices. String players will wear masks while performing, and brass and woodwind players will be separated from the rest of the ensemble with Plexiglas barriers. If testing protocols were robust in Georgia, as they are in some parts of Europe, that may have entered into the ASO’s plans, but testing musicians before performances is not currently feasible.

The ASO’s fall plans continue to evolve, and Barlament noted that there will be more announcements about orchestral concerts as well as opportunities to possibly see ASO musicians live in outdoor settings. Amid all this uncertainty, the search for a new music director continues, though Spano’s return for the 2021-2022 season means that the face of the orchestra since the turn of the millennium will represent the classical world in Atlanta for just a little longer.  

Jon Ross writes about jazz, pop and classical music for Downbeat magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and other publications.

The ASO’s newly updated Delta Classical Series schedule for Fall 2020

  • Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, 8:00 p.m.
    Violin Superstar Gil Shaham Opens the ASO’s 2020/21 Season with Music Director Robert Spano
    Robert Spano, conductor
    Gil Shaham, violin
    Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
    BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5
    BEETHOVEN: Violin Concerto
  • Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, 8:00 p.m.
    Robert Spano Leads an All-Mozart Program Featuring Pianist Louis Lortie
    Robert Spano, conductor
    Louis Lortie, piano
    Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
    MOZART: The Magic Flute Overture
    MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 16
    MOZART: Symphony No. 41
  • Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, 8:00 p.m.
    Principal Cello Rainer Eudeikis Performs Haydn’s Cello Concerto in D major with Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicle
    Donald Runnicles, conductor
    Rainer Eudeikis, cello
    Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
    HAYDN: Symphony No. 60, “Il distratto”
    HAYDN: Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major
    BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Haydn
  • Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, 8:00 p.m.
    Principal Bassoon Andrew Brady Performs Hertel
    Robert Spano, conductor
    Andrew Brady, bassoon
    Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
    HERTEL: Bassoon Concerto in A minor:
    BACH: Orchestral Suite No. 3
    HANDEL: Water Music Suite No. 2
  • November 14, 2020, 8:00 p.m.
    Talent Development Program Alumnus, Double-Bassist Xavier Foley Joins the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
    TBD, conductor
    Xavier Foley, bass
    WEBER: Der Freischütz Overture
    DVOŘÁK: Symphony No. 8
    Additional programming to be announced
  • Saturday Nov. 21, 2020, 8:00 p.m.
    Robert Spano Conducts Ravel and Brahms
    Robert Spano, conductor
    Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano
    RAVEL: Le tombeau de Couperin
    RAVEL: Shéhérazade
    BRAHMS: Serenade No. 2 in A major
  • Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, 8:00 p.m.
    Nathalie Stutzmann Makes Her ASO Debut
    Nathalie Stutzmann, conductor
    Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
    MENDELSSOHN: Hebrides Overture
    WAGNER: Siegfried Idyll
    BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7