Spano raises the baton

But as ASO's new conductor gets his inaugural season rolling, will he also raise the bar for orchestra in Atlanta?

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conductor Robert Spano is here to make music — some of which you may never have heard before.

In this, Spano's inaugural season, names like Higdon, Bortz, Danielpour and Stenhammar are vying for concert space with the usual triumvirate of heavy hitters — Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. And composers such as Victor Herbert, Vaughan Williams and Gerald Finzi are cropping up in unexpected ways. Program-wise, it's a whole new ballgame for the ASO.

The conductor has turned heads with his distinctly different programming tastes for years, most recently as music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic (he also serves as director of the conductor fellowship program at the Tanglewood Music Center and as a professor at Oberlin Conservatory). And given the delicate tightrope-walk of arts budgeting in America — where the need for audience attendance too often defines a conservative approach to repertoire — Spano's appointment in Atlanta is particularly noteworthy.

A few days before the ASO's Sept. 15 opening night, The New York Times cited Spano's Atlanta season-debut concert as one of the ones to watch in a week of national season openers — suggesting that the eyes of the classical music world, far beyond Atlanta, are on him.

But to the public, Spano has remained unfazed by all the attention. When asked some of the challenges he faces with this particular ensemble, he insists he doesn't know any in particular. "Music is inherently challenging," he asserts. "All of us want to do our best. If we do great work, people will come."

Whether Spano publicly acknowledges the challenges ahead, it's clear the ASO is at a crossroads. The last three decades saw the ASO guided through two distinct incarnations. In the '70s and '80s, the orchestra served the choral genius of Robert Shaw, who built and showcased one of the finest symphony choruses in the world. In the '90s, Yoel Levi turned his full concentration to the orchestra itself, bringing it to a new level of musical finesse and polish, while focusing on a late Romantic repertoire. Both conductors, particularly Shaw, made seminal recordings with the ASO. And under their leadership, stellar performances were given.

But in the last few years, concert halls have suffered. With rising ticket costs, recordings have taken a large part of the classical music listener's disposable income — despite the truth that nothing compares to the live concert experience. What's more, union and management disputes have weakened the morale and reputation of many American orchestras. One also could argue that the decline of arts education in the nation's schools has led to indifference, fueled by ignorance, in a younger generation of potential concert-goers just now coming of age. And, of course, the ASO has not been immune to all of this.

The question that plagues not only the ASO but every arts venue in America is a basic one: In a world of competition and dwindling financial resources, how do you bring the audiences back in?

To that end, the conductor believes in the importance of carefully chosen repertoire. "We are making a big point of that," he says. "New repertoire is very much of interest to us in our selection process. We have 25 works scattered throughout this season's schedule that haven't been heard here before. There are seven living composers who are featured throughout this season. And they're all very, very different."

For Spano, who has a reputation for championing contemporary composers, his ASO appointment provides an opportunity for these voices — as well as his own — to be heard, loud and clear. But whether the music is Singleton's or Strauss', Spano insists he will be following his own brand of musical integrity. "I don't think doing music that is less good brings in an audience," he says. "We attract an audience by doing great stuff."

Traditionally, programming the works of contemporary composers doesn't bring in the big audience numbers. But the ASO is hoping to combat audience ambiguity by educating listeners via video presentations. Shown before the conductor's entrance, these clips showcase casual, one-on-one interviews with Spano, who discusses the composer of the upcoming work. Some people might not like their music explained to them before the show, but for those who do, it's one way of becoming more enlightened about the sometimes baffling tonalities of modern music.

In late September, during Spano's third program of the season, he demonstrated his eclecticism by pairing the familiar with the unfamiliar. In a rare bit of programming, two contemporary works were played back-to-back. Before Spano's appearance on the podium, video monitors displayed an interview with the conductor and composer Christopher Theofanidis (whose "Rainbow Body" opened the concert).

Then came Messiaen's "Oiseaux Exotiques," its modern harmonies and percussive rhythms presented in another unusual pairing with pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet, a great favorite here who usually collaborates with the ASO on late Romantic works by Rachmaninoff and Liszt. Just to make sure there was something for everyone, Spano brought the pianist back for Richard Strauss' "Burleske" and ended the concert with a late-Romantic warhorse, Brahms' Fourth.

These rather deliberate juxtapositions were odd, and even slightly uncomfortable. A pattern, if not a style, may be emerging here. But is the ASO ready for this kind of musical century-hopping? For an orchestra that has developed a reputation for large-scale, late Romantic works such as Mahler symphonies, this particular repertoire will make some stylistic demands.

Ironically, the weaknesses that night rested mainly with the Brahms, which should have been the gem of the evening given this orchestra's track record. The piece goes back to orchestra 101, showing off all the strengths and weaknesses of an ensemble. It fell disappointingly flat.

But it's early yet, and this collaboration is too new to be commented on in great detail. No orchestra/conductor collaboration was built in a day, or even a season. Gimmicks aren't growth — musical maturity comes only with careful nurturing over years.

Still, there's no such thing as a clean slate. Undoubtedly, Spano has made it clear that the ASO has no intention of dropping the bar. But it remains to be seen whether that bar will be raised. And to a group like the ASO, raising the bar — not only in terms of repertoire, but in performance quality — is going to be the only way of sustaining the audience's interest and attendance.

As with any arts organization surviving the perilous decades, the ASO has made mistakes. But it has made some great music as well. And Spano insists more will be forthcoming, as he continues to build his rapport with an orchestra he praises for its adaptability.

"This orchestra is wonderful to work with — it's a pleasure to conduct it," he says. "They're particularly flexible and responsive. I work with a lot of orchestras and this is a particularly fine one in terms of the way they function as an ensemble. This season will give them a chance to show off."

Robert Spano returns to conduct the ASO at Symphony Hall, Nov. 1-3, 8-10, 15-16 and 18. For programs, tickets and show times, visit www.atlantasymphony.org or call 404-733-5000.??