Old Friends
19 Oct 2011
Inside the Classics

We’re working this week with conductor Robert Spano and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, both of whom have been here multiple times before, but neither of whom we’ve seen in at least a few years. Nadja is tackling one of my favorite new-ish violin works with her usual infectious energy, and since the string orchestra that accompanies her is reduced to minimal size, it feels more like playing chamber music than anything else.

I’m enjoying seeing Bob Spano for reasons that have less to do with the repertoire on the program. In addition to his work with the Atlanta Symphony, Bob has an abiding love of working with student orchestras, and many musicians of my vintage and younger first got to know him in that setting. He was an occasional faculty conductor when I was a student at Oberlin, and whenever he was scheduled to lead a concert, the scramble would be on for everyone to try to get placed in whichever orchestra he was leading that semester.

It wasn’t just that he was a good conductor, which he most definitely is. (I can’t offhand think of anyone with a clearer, more reliable stick technique.) It was that he had an unrestrained passion for the work, and when you’re a student still trying to make that leap to the professional world, you latch onto personalities like that, because they can show you the way to your own future. Bob would sweat and stomp and yell his way through a rehearsal – not because he was angry at us, but because he was excited, and wanted us to get excited too. When he stopped the music, the instructions would come rapid fire, and he expected us to be ready for them. When he called a break, instead of retreating to his office like some conductors, he would often join us out at what we Oberlin kids knew as “the smoking bench,” and tell us juicy stories from the world of orchestras he’d conducted, or just hold forth about some piece or composer he was into at the moment.

There was a performance of Mahler’s 6th my junior year that I count as one of a few life-changing concerts I’ve played. There was an all-Bartok show the following year: I, as principal viola, was trying haplessly to lead the big viola section solo in the third movement of Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, and it still wasn’t working on the day of the concert. After we blew it for the umpteenth time, Spano fixed me with an intense stare, glanced at his watch, and said simply, “You have six hours. Fix it.” We fixed it.

Bob’s style is, of course, a lot different when he works with professional orchestras, or at least it has been when he’s been here in Minneapolis. Conductors of youth orchestras and student ensembles have the triple task of leading the music, motivating the troops, and teaching them how to be good orchestra players. At this level, only the first one really matters for a guest conductor, so Bob’s not doing any shouting or storytelling. (The first time I played under him in Minnesota, it was actually disconcerting to realize that he can be incredibly soft-spoken and relaxed.) But what hasn’t changed is that ultra-reliable stick of his, his obviously intensive level of preparation (he rarely needs to look down at his scores,) and a palpable love of what he’s doing.

After that Bartok concert in the spring of my senior year, I went to Bob’s dressing room in the basement of Oberlin’s Finney Chapel to say goodbye. I thanked him for four years of unforgettable concerts, and then, thinking of the orchestral auditions lying ahead of me, I told him I hoped I’d get to play under him again some day. He dropped his smile, grabbed my hand, and looked right at me as he said, “We will see each other again. I have no doubt about that.”

Knowing just the right thing to say to a kid in need of a shot of confidence is a rare gift. Being able to lead by example is another. And that’s why, regardless of how good our concerts this week may be, I’ll always think of the man on the podium first as the one who refused to accept student-level performance from students, and gave us the drive to become something more.

<October 2019>

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