For anyone who makes a pastime of lamenting the inevitable doom of classical music, the pernicious effects of globalization, or both, the words of conductor Robert Spano may offer a surprising perspective: "There are more people playing, creating, enjoying, and listening to classical music than ever in the history of music. It's a simple fact."
As for globalization, it has brought composers into contact with unexpected sources of inspiration. "The global village also happened aesthetically," Spano says. "We have aboriginal melodies and Chinese folk songs literally at our fingers." And why would that matter for a classical composer? "Just think what happened when Debussy heard the gamelan." What happened was a whole new soundscape in Western music.
Two living composers whose music has synthesized divergent global traditions are Osvaldo Golijov and Christopher Theofanidis, whose The Here and Now Spano will perform for New York audiences for the first time on April 5 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. As Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra since 2001, Spano has worked closely with both Golijov and Theofanidis to achieve his broader goal of commissioning and conducting new works. His efforts to present the music of active composers have created a large following in Atlanta, where audiences come to hear what he calls the Atlanta School of composers, which along with Golijov and Theofanidis includes Michael Gandolfi and Jennifer Higdon. Though not all based in Atlanta, the composers are linked by what Spano sees as a shared aesthetic: "Their music is tonal and tuneful and influenced by world or popular music."
They are also linked, of course, because Spano programs their works and ardently promotes them. The conductor is known to champion contemporary composers for the aesthetic value of their works, not merely to placate those who say he ought to, a strategy deliberately designed to make modern music the draw that it should be. "With a program of Beethoven and John Adams, you can market one or the other," Spano says. "We often choose Adams."
Theofanidis's The Here and Now is based on the poetry of the 13th-century mystic Rumi, and all of the works on the April 5 program concern mythology: Sibelius's Tapiola was the god of forests in Finnish lore, while the story of Ravel's Daphnis et Chlo_ comes from ancient Greece. The literary current that runs through the program didn't happen by chance. Spano, an expert in musical styles, is no less a lover and connoisseur of literature.
"My passion is books," Spano confesses, adding that he perfectly fits the definition of a biblioholic, "one who habitually longs to purchase, read, store, admire, and consume books in excess." His taste in writers is just as diverse and comprehensive as his taste in composers. He savors modern fiction by David Foster Wallace and Paul Auster but also enjoys an evening reading the works of the 19th-century literary titan Herman Melville.
Spano's love of the written word also helps him prepare for a concert; he reads the letters and journals of composers to gain a deeper understanding of their particular aesthetic. Frequently, he notices a correlation between prose style and musical style. In Ravel's case, Spano observes that "the prose is as chiseled as his music."
If it seems almost impossible for someone with so many interests and such an active schedule to find any time for creative work, that's because it is. But Spano still makes the time to pursue his own composing, an interest he has explored since childhood. "There is no time," he said. "We have to make it."
Nick Romeo writes about culture and the arts in New York City.