Robert Spano conducting the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra before the pandemic. (credit: Katie Kelly, Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Association)

Q&A: Robert Spano talks about his new post with the Fort Worth Symphony and his continuing work in Atlanta

Mark Gresham | 1 JUN 2021

“Fort Worth is friendly; it’s still a Texas town. It’s the most Texas city in Texas.” ~Dan Jenkins

On May 6 the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra announced that although Robert Spano will be stepping down from has post as music director as of August 31, he will be sharing the role of artistic advisor with principal guest conductor Sir Donald Runnicles during the upcoming 2021/22 season due to upheavals caused by the pandemic this past year. He is also on track to become the ASO’s conductor laureate. But as of April 1, Spano also became music director designate for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra after having served as their principal guest conductor since March 2019. He will become FWSO’s music director on August 1, 2022.

EarRelevant’s Mark Gresham talked at length with Spano about these changing posts and titles, in particular his developing relationship with he Fort Worth Symphony. Here’s an edited excerpt drawn from that conversation.


Mark Gresham: I’d like to start off, Robert, by asking about your new post at Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra as music director designate. What’s going on with that?

Robert Spano: Yes, that’s what I am, music director designate, so I’ll already be doing things there next season in that capacity. I’ll become the music director of Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in the fall of 2022. It’s the same as when I arrived here in Atlanta in 2000, I had a “designate” season here. It’s very typical. That’s how calendars work. I’m going there but I can’t get there right away is what it amounts to.


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Gresham: How did the whole thing with Fort Worth come about?

Spano: Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who has been music director there for 20 years – as I’ve been here – is leaving. Originally I was asked to be the principal guest conductor as they look for his replacement. The idea was that I would be somewhat of a stabilizing influence while they continue to search. I was there in that role as principal guest conductor, and by the end of the week they were asking me if I would consider being the music director. I had not thought about it at all because the whole arrangement had been just to help out these couple seasons. When they brought it up I said, “Can give me a minute to think about it?” I got back here and thought about it. One of the things I’ve been looking forward to was not having a job as music director when I left Atlanta. So that was one of my hesitations: Do I really want to do this? And I realized I just had an unwelcome sabbatical with COVID. I’ve had a year of where I was writing a lot of music and I was doing a lot of other things and I was not busy performing music.

So I realized no, this is good timing. I love the orchestra they’re wonderful. So I called in a couple days and I said I would love to do this and that was that. It’s a very exciting time for that institution given what’s happening with them. The fact that they’ve been able to play concerts to live audiences during COVID, as opposed to, say, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra which has just been out of work the whole time. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do here in Atlanta and what they’ve been able to do there with live concerts and a live audience. It’s it’s very well managed, very good protocols to make everyone safe, but they’re doing it and that’s fantastic. They’re also at a stage where they’re interested in growing their season. They’re interested in growing the roster of who’s in the orchestra. There are seven positions open right now, so we’re having auditions this spring already for six of those. It’s a time of growth, excitement, change for that institution and it was just too good to say no to. I think I’ll really enjoy it .


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Gresham: It’s a very old orchestra that’s been through many ups and downs over its long history. How many music directors have they had?

Spano: I’m the tenth music director for them. I was fourth here in Atlanta, I was fourth in Brooklyn, I was fourth in Aspen. So now I’m tenth.

Gresham: One of the things that really interests me about FWSO is they have taken the route of presenting live concerts during the pandemic, but to do it without the use of video. No streamed concerts, which is so contrary to what has become the popular trend.

Spano: That’s right. Very deliberately.

Gresham: That’s fascinating because so many other people are like the Atlanta Opera has taken an intense interest in video, but they already had developed a big interest in it before the pandemic. The pandemic just gave them a big push; something that says now you must do it rather than just wanting to. Tell me about your experiences of doing these live concerts with Fort Worth. Just this calendar year, you did one in January and then another in mid-March?

Spano: Well, for me the experience of having an audience, even, after this past year. I feel incredibly lucky that in Atlanta we were able to persist and create this virtual content and keep the orchestra going and do what we were able to do. But boy do we miss live audience. It’s just never the same. I was just at New World in Miami where everything was video, no live audience, and I felt the absence of it there, too.

When we did those couple of chamber music concerts at the WAC back in the fall, where we had maybe 20 people in the audience but that made it safe, even that was thrilling just to have that feeling that the listener is there in the room with you. That is why we all started making music in the first place, to share it in that way. What happens with live music is completely different from what can happen with a recording. It’s not replaceable, so the gratification level just skyrockets when you’ve been starved from that for a year. What we did to those two concerts at the WAC and then these recent concerts in Fort Worth are the only other times I’ve had a live audience in a year and it’s thrilling.


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Gresham: Those particular Fort Worth concerts were in the old Will Rogers Auditorium. What’s it like?

Spano: It’s an older auditorium that seats over 2800 and we had 450 people a night. I’m sure it was meant to be multipurpose. Right now there’s no acoustical shell for the orchestra there, so it can feel very dry to the musicians, but in fact out in the hall there’s more resonance than you feel on stage. Of course they’re dealing with the same challenges as everywhere with the plastic shields the distancing. That makes playing together very, very difficult. It’s a whole other level of challenge that we have felt here in Atlanta all year and certainly is also true for Fort Worth. We’ve all sort of learned to operate a little differently than what we’re accustomed to and that’s a challenge that I am very anxious for us to get rid of once we’re back to sitting together, listening and hearing each other.

Of course, Will Rogers Auditorium is not the normal hall for the orchestra. Bass Performance Hall, the orchestra’s home, is much more intimate and personal. I’ve conducted there, too. That’s a gorgeous hall. It’s a hall for music. It’s got warmth and real acoustical quality. Will Rogers Auditorium is not that, but we’re still happy to be able to perform there.

Interior of Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Texas. Capacity: 2,056. (source: basshall.com)_

Interior of Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, Texas. Capacity: 2,056. (source: basshall.com)_

Gresham: What are your perceptions of Fort Worth the city?

Spano: I haven’t had a lot of time to develop a real impression but the times that I have been there I’ve learned a few things. The Will Rogers is in an area called museum district. There’s the Modern Art Museum and the Kimbell Art Museum there, so it’s a it’s a pretty concentrated little area where there’s a lot going on. There’s a chamber music hall that’s in the Kimbell Museum that is exquisite, just a gorgeous little hall. And that is one area of town which is not downtown. The downtown itself, where Bass Performance Hall is located, is actually very, very charming. There’s a notable concentration of restaurants and stores and activity right around Bass Hall, right in the downtown area.

I have not yet been to what people have referred to as the university district, so next trip I’m determined to see that part of the city. I’m getting around little by little to various neighborhoods.

Robert Spano conducts the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra on January 9, 2021. (credit: Karen Almond)

Robert Spano conducts the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra on January 9, 2021. (credit: Karen Almond)

Gresham: In the meantime, back in Atlanta, you and Donald Runnicles are going to be co-artistic advisers for the 2021/22 season.

Spano: Basically because my successor as ASO music director has not yet been identified. Between the two of us we’re going to be basically doing what I would’ve done had I still been music director. As of August 31 I will no longer be music director. Had the pandemic not happened, I would not have been here at all next season because that’s something very typical for a music director to do upon leaving – stay away for a while and don’t get in the way of the next music director. But with COVID everything changed. Donald and I are going to take care of the shop next season and then I won’t be around the season after that. Then I’ll come back for a couple of concerts a season as music director laureate.

Gresham: Simultaneously, you’ll be working with the FWSO as music director designate, which has a subscription season that is not as big as that of the Atlanta Symphony.

Spano: Yes, it’s not even half the size. It’s 10 subscription weeks right now. Our current plan is to expand probably to 11 in the 2022/23 season and then to 12 the following season. I will also get involved in the educational programs, for sure.

Gresham: That begs the final question: Are you going to continue any residence in Atlanta? Or do you know?

Spano: I’m moving to Fort Worth by fall of 2022. I think it’s very important for a music director to reside in the city where they are music director. I’ve always felt that way. I’m very glad I moved here right away when I came to the Atlanta Symphony and I feel like I need to do the same thing there. It’s not considered important all over the world, but I think it’s very important in America. ■


Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer for EarRelevant. He has been a music journalist for over 30 years, and a composer of music for much longer than that.

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