Wednesday, May 8, 2013

ASO Conductor Robert Spano to perform as piano soloist

Posted By on Wed, May 8, 2013 at 9:28 AM

PAGE TURNER: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano changes hats this weekend to play piano in Beethovens Triple Concerto.
  • PAGE TURNER: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano changes hats this weekend to play piano in Beethoven's Triple Concerto.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Spano usually works at the podium when he's at Symphony Hall, but if you go this weekend, you'll find him on the bench.

That's not to say he's sitting this one out, but Spano, an accomplished pianist in his own right, will be at the piano bench playing Beethoven's Triple Concerto, leaving the podium to Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles. Although it's a role that Spano has taken on from time to time with the ASO, it's still an unusual change of gears for the conductor. We caught up with Spano after rehearsal on Tuesday to ask a few questions about the challenges of wearing different hats, the balance between aggression and politeness in the Triple Concerto, and what Midtown restaurant he might recommend as the perfect pairing to go with an evening at the symphony.

Why did you decide to program Beethoven's Triple Concerto, and especially in this unusual way, with yourself as one of the soloists?
Well, I was wanting to feature David Coucheron {ASO Concert Master] and Chris Rex [ASO Principal Cello] together, and since I had played with Donald conducting the Mozart Piano Concerto a couple years ago, I guess I just wanted to get in on the act, too. We do the performances here and then Sunday we're performing at the Amelia Island Festival in Florida with Donald playing the orchestra part on a second piano. Especially fun today was that we we were rehearsing that aspect of what we're doing, which makes it all the more interesting.

Is it hard for you to change hats?
It is. Absolutely. It's a very different experience. I play piano in performances a number of times a year, but primarily chamber music and with singers. For me to get in front of the orchestra is a rare experience. Here in Atlanta, I think I played Rhapsody in Blue probably 12 years ago and then Mozart two years ago. It's a very different experience for me, and a very demanding one. I have to get back in shape as a pianist. I'm not normally practicing with that kind of regularity and, I guess, agression. Playing concertos is a whole other level of technical demand. It's like being an athlete. You really have to get back in shape at a physical, athletic level.

It's interesting you mention you're practicing with agression. I think most people when they describe the Triple Concerto use words like "polite," "courtly," and "serene" and so on. Do you think of the piece that way? Or are you finding darker things in it?
I think your adjectives are great most of the time in the piece, and then there are other emotional landscapes. There are some stormy things, there are some fun, party-like things. There are tranquil things. There are a wide range of characters along the way.

Anything you're finding especially challenging or surprising in approaching the piece this time?
No. Not per se. I've played the piece before and conducted it before, so it's an old friend in a way.

Is it a useful transition to make, going from conducting to playing and then going back to conducting again? I imagine that it's almost like a coach joining the team for a game and then going back to coaching. Does that metaphor fit?
Yeah. I think to some extent, that's good. I really cherish the many facets of my musical life, which I would self-define as conducting, teaching, playing and composing. I get different satisfactions out of all of those activities.

Do you like to listen to recordings before playing or conducting a piece? Do you have a favorite recording of the Triple Concerto?
I do often, but in this case I haven't listened to them. I have no favorite recording this time because I haven't been listening to them. But I often do. I love recorded music and I love the legacy of recording. I often do engage recording as a resource and for enjoyment, but this time I didn't. I hadn't thought about that til you mentioned it. I just hadn't gone that route this time.

I imagine a lot of people coming to the symphony will be heading out for drinks and dinner before or after the performance. Since you live in midtown, do you have a place you'd recommend as a favorite spot that's a particularly good match for the Triple Concerto?
I guess I would go with the traditional. Veni Vidi Vici. They're really wonderful, and we go quite often.

Robert Spano as pianist joins Concertmaster David Coucheron and Principal Cello Christopher Rex for Beethoven's Triple Concerto under the baton of Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, Thursday to Saturday, May 9-11, at 8 pm at Symphony Hall. Also on the program are Beethoven's Overture to Egmont and Walton's Symphony No. 1. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the

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