Aspen Music Festival names new music director

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenMarch 12, 2011
Robert Spano
Courtesy of AMFS
The Aspen Music Festival and School is passing its baton to Robert Spano, after its previous music director David Zinman bitterly set it down nearly a year ago.

The exchange of power from Zinman to Spano did not come off cleanly due to a cacophony of discord that rang through the festival and school when its president, Alan Fletcher, downsized their operations. The length of the summer festival was shortened slightly, but it was Fletcher's designs to let go of some faculty that stuck in Zinman's craw. After a dozen years of conducting the Aspen Music Festival, he quit in April 2010 citing “an atmosphere of tension, uncertainty and disrespect.”

The hiring of Spano might alleviate some of the stress.

The maestro, in his tenth year directing the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, makes "every performance radiate joy," says The New York Times, and he has conducted some of the greatest orchestras of North America, including those in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Montreal, New York and San Francisco. His peers say he is devoted to both concertizing and teaching. He is a professor of conducting at his alma mater, the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Spano also oversees the Atlanta School of Composers, which counts Aspen alumnus Adam Schoenberg among its contributors.

“Everything he does is informed by his formidable intellect, wit and passion for expressivity,” Fletcher said. “From our first conversations about Aspen, Robert made it clear that his commitment to education and the future of music will enhance and expand the festival in all the best ways, focusing on the experience of each student while nurturing the living, breathing art form of classical music. It will be my honor and great pleasure to work closely with a leader who loves music so completely and communicates this love to others so profoundly. From the first meetings, the search committee was clear that it was looking for someone with a vision, not just for Aspen, but more broadly for classical music — someone who seeks to define and redefine a classical ideal for our time. It’s what a music director does not just for Aspen but with Aspen that makes this post, and this festival, so exhilarating for students, faculty and patrons. Robert has such a vision, and thus meets that criterion supremely. He will bring a freshness, a vitality and an intellectual rigor to this institution that will bring it alive in new ways.”

Spano will be in residence in Aspen for the 2011 summer season as “music director designate” and will assume the full role of music director in 2012. He has a five-year contract that also calls for him to lead the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen as a co-director in 2011 and director from 2012 onward. He is just the fourth long-term music director in the festival's 63-year history. The other directors were Zinman, Lawrence Foster and Jorge Mester.

The Fourth of July in 1993 marked the first time Spano conducted in Aspen. He returned eight other seasons.

“Over the last two decades, I have found my time in Aspen to be inspirational in every way,” Spano said of his class and program experiences. “The faculty is extraordinary, and the wealth of experience and knowledge they bring to the festival is an inestimable gift. The students seem to come from a limitless pool of talent. It is a joy to witness their musicality as it unfolds and transforms in such a concentrated environment. With its devotion to the nurturing of young talent, Aspen is central to the future of music. The extraordinary setting is such that many of the world’s most prominent musicians are drawn to the festival out of a strong desire to be part of something both artistically satisfying and personally fulfilling. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to become an integral part of such an institution.”

In addition to composing, Spano, 49, is an accomplished performing pianist and he plays flute and violin.
Alan Fletcher

Kay Bucksbaum, chair of the board of trustees for the festival and school, commended the board and faculty members who served on the search committee and Fletcher, “who led the positive and successful search” that landed Spano.

The hiring of Spano puts an exclamation point on a dizzying swing of fortune for Fletcher, who the Aspen Music Festival and School's executive committee fired in October 2009, before the full board rehired him the following month, which led to the festival corporation giving him a vote of no confidence when Zinman departed. The back and forth between the various boards of the festival and school culminated with a two-year contract extension that keeps Fletcher here through September 2012.

Criticism of Fletcher sprung from his designs to downsize, but he's also been dogged by accusations that he projects an uncongenial, elitist attitude. That perception — unfair or not — has turned off some donors. Fletcher, who sits on the Aspen Institute's board of trustees, is the partner of Ronald Schiller, who this week turned down an offer to become the Institute's arts director after a secretly recorded video captured him saying, in part, “that the educated, so-called elite in this country is too small a percentage of the population” and that Middle America is largely uneducated.

There's no denying that Spano, who was born in Ohio and raised in Indiana, is mightily schooled. He has received honorary doctorates from Bowling Green State University, the Curtis Institute of Music, Emory University and Oberlin. Columbia University also bestowed him with the Ditson Conductor's Award for the advancement of American music.

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