The Aspen Music Festival & School's New Maestro
by ruth leon
If you didn’t know that Robert Spano was the new music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, you might think that this engaging man was a science professor at a major university, or perhaps its basketball coach. That is, until he starts talking about his new job and the town he will adopt as his summer home.
Summer in Aspen is defined by AMFS’s eight-week season. The festival has placed town at the forefront of the global classical music scene, featuring more than 300 events and more than 800 music students and professional musicians. This year’s theme, “Made in America,” will stage works inspired by “America’s sights, sounds, and sensibilities.” Highlights include performances by trumpeter Chris Botti, violinist Joshua Bell with bassist Edgar Meyer, opera star Nathan Gunn, and jazz vocalist Jane Monheit, among many others.
“Aspen is a wonderfully vital place,” says Spano, whose enthusiasm and commitment are infectious. “There’s such a lot going on, so many new people to meet, so much to do. For me, the real draw is the students. They’re so talented, such a joy to work with. I can’t wait for this summer. Until the past 10 years, teaching was a big part of my life; in recent years I’ve done less and less. Now, again, I get to perpetuate a great history of talented musicians having the opportunity to become even better, to be transformed, to have the experience of making great music in a great setting. Who wouldn’t want my job?”
A major part of Spano’s job will be training young conductors, one of Aspen’s proudest enduring accomplishments. He has nothing but praise for the town’s American Academy of Conducting. “It’s just the best setup I’ve seen anywhere for the training of conductors,” he says. “All I want to do is tweak it here and there, try to make something brilliant even better.”
Born in Ohio, raised in Indiana, and a graduate of the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, the 51-year-old Spano comes to Aspen after 10 years at the Atlanta Symphony, and a career distinguished by success, experimentation, and public acclaim. He is known for his lifelong commitment to contemporary American music. In Atlanta he developed a stable of first-rate composers, all of whom say Spano is their first choice as conductor and interpreter of their work. What is it about composers that excites him?
“I’ve been unable to get Mozart on the telephone,” he jokes. “The great thing about living composers is that they’re around to interact with, and they enrich the tradition out of which we’re working. There is so much new music going on. The scene is so rich, so vital, that it’s kind of overwhelming.”
Alan Fletcher, president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival and School, speaks in measured tones and carefully considers everything he says. Hence, it is doubly exciting to hear his enthusiasm for the Spano appointment. “I see nothing but great things ahead for us,” he says. “Robert is a phenomenal musician, thinker, and person, and his appointment as music director in Aspen heralds the beginning of a new era for the Festival. Robert is known for his electrifying performances in the concert hall, as well as a sincere dedication and devotion to teaching, which makes him a perfect fit for us.”
In person, Spano projects power but is not intimidating, which may be why musicians love him, particularly young ones. Gone are the days of the martinet conductor whose word is law; Spano is a forward thinker who demonstrates a collegial attitude toward those who play for him. Although he certainly will lead from the front, it appears that he will take his Aspen colleagues—students, musicians, teachers, and administration—along with him.
photography by karl wolfgang (portrait, music); ALEX IRVIN (CONCERT)