In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Robert Spano, the music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, spoke with arts and culture editor Marcheta Fornoff. Spano shared how he will approach selecting the group’s performance repertoire, commissioning new music and the hiring and mentorship of musicians in his new role.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Marcheta Fornoff: Congratulations on the new role.
Robert Spano: Thank you.
Fornoff: How has the transition from guest conductor to music director been?
Spano: Well, it happened very fast because I had just started coming as principal guest conductor right before the pandemic. And then in the middle of the pandemic, I switched roles. And obviously during those couple of years, things were a little unusual. It’s been a very gratifying thing to be here on stage this week with everything almost normal.
I mean, there was something wonderful and amazing about playing concerts at Will Rogers during the pandemic — that it was happening — (when) so many orchestras weren’t playing at all. But to have made that journey through that strange time with tests and masks and paranoia to being here now is really great.
Fornoff: You’re coming from Atlanta. What makes you excited to be working with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra? What made you excited to make that move?
Spano: What happened is that I was supposed to be the principal guest conductor for a couple of years. I was loving working with the orchestra, and as I got to know the institution, it was clear that the people involved are just ready to do something extraordinary. The orchestra is so wonderful. The new executive director is brilliant and invested. (Board chair) Mercedes Bass is a champion of the orchestra and her enthusiasm is infectious. It was just too good to pass up.
Fornoff: Tell me what your plans are for the repertoire. What are you going to do with all the different music selections that you get to make in this role?
Spano: I think what we’re looking for is a combination of being a museum and a gallery. So the museum side of what we do, there’s the classics and the core of the repertoire and the symphonic tradition that we want to preserve and that people want to hear. And then there’s also the new, the different, the unusual. There’s pops music, there’s film music. There’s a whole range of things that are part of what we do.
We have multiple audiences. And I think one of the great things about the orchestra is its ability to engage in a whole wide range of music. And so part of the joy in the programing is to find the balance of all those things in the mix.
Fornoff: Speaking of the gallery side of that, is there anything new that this group hasn’t done before that you’re really excited to take on and explore with them?
Spano: There’s a couple of composers coming this year that I think are particularly exciting. One is Doug Cuomo, who’s written a saxophone concerto, and his premiere is in November. And the other is Brian Nabors, who’s writing a suite for the orchestra based on African folktales that’ll be on a program with other music that’s about storytelling. He was very excited about that prospect, and they’re both just brilliant. And we’re planning over the next few years to bring in a number of different living composers who I think will be a wonderful addition to the menu.
Fornoff: Are there any composers on that list who you dream of commissioning?
Spano: Well, we have commissioned them. That’s what’s so exciting about it for me, is that it answers your question. That’s who I wanted to commission, and we did.
Fornoff: So you’ve checked off all of your dream list?
Spano: We didn’t check it off, but we got started.
Fornoff: Is there anyone else?
Spano: I can’t give the whole future away.
Fornoff: Not even a little bit? … All right, I’d love to hear about your approach for mentoring musicians, especially some of the new hires that you’ve brought in.
Spano: Yeah, that’s been an exciting time for us as all these new, talented people (are) coming in. I think what happens is the orchestra is an evolving organism, but it has an identity as a group. It has a culture. It has a tradition. I think people coming into that world absorb so much of that musical culture just by being in it and by engaging with it.
I don’t think it’s so much being able to tell someone any number of things and then they know what it means to be in the Fort Worth Symphony. I think it’s more what happens as people play together, they start to understand together. It’s wonderful that we play music. It’s like kids forming a group. They learn who they are by playing together, and we’re big kids. By playing together, we really understand each other better and differently.
Fornoff: And what kind of stamp do you hope to have on the symphony orchestra?
Spano: Well, hopefully I won’t stamp on anybody. But I hope that together we’ll evolve something, that we’ll learn from each other.
Fornoff: Mm hmm. Is there anything that I didn’t ask you about that you want to mention or you think is important to know?
Spano: That’s a great question. I think what’s important to know for anyone who hasn’t been to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra is that they’re welcome here. And in my years in Atlanta, if I ran into people who knew me or knew about the orchestra but hadn’t been to a concert, I’d say, ‘Well, the first two tickets are on me.’ And many people who hadn’t been would feel like, ‘Well, I don’t know if I’d be welcome there. I don’t know if it’s for me.’ I would just say to anyone who has that feeling, there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to try it out.
What was always gratifying for me was the people who went for the first time because I said, ‘The first tickets are on me,’ had a great time and wanted to explore other things because of it. So I’d just say the doors are open wide.
Fornoff: I know that there are some outreach events that you all do. Do you have any that you’re especially excited about?
Spano: Any time we’re able to engage audiences outside of Bass Hall or young audiences in schools or our run outs to various places, that’s just another access point. It’s another way of engaging.
Fornoff: And building that relationship with the community.
Fornoff: Is that part of why you made the decision to move here rather than to fly in and out all the time?
Spano: Oh, absolutely. I think that’s so important because we, as an institution, we as an orchestra are part of where we live and that makes it part of who we are.
Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.