May 18, 2003
Facing the Philharmonic, Armed With New CD's

MAKE of it what you or a psychoanalyst will. When left to his own devices in the classical section of a record store recently, the American conductor Robert Spano started by glancing through the alphabetical composer bins backward and stopped long before he got to the B's. Not that he has anything against the canonical three, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms (though he does dislike Bruckner). And not that he proceeds at all systematically; with the slightest association or stray thought, he will carom off in another direction.

"What's fun," he says, "is to go through the miscellaneous composers bin at the end of each letter." The Tower Records store near Lincoln Center spoils that fun by providing labeled separators for even the most obscure composers. But the first label that catches Mr. Spano's eye on his way to the end of the alphabet is that of Graham Whettam, an English composer obviously new to him, represented by a disc of orchestral works. Curiosity but no sale.

Mr. Spano, 42, makes his debut with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday. He has become known to many New Yorkers for his excellent work as music director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic since 1996. But evidently not all that well known. If any of the handful of customers in the classical section on a sleepy morning recognize him, dressed down as he is, no one lets on. After a photographer joins the caravan, a clerk asks, "Who's being photographed?" That anonymity may soon lift.

Mr. Spano's appearance with the Philharmonic is the latest installment in the orchestra's annual American conductor debut week. But this is no ordinary debut. For one thing, it is long overdue. Mr. Spano, from his former base in Brooklyn and his present one in Atlanta, has already conducted most of the major American orchestras and many ensembles abroad.

"There's no particular reason I haven't been here," says Mr. Spano, who, finishing his second season as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, has signed a contract extension to 2007. "We've talked several times, but the scheduling hasn't worked out."

For another thing, there are those who think that Mr. Spano is just the sort of candidate the Philharmonic should be considering as its next music director: young, by conductorial standards; eminently American in manner as well as musical proclivities; and broad-ranging in his interests, particularly when it comes to contemporary music. With his obvious intelligence, his articulate speech and his personal magnetism, he has reminded some of Bernstein.

However premature all such talk is, it could put additional pressure on a debut with an orchestra that some suspect of having sabotaged more than one conductor "audition" in recent years. Mr. Spano seems unfazed.

"It's a great opportunity to work with them," he says. "The first time with any orchestra is a venture into the unknown. That's what makes it exciting."

As his Philharmonic program suggests, with works by Rachmaninoff, Sibelius and Kaija Saariaho, Mr. Spano's tastes run in many directions. "I have a keen interest in keeping the repertory varied," he says. "I want all places and all times in the mix." In fact, he adds, he is as likely to head first to the world music section in a record store as to the classical.

Arrived at the end of the alphabet, he seizes on his first purchase: the Fourth Symphony by the American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. "I didn't know there was a Fourth," he says.

Then it's a leisurely stroll to the next resting point, the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe. "I have all these," he says, riffling through the discs.

Quickly into the R's comes the first diversion. "Is Rihm's Passion out yet?" Mr. Spano is referring to the German composer Wolfgang Rihm's "Deus Passus," one of four Passions commissioned by the International Bach Academy of Stuttgart, Germany, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Bach's death in 2000. Yes, the recording is out, but it's not here.

Remembering the other three Stuttgart Passions, by Tan Dun, Sofia Gubaidulina and Osvaldo Golijov, Mr. Spano doubles back to T, to find Mr. Tan's "Water Passion After St. Matthew." Another sale.

He crosses the classical section to look for Ms. Gubaidulina's "St. John Passion." Not found.

In keeping with the developing themes of female composers and Finnish musicians, Mr. Spano mentions Ms. Saariaho and heads back for the original trail. "I like to check out multiple versions of what lies in my imminent future," he says.

The Saariaho work that awaits at the Philharmonic is the song cycle "Chateau de l'Âme," sung by Valdine Anderson. Playing further to Mr. Spano's fascination with Finnish music, the program also includes Sibelius's tone poem "Oceanides" as well as Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances."

But back in the S's, another Finnish composer beckons: Esa-Pekka Salonen, the dashing music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with his "L.A. Variations." "It's out commercially now," Mr. Spano says. "I know it only from a tape." Sold.

"We're getting very close to the historical section," he says at Ravel, with something as close to reverence as this studiously irreverent musician will come on this morning. "We've entered its atmosphere." Pulled in as if by gravity, he re-emerges bearing two discs of Mozart piano concertos played by Edwin Fischer, a Swiss pianist and conductor who died in 1960.

Does Mr. Spano have models in his conducting, historical or otherwise?

"I don't have anyone who's paradigmatic," he says. "I pay a lot of attention to the usual suspects: Claudio Abbado, Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka, Kurt Masur. The few recordings by Sergiu Celibidache are always interesting. Historically, there's Victor de Sabata, Tullio Serafin, Charles Munch.

"In a particular repertory, I always want to hear what certain people did," he says. "In Mahler, it's Bernstein. There's Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. And I like to hear Seiji's recordings, because I was in on them."

Mr. Spano spent formative years with Seiji Ozawa, working under him as assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1990 to 1993 and at the Tanglewood Festival. At Tanglewood, Mr. Spano directed the conducting program from 1998 to 2002, and this year he directs the Festival of Contemporary Music.

In the store, meanwhile, some Muzaky piece with guitar gives way to Bruckner's mighty Eighth Symphony, beginning to billow from speakers all around. "Time to go," Mr. Spano says. He's only half kidding.

"All my friends love Bruckner," he adds. "I'm in avoidance. I don't understand how to make it work, and from what I hear, a lot of other people don't either. There are great, deeply moving moments, but so far the sum of the parts hasn't added up for me."

He steps up the pace, picking his way as far as F, then loses patience. "Want to go to opera?" he asks.

<strong>On the way to the opera room, he spots his own recording of Vaughan Williams's "Sea Symphony" with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, from Telarc, in a display of recent releases</strong>.
<span style="color:red;font-size:x-small;">(from eltamina, this is a grammy award winning one?)</span>

"I had an amazing time with it," he says. "I love the text, the Whitman poetry, as much as Vaughan Williams must have. The piece is so grand and epic — and teleological, unlike Bruckner."

He selects a new release for purchase: "Ricercar," music of Bach and Webern, performed by the violinist and conductor Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble, building on their big success with "Morimur," a purposefully subdued program of Bach.

Back on the move, Mr. Spano fastens on a collection of marches conducted by Bernstein. "This is just weird," he says. "Who is J. F. Wagner, a cousin?"

An Austrian bandmaster, it happens, and apparently no relation, but here a lead-in to the real Wagner, near the end of the opera-composer alphabet (of course).

"I'll be buying a bunch of those big boxes soon," Mr. Spano says, pointing to various versions of the "Ring."

Mr. Spano is to tackle his first staged Wagner in a big way: the four evenings of the "Ring" in three cycles at the Seattle Opera in 2005.

"Why not just jump into the pool?" he says. "I started with the scores at the beginning of the year. It's very exciting. It's different when you study something with a view to performing it.

"With the `Ring,' I spent a lot of time with the score first before deciding to do it. Then I started working my way through the libretto before returning to the score and the piano. Recordings come last."

Should they come at all for a performer?

"The old school felt that you should play music on an inner stereo," he says. "But recordings are a great source of information, so why not use them? At some point there is a moment of indecision. That's when a recording is useful. Inevitably, there is some answer, positive or negative, and I ultimately come up with something, sometimes through aversion. Or I steal it."

<strong>Suddenly Verdi beckons, and considerable mulling brings the purchase of two vintage performances: "Otello," with Jon Vickers, and "Macbeth," with Maria Callas.

"I have to do some things for pleasure if I'm going to do all that Wagner," Mr. Spano says. "I have to listen to Verdi."</strong>
<span style="color:red;font-size:x-small;">(from eltamina, LOL)</span>

Another discovery: "Oh, my goodness, I didn't know that Spohr wrote a `Faust,' " he says, referring to Louis Spohr, best known for his instrumental music. Mr. Spano, moving quickly, dallies over Carl Nielsen's "Saul and David," then loses patience again: "Time to go ethnic?"

Back in the main room, the Bruckner is into its second movement. "If we come back this afternoon it will still be going on," Mr. Spano says.

In the world music area, Mr. Spano hastens to Asia: Pakistan, Turkey, Kurdistan and Iran. "I don't know enough about the differences," he says. But he starts to leave with two discs of music of dervishes only to be waylaid by Finland. Two more discs. "I have no idea what I've gotten into," he says.

By now, Mr. Spano is clearly in need of the coffee he has been carrying all morning and a cigarette. Taken to a cafeteria for fresh coffee, he addresses larger matters. He becomes most animated when he talks about orchestras in this time of troubles, with small and even large ensembles on the verge of financial collapse. "I have trust in orchestras as entities," he says.

But what of the recent tendency to damn the big orchestras by calling them museums (no matter that there are good museums and bad museums)?

Mr. Spano, the most forward-looking of maestros, quotes his colleague James DePreist: "We're not museums, we're galleries. We're always changing, and we don't have permanent collections."

Mr. Spano adds: "I would even say that from Thursday to Friday to Saturday, in the same program, the exhibit has changed. It's the nature of live performance. It's what makes it so much better than recordings."

Then off he walks, his CD bag bulging