To kick off Bachtrack’s America Month, we turned to one of the great champions of American composers and musical education. A conversation with Robert Spano reveals a thoughtful man who thinks in long timescales: when he leaves the post of Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in June 2021, his tenure will have lasted 20 years. But it’s his post as Music Director of Aspen Music Festival and School that caught our eye: it’s an intensive programme of music-making and education that lasts eight weeks every summer and assembles some of the top names in the American classical music scene. When I ask Spano to assess that scene, given the fact that we get bombarded with “classical music is dying” messages, he bursts into peals of laughter.

Robert Spano © Andrew Eccles
Robert Spano
© Andrew Eccles

RS: It's great living in a post-truth world, isn't it? But right away, what is “classical music”? I've started to think about the division between "music that's meant to be listened to" and "music that serves some other purpose": Mozart can be divided in those categories, as can all kinds of popular music. Of course, some music is meant to be danced to or worked to or to create an environment. There is this sort of gloom and doom chatter that has little to do with what people are actually doing and engaging. Someone mentioned to me not so long ago that if you look at the amount of activity online, the number of people engaging in so-called classical music, accessing it and studying it only increases. Also, what's amazing is that the talent level is so high and the interest is so passionate. Applications are going up every year for Aspen.

I think some of the gloom and doom is actually more about what's happening with social change. I heard another very interesting thing, that in the course of people changing the way they spend their entertainment dollars, that symphonic music was having less attrition than movies, live theatre, dance and so on. It's very clear that sociologically, we're in the midst of huge change in how we spend that money and how we spend our time and how often we like to go out and how often we subscribe to things and how much ahead we plan, and I think it's a very silly error to think that the interest in the art is dying. The other thing that I can't help but notice historically is there's never been a time without great music – not one! No matter how bad the sociological conditions, no matter how economically challenged things might be, it's just never happened before.

DK: is there such a thing as “Americanness” in classical music? And if so, can you put your finger on what that means?

I fear it'll be an answer like the judge gave in the infamous Larry Flynt trial: “I can't define obscenity but I know it when I see it.” It's very hard to define what makes music sound American, but there are certain things we can point to as indicators. Certainly, Copland had a lot to do with establishing a sound that we think of as American, but so did Ives and Carter. The theme I can find is a particular kind of use of open intervals, or perfect intervals of fourths and fifths, and there is a willingness to engage popular music within a classical context. Mahler did that too and so did many others but there's an American way of doing it. For American composers who are currently around 50, give or take a decade, there’s a use of tonality and tunes that the generation that taught them didn't necessarily employ. The fact of jazz having grown up on this continent is certainly an American phenomenon, even if not exclusively so. And many of the identifiable characters in the minimalist movement are American: Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and then later John Adams expanding what such a term could mean.

In the course of their education, American classical musicians seem to have been more exposed to other genres, be it rock, jazz, hip-hop, folk. Is there a greater eclecticism here?

I suspect that's probably true, and I would even step it back a level. Maybe there is still a hegemony of 300 years of German music, but there's a lot of attention paid to English music, Russian tradition, Italian music, French music for sure. Other world musics also get thrown into the mix: I'm thinking of the extraordinary number of Asian composers who take influence from traditional music and incorporate it into a Western symphonic format, like Bright Sheng or Tan Dun.

Robert Spano conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra © Elle Logan
Robert Spano conducts the Aspen Festival Orchestra
© Elle Logan

America’s history is the story of a country built by migrants. Thinking of those intense emotions, of packing up your things and seeking a new life thousands of miles from home, how are they reflected in music, and how does that play within today’s political environment?

I've become far less interested in art's role as propaganda and far more interested in art's role in spiritual elevation. Plenty of art has been created that's not propaganda that has political overtones, sidetones or even a political point of view on its face. But I don't think we should reduce art to that perspective. So I would say that the intensity of those human emotions, that come from packing your bags and moving from one continent to another or from the loss of a loved one, can find an expression in art and don't necessarily need a political pigeonhole.

I had a question the other day: isn't this just the music of dead white European males and therefore what relevance does it have to the world? My answer is that much of our repertoire may have been composed by those people, but that's not who's listening to it now, interpreting it, performing it. However much we have a canon of masterpieces so-called, they don't exist without our engagement with them both as performers and as listeners. Realising how that music has spread all over the globe and is being loved, performed and appreciated by every race and at least two genders makes it clear that it's not exclusive to its creators.

Robert Spano with Gil Shaham, Harris Concert Hall, 2018 © Grittani Creative
Robert Spano with Gil Shaham, Harris Concert Hall, 2018
© Grittani Creative

A typical season at a US symphony tends to be very much focused on the established classics: it’s rare to see a concert which majors on contemporary works. Is this healthy? Do you think it’s changing?

I don't have other people's seasons in front of me, but I'm sure that's not true of what we do here. If we only played the music of dead people, no matter where they came from, we would lose our connection to what it means to understand a score. Working with living composers, you learn that the scores are not stone tablets: despite the notational efforts of the mid 20th century to render performers nothing but executants of what the composer had to say, that's never worked out. A piece of music does not exist solely in its recording and it no more exists solely in its score. I think that dealing with living composers is necessary to our ability to understand the music of dead ones.

But I still see a lot of concerts that start with a concerto by a dead person, close with a symphony by a dead person and have a contemporary work snuck in between the two. Are the contemporary works gaining more of a place? There's an awful lot of Beethoven in American symphony seasons...

Well, there's an awful lot of good Beethoven... But many places have tried to find a way of serving the interests of the music of living or more recent composers in ways that are particular to where we are and who we are. We in Atlanta have performed music of composers all over the world but we've made it a point to focus on American composers of a certain generation, feeling that that was the niche that needed to be cared for in a way that we could do effectively. I remember Alan Gilbert's program at the NY Phil, bringing in Magnus Lindberg, Ligeti and so on: that was filling a wonderful need as well. I think it's a matter of institutions finding what identity they wish to promote and doing what serves that purpose.

Turning from composition to performance: what is the outlook currently like for aspiring young performers in the US?

I think we have to shift our attitude from training people to take pre-existing jobs to educating people to be artists in society and to find out how to make their way in the world doing the art that they want to make. It wasn't so easy for Mozart! When we think in terms of people going through school to be able to take an audition and get a stable job, we're talking about relatively few decades of that kind of institutional stability. Historically, it's far more common for artists of all kinds to be finding ways to make their way in the world, and Mozart was a great example of an entrepreneur.

As we find our institutions morphing and changing and looking for new ways to be viable, we need this new generation of musicians to embrace those challenges in ways that those of us who are coming to the end of our careers don't necessarily have the insight for. And given how brilliant so many of them are, they may even be able to find solutions that we don't even see right now: certainly, we see musicians coming out of conservatory training exploring all kinds of ways to make a living at their art.

At Aspen, Alan Fletcher and I have often talked about what are we doing training all these musicians, where are the jobs, and then we came to this point of view that we're doing a good thing: not all the people who get a musical education or a conservatory education need to become high profile performers; we as a society will benefit from people being educated. There's a good reason that music was part of the quadrivium in the Platonic academy, it's a great education no matter what you do.

Robert Spano with Aspen Conducting Academy student Jacob Joyce © Grittani Creative
Robert Spano with Aspen Conducting Academy student Jacob Joyce
© Grittani Creative

Tell us more about the educational aspect of Aspen...

I think a number of special things happen there. Most simply, it's the side-by-side practise and mentoring that we have, the students playing with the faculty. The Aspen Festival Orchestra and the Aspen Chamber Symphony both have faculty members playing in the principal positions and students playing with them, and in my years there, I have become completely convinced of the efficacy of this mentoring and side-by-side practise. Which doesn't mean it's the only thing one should do in this world, and at Aspen, we do have an orchestra that is populated entirely by students and that's important and valuable too, but it’s something very special.

Being in an atmosphere where there are so many concerts is an opportunity for students not only to perform but to get to hear many other performers and, maybe even more importantly, hear many other disciplines. Many of the orchestral students will find themselves having their first experience in a pit, and it's their first time really interacting with their own participation with singers. We have many students interacting with the composition fellows, we have singers interacting with many of the pianists: there's much a pianist can learn from a singer about playing legato and getting a singing quality at the piano. The intensity of so much music going on all the time creates a powerful laboratory that I know many of our alumni say had its desired effect.