The American conductor, pianist, harpsichordist, composer and music pedagogue, Robert Spano, grew up in a musical family in Elkhart, Indiana. His father, Tony Spano, was a flute-builder and instrument-repairman as well as a clarinetist. Spano began making music early, studying piano, flute and violin. By the age of 14, he conducted a composition of his own with the local orchestra. After graduating from Elkhart Central High School, he studied at the Oberlin Conservatory, where he earned a degree in piano performance, while also pursuing the violin and composition and studying conducting with Robert Baustian. After Oberlin he went on to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to train with Max Rudolf.
In 1985, Robert Spano left Curtis to take his first professional position, Director of Orchestral Activities, at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, where he briefly considered pursuing a degree in philosophy. In 1989 he returned to Oberlin, now as a faculty member, leading the Opera Theater program. He has maintained at least an official affiliation with Oberlin ever since, despite the physical separation enforced by his international performing career.
In 1990, Robert Spano was named as an Assistant Conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Seiji Ozawa (1990-1995). Spano's profile rose steadily while in Boston. Since he left the post in 1993, he has been a regular guest conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a teacher at the Tanglewood Music Center in the summertime. He headed the Conducting Fellowship Program at the Tanglewood Music Center from 1998 to 2002, and He served as director of the Festival of Contemporary Music at the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Tanglewood Music Center in 2003 and 2004.
From 1993 until 1996 Robert Spano traveled the world nonstop, conducting concerts and operas - for a time not even having a home address. In 1995, his first music directorship was announced, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic (1996-2004). He began his tenure in the fall of 1996, and quickly garnered acclaim. Over the next few years, despite multiple financial crises, Spano and the orchestra gained a fervent following in the New York musical community and press. Working with executive director Joseph Horowitz, Spano developed innovative programs organized around intellectual, dramatic, or historical themes, and often with jarring stylistic juxtapositions featuring unfamiliar works alongside standard repertoire. He also explored the use of visual elements in his programs to augment the standard orchestral concert experience.
In 2002, Robert Spano announced his intention to step down from the Brooklyn post at the end of the 2003-2004 season, remaining as an advisor, and then principal guest conductor, until 2007. By then, Spano had already assumed his new position, as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. When his appointment was first announced in February 2000, it was widely regarded, in Atlanta and nationally, as a coup for the orchestra.
In a gesture toward collaborative leadership in what is traditionally an autocratic culture, Robert Spano was hired concurrently with Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles (then Music Director of the San Francisco Opera), and it was announced that they would "share responsibilities," including programming, with then-Atlanta Symphony Orchestra President Allison Vulgamore acting as a "facilitator." Both of their contracts have been renewed and subsequently extended, currently running through the 2008-2009 season. In March 2008, the orchestra and Spano announced the extension of his contract as Music Director through the 2013-2014 season. Spano, however, remains the face of the organization, and his profile has continued to rise. After some troubled years for the orchestra in the 1990's, and despite his would-be gala debut as Music Director being marred by the September 11 attacks just four days earlier, most have judged Spano's tenure to have greatly bolstered the orchestra's morale, and maintained artistic standards. As Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, he has created a sense of inclusion, warmth and community that is unique among American orchestras. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra also has reported increased ticket sales and donations during Spano's tenure. Robert Spano has led Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performances at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Ravinia, Ojai and Savannah Music Festivals.
Under Robert Spano’s guidance, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and audiences explore a creative programming mix. One interesting project Spano has undertaken in Atlanta involves forging long-term relationships with several living composers, incorporating commissions, multiple performances, and recordings. This "fluid list" includes the composers Osvaldo Golijov, Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Theofanidis, Michael Gandolfi, and Adam Schoenberg, and has been dubbed by Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra the "Atlanta School".
Robert Spano is the Music Director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, beginning full-time responsibilities in the 2012 season. As Music Director of the Aspen Music Festival and School, he oversees the programming of more than 300 events and educational programs for 630 students, including Aspen’s American Academy of Conducting.
Robert Spano has gained national and international prominence in recent years, appearing with major orchestras and opera companies throughout the USA and Europe. Guest engagements include the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra, and other cities throughout North America, and overseas the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He has conducted operas at Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London (debut in 1994-1995 season with Billy Budd), Welsh National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and Seattle (the latter most notably in 2005 and again in 2009 when he led cycles of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen to general acclaim).
In addition to his conducting career, Robert Spano remains active as a pianist, performing frequently as a chamber musician - often with his colleagues from Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras. He also continues to compose his own music, though only in his time off from his performing career.
In addition to his work on the podium and at the piano, Robert Spano has continued to focus on composition. In November 2013, Spano released a digital recording of his solo piano work, under water, and a cycle of five songs written for soprano Jessica Rivera. In addition to the recording, Spano and Rivera will perform the first three songs of the cycle in recital at Pepperdine University.
Robert Spano will make three appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall this season (2013-2014) in varied programming. This is the fourth consecutive season in which Spano has been presented by the prestigious venue in more than onemedium - and will mark the eighth time that Maestro Spano leads his Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Carnegie Hall’s Isaac Stern Auditorium. In October, he joins the American Composers Orchestra for a concert of Ian Williams, Christopher Theofanidis, Peter Fahey and Julia Wolfe. Spano steps off the podium and joins soprano Jessica Rivera and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor as pianist for recitals at UC Berkeley, Pepperdine University, Kennesaw State University, the Constella Festival in Cincinnati and Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. In April 2014, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus join Maestro Spano for a performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Additional guest appearances are with the Minnesota Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Orquesta Sinfonia de Galicia, Tampere Philharmonic and two weeks of performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Robert Spano is also an artistic curator at the Ojai Festival for a second season in June 2014.
In his 13th season as Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Spano has programmed five world premieres as well as six Atlanta premieres. An Atlanta Symphony Orchestra commission by Atlanta School of Composers member Michael Gandolfi and works by Mark Grey, Philip Lasser, Richard Prior and Charles Zoll reflect Spano’s and the Orchestra’s commitment to defining a new generation of American composers by nurturing and championing their music through multi-year partnerships. Appealing to his passion and skill as a pianist, as well as his special chemistry and camaraderie with principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles, both gentlemen join forces for Ravel’s La valse and Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring as featured piano soloists. The season culminates with a concert performance of Verdi’s Aida.
Robert Spano, whose work was unrepresented on recordings prior to coming to Atlanta, has particularly benefited from the orchestra's previously existing relationship with Telarc Records, which dates back to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's years with Robert Shaw. Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have released several CD's on the Telarc label, ranging from new works to standard repertoire, which have been well received and won several awards. More recently they have also recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. Spano’s extensive discography of 21 recordings for Telarc, Deutsche Grammophon and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Media has garnered six Grammy Awards. An all-Sibelius recording was released in November 2013. Dedicated to pedagogy and multi-disciplinary studies, he has lectured on “Community” for TEDx and recently completed a three-year residency at Emory University. He was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2012. Many of his performance at Bowling Green State University College of Musical Arts, Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and Aspen Music Festival have also been recorded.
Robert Spano has won praise from several leading music critics, such as Justin Davidson of Newsday, Pierre Ruhe of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bernard Holland of the New York Times, and Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe. Spano was recognized with the Seaver/National Endowment for the Arts Conductors Award in 1994. He has also received honorary degrees from Bowling Green State University and the Curtis Institute of Music, Emory University and Oberlin. His recordings have won several Grammy Awards. In May 2009, Spano was awarded Columbia University's Ditson Conductor's Award for the advancement of American music. He has been featured on CBS’s “Late Night with David Letterman” and “CBS Sunday Morning.” Spano was named Musical America’s 2008 “Conductor of the Year” and is proud to live in Atlanta.