Orchestral maneuvers 

A year of milestones and continued survival in local classical music

Without question, the news of the year in Atlanta's classical music scene was the ascension to the podium of Robert Spano, in his first season as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. While the highly publicized appointment was made over a year ago, Spano's first full official season began this past September -- an event so auspicious that The New York Times chose to send its first-string music critic, Bernard Holland, to appraise the situation.

Now, a little over three months into the season, Spano's major contribution is proving to be the inclusion of contemporary composers, as well as little-played works by more established ones, to freshen up the heavily late-Romantic repertoire performed in the orchestra's last few seasons -- a repertoire which was beginning to get a bit frayed around the edges, if not downright stale. But whether Spano can substantiate this fresh approach with a high level of music making, consistent with the orchestra's goals of an international reputation, remains to be seen.

Others local music groups marked anniversaries -- or milestones -- as well. The Atlanta Chamber Players celebrated both, combining their 20th anniversary season with a European debut at the American Cathedral in Paris.

Other anniversaries included the 10th anniversary of Spivey Hall, which opened its doors in 1991 as arguably Atlanta's premier classical music venue -- a position it has consistently held throughout the financial woes of the arts in America. This decade of success has been largely due to the savvy management of director Sherryl Nelson, who combines artistic integrity with common sense -- and damned good taste.

It's impossible to review the year without making reference to the Sept. 11 tragedy, which, due to travel restrictions as well as public mood, shut down performances worldwide -- and continues to do so. But locally, there were less cancellations than might have been expected. Spivey Hall, with its international-minded programming, seems to have been hit the hardest. Korean soprano Sumi Jo, scheduled to open the Spivey Hall season Sept. 14, had to cancel her Atlanta appearance because of the week-long closure of the nation's airports. She has, however, rescheduled for April. The Zurich Boys' Choir (scheduled for October) also canceled its America tour due to parental objections over safety. And the Choir of Christ Church Oxford (scheduled for April of next year) has canceled its American tour because of travel concerns.

But in an odd twist, Atlanta gained a major recital due to the September flight restrictions. In the midst of his "Silk Road" tour, cellist Yo-Yo Ma had to abandon his international travel plans, which gave him a date free for a last-minute Sunday-afternoon switch to Atlanta. At Symphony Hall, he and his colleagues gave a quickly sold-out concert that ranged from the musically charming to the profound, all to the delight of a world-news-weary audience.

If success can be measured simply in terms of survival, then it has been a successful year for Atlanta's classical music scene. After these past 12 months, it's indeed fortunate to report that none of the major local music ensembles were forced to fold their tents and steal quietly into the night.

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