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The Return of Spano
Robert Spano '84 Returns to Conduct Manon

by Linda Shockley
Photo by Michael Darter


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Robert Spano, associate professor of conducting and music director for the Brooklyn Philharmonic, is a top talent in a highly competitive industry. Often the focus of front page Arts & Leisure section coverage in The New York Times, Spano has received critical acclaim for his work with leading orchestras throughout the world, where he has proven himself as adept at conducting well-known and beloved classics, as he is in conducting world premieres of contemporary works. Spano describes his role as music director this way: "The primary function of a music director is to be the artistic conscience of an institution, as well as being the public face of the institution: a kind of ambassador."

How does your work as conductor differ when working in a professional setting (for example: Brooklyn Academy of Music orTanglewood Music Festival) from working in an academic setting?
I think the biggest difference lies in what the individuals bring to the work. A professional, working in a major orchestra, brings a wealth of experience. The professional has a different set of needs than a student has. For example, members of the Philadelphia Orchestra have performed Beethoven's 3rd Symphony countless times in countless ways. What they expect is a real definition of approach. Students bring an entirely different set of needs to the process. I think their biggest need is information. A student orchestra may be approaching the piece for the first time so there's a wonderful process of discovery that goes on. Working with professional musicians with a mastery of instrument and repertoire is exciting. But it's also exciting to work with students who approach the music with questions and a fresh eye. It keeps it fresh for me and reminds me how much I love it.
How do your expectations differ for musicians in those settings? (Do you expect less from students than you expect from professionals?)
I don't expect less from students. I expect a different process, dictated by varying needs. But I expect an equally rewarding musical result.
With respect to conducting opera, what repertoire do you deem appropriate for young singers? Is anything inappropriate?
The most important consideration in selecting opera for younger singers is to remain respectful of their vocal health, so generally one has to avoid the very heavy repertoire. We won't be staging a "Ring Cycle" at Oberlin soon.
How do you establish a relationship with the orchestra? With singers? What's your approach?

Establishing a relationship is primarily about listening. When approaching either singers or an orchestra, my first interest is to focus on what they are doing. While singers clearly have distinct personalities, so do orchestras. So it becomes a matter of responding to what I hear. One of the reasons I became a conductor is that I love collaborating. Working with musicians all the time keeps me more informed. There is great reward in incorporating other peoples' ideas into my own music making.

You have received much well-deserved recognition for your talent in interpreting a broad variety of music. What are the challenges for young musicians with a yen for contemporary and new music? Does contemporary and new music - the less traditional repertoire - introduce its own set of demands

Contemporary music is changing so fast. There was a time when new music was a kind of ghetto - maybe that's too pejorative a word - but it was relegated to special series, performed by special groups. Now the contemporary music scene is opening up. Interestingly, this wider acceptance is concurrent with a tremendous variety in the music being written. Much of it has a strong and popular appeal. For instance, I'm conducting world premieres of commissioned pieces with the Houston Symphony and with the Boston Symphony in regular series concerts. Of course that's nothing new in the world, but there does seem to be increased new music activity.

The challenge of doing new music is primarily the capacity to constantly expand one's vocabulary. The approach is essentially the same as with old music, which is to understand the composers' voice, circumstances, environment, aesthetic. When approaching Mozart, we try to be in touch with the musical sources that created his voice: his study of J.S. Bach, his friendship with the Baron Gottfried van Swieten, his involvement with free masonry, and Viennese culture in the 18th century.

When approaching Steve Reich, we need to understand what had happened to music in America post-World War II, understand his need to find his voice apart from the academically-entrenched 12-tone music, his study of African drumming and Hebrew chant. So it's a similar process but it's always a new study when approaching any given composer. In music today, there's such tremendous variety, whereas the disparity between Mozart and Dittersdorf is more one of quality than of language.
It wasn't so long ago that you attended Oberlin Conservatory and prepared to create your dynamic career. What advice do you have students as they prepare to embark on a similar journey?

When I was teaching at Oberlin on a more full-time basis, I had a bulletin board outside of my office where I would often place quotations on the board. Every year, quotations from Robert Schumann's "On Music and Musicians" would surface. Of particular note were his "House Rules and Maxims for Young Musicians." I don't think anyone can improve upon his clarity and truths, so I'll pass along a few of my favorites:

Nothing worthwhile can be accomplished in art
without enthusiasm.
Art was not created as a way to riches. Strive to become a true artist; all else will take care of itself.
There is no end to learning.

You will steadily progess through industry
Seek out among your comrades those who know
more than you do.