By Maria Saporta
Sometimes it takes outsiders to help one appreciate what we have in Atlanta.
We are blessed to have a myriad of cultural institutions that help define what we are as a city. The Woodruff Arts Center – which encompasses the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Alliance Theatre and the High Museum of Art – is the centerpiece of our cultural offerings.
Doug Shipman, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, told the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta last week talked about “celebrating our financial situation” at the end of its fiscal year on May 31.
“It’s fourth year that the Alliance, the ASO and the High have finished in the black,” Shipman said.
That’s particularly good news for the ASO, which five years ago had been operating at a deficit, was in contentious negotiations on a contract with its musicians and faced the real possibility of having to scale down the size of the orchestra.
The tone today is totally different.
Earlier this year, the ASO and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players’ Association agreed to a three-year contract extension that will continue through the 2020/2021 season (an agreement that happened six months before the expiration of its current contract on Sept. 8).
The ASO’s fortunes certainly improved with the successful $110 million capital campaign that included $25 million for the Musicians’ Endowment Fund, which restored and supported the funding of 11 positions in the Orchestra. That allowed the ASO to have a complement of 88 full-time musicians.
It also happens that Robert Spano, ASO’s music director, announced earlier this year that he will be stepping down in June 2021 – culminating a 20-year career in Atlanta.
And that brings me to the story of this past weekend, when my second cousin, Lisa Rubinstein, and her partner, Bruce Rodgers, who live in Sarasota, were in Atlanta to attend the closing performance of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 2017/2018 season.
They introduced me to the unique relationship that exists between the ASO, the Aspen Music Festival and the Hermitage Artist Retreat located on Florida’s Gulf coast near Sarasota.
It’s a complex web of relationships that came together Saturday night, and it helped me realize the depth of Atlanta’s cultural offerings.
The web includes ASO’s Spano, who is also the music director of the Aspen Music Festival and School.
That relationship partly explains how the ASO performed a piano concerto composed by Alan Fletcher, the president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival, this past weekend.
Fletcher’s piece had been composed in 2017 (with Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan in mind) when the composer was at the Hermitage Artist Retreat. It was a place where Fletcher was able to have “some serious composer time” to put together the piano concerto that had been throbbing in his head, according to a story in the Aspen Times.
Coincidentally, the Hermitage is my connection to that evening. My second cousin Lisa Rubinstein (her grandmother was my father’s sister) is the life partner of Bruce Rodgers, the founding executive director of the Hermitage Artist Retreat.
They had come up from Florida to hear the piano concerto by Fletcher at Saturday night’s ASO performance and had invited me to join then. (The Hermitage also gives an annual prize at the Aspen Music Festival – another link).
We had dinner at Pasta di Pulcinella with Fletcher and his husband, Ronald Schiller before going to the show. Fletcher was calm yet serious before the performance, saying he was totally comfortable to have his concerto in the hands of Spano, Barnatan and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. They were delighted to have just read a positive review of the concerto by Jon Ross in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, based on the Thursday performance.
The concerto had first premiered last July at the Aspen Music Festival, with Spano as the conductor, and Barnatan as the pianist. The concerto also was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with a different conductor. And it was clear Fletcher had a special comfort level as well as a high level of respect of Spano and the ASO.
After the performance of the complex piano concerto and an artful rendition of Claude Debussy’s Prelude – “L’après-midi d’un faune” and “Scheherazade” by Rimsky-Korsakov, we were able to visit with Spano in his private room in the bowels of Symphony Hall.
It was a privilege to witness the artists – before, during and after – a big performance. Spano was especially emotional because it was the last night that Reid Harris, ASO’s principal violist, would be part of the orchestra – retiring after a 39-year career.
After attending an after-concert reception for Harris, Spano slipped out so he could visit with Rodgers and Fletcher in his private area. He was thrilled with the prospect that he would be able to sleep in Sunday morning – and that he would have a small break before having to begin his duties in Aspen.
Spano said he was surprised how emotional he was knowing he only had three seasons left as ASO’s music director.
These next three years are going to be pivotal for the ASO as the Woodruff Arts Center decides whether to build a new Symphony Hall or totally redo the existing Hall – in a similar way that it is transforming the Alliance Theatre.
“Part of my tenure is to have a long-term Symphony Hall solution,” Shipman told Kiwanians, adding the Atlanta community is embracing the institution. “This year, at the Symphony, 90 percent of the seats have been sold.”
The Woodruff Arts Center, celebrating its 50th anniversary this fall, is in the midst of a new strategic plan that will address the future of Atlanta’s Symphony Hall.
As one ASO patron told me Saturday night, both the Alliance and the High have enjoyed transformational investments in the past decade. Now it’s the Symphony’s moment.
On Saturday night, that really hit home.
After nearly 20 years of talking about it – Atlanta’s next big challenge should be to build a new or revamped Symphony Hall.
Our city, our concert patrons as well as our ASO leaders and musicians deserve it.