Passing the baton

Fort Worth Symphony fills hottest job vacancy in town with new music director Robert Spano

FWSO fills hottest job vacancy in town with new maestro Robert Spano

Robert Spano, Fort Worth Symphony
The man behind the mask is the new FWSO maestro. Photo by Karen Almond

Candidates for maestro need no longer apply. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra has appointed Robert Spano as its new music director to succeed Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who departed after last season.

Spano is a familiar face to Fort Worth audiences, having served as FWSO's principal guest conductor since 2019. His three-year term as music director will begin in the 2022-23 season.

Orchestra leaders made the announcement February 9 in an event at the Kimbell Art Museum, which was live-streamed through the FWSO Facebook page. They also unveiled their 2021-22 season lineup, which can be found here.

Spano, 59, is retiring after two decades as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which he shaped and built into "a force to be reckoned with," the New York Times writes. He'll be relocating to Fort Worth soon.

“I am thrilled to be joining the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and looking forward to getting better acquainted with the vibrant culture of this remarkable city,” Spano says in a release. “Every facet of the orchestra is clearly committed to its success — the management team, the supporters, the audience, and certainly the marvelous musicians who make up the orchestra itself.”

Spano becomes just the 10th music director in FWSO's 109-year history. His current title of principal guest conductor will change to music director designate on April 1, 2021, and then to music director on August 1, 2022. In the interim year, he will plan future seasons, oversee orchestral auditions, and conduct two concerts.

As music director, Spano will conduct six out of the orchestra’s 10 symphonic programs per season; be responsible for overseeing the orchestra and music staff; work closely with president and CEO Keith Cerny to shape the artistic direction of the orchestra and drive its continued growth; and serve as an ambassador for the orchestra and classical music in the Fort Worth community, according to the release.

In these pandemic times, of course, Spano will also help the orchestra transition back into pre-coronavirus music-making. A FWSO spokeswoman says all performances for the 2021-2022 season (which begins in late August) are scheduled to take place back in Bass Hall, and away from the orchestra's current, temporary home of Will Rogers Auditorium.

Inevitable comparisons to Harth-Bedoya
After Harth-Bedoya announced his plans to step down in May 2018, FWSO launched a search committee headed by chairman of the board Mercedes T. Bass and filled its calendar with guest conductors. But then COVID-19 hit, and travel restrictions and other considerations caused concerts to be canceled, postponed, and reconfigured. It is unclear whether anyone besides Spano was considered for the top job; a list of finalists was not made public.

In the release, Bass says she is a longtime fan of Spano’s and is personally excited to be appointing him.

“I have long admired his brilliant work with the Aspen Music Festival and School (where he is also music director), and I am confident that under Maestro Spano's baton, the FWSO will reach ever higher levels of musicianship,” she says. “This is a dream come true for me and I know the community of Fort Worth will welcome him with open arms.”

Spano’s appointment as Harth-Bedoya's successor represents a shift in priority for FWSO, from a young music director building his own career while building an orchestra, to an experienced leader who has a proven record of doing that elsewhere. FWSO leadership told The Dallas Morning News last spring that they were moving in that direction.

"We're looking for a superb musician with a well-established career," FWSO's Cerny told the newspaper then. "We would like to find someone who has extensive experience working with top symphonies and possibly opera companies, as well."

In Fort Worth, comparisons to Harth-Bedoya will be inevitable, as the Peruvian-born conductor became a beloved figure both on and off the podium. He and his wife, Dr. Maritza Cáceres, raised their three children in Fort Worth and still live here. And his high-profile side hustle, Cowboy Compost, encouraged residents to live "greener."

If media reports from Atlanta are any indication, Spano became just as beloved in that city during his 20-year tenure with the symphony.

"For a generation of ASO patrons, Spano simply is the orchestra; he's all they've ever known," wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 2019 profile of the maestro.

On the stage, the two music directors' strengths, goals, and visions seem remarkably similar. Like Harth-Bedoya, who started a Composer-in-Residence initiative at FWSO, Spano values inventive programming and champions the works of living composers.

"He has pushed the musicians to stay engaged and challenged by commissioning new works from young composers ... while Spano's novel collaborations with modern dance troupes and theater companies have infused old works with whimsy and imagination," the AJC piece says.

And, like Harth-Bedoya, Spano is also known as a loyal advocate of his orchestra musicians. 

"When the orchestra’s management, struggling with deficits, locked its players out in 2014, for the second time in two years, Mr. Spano took the rare step for a music director of speaking publicly on behalf of the musicians, more than 40 percent of whom had joined the orchestra during his tenure," the New York Times reported.

One FWSO musician says the orchestra is "delighted" to welcome Spano as its next music director. 

"We’ve enjoyed the working relationship we already have with Maestro Spano," says principal keyboardist Buddy Bray in the release. "And we look forward to a new phase of growth under his leadership.”

Patrons can get a preview of what's to come when Spano leads his next FWSO concert, March 16-18, at Will Rogers. He will conduct Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, featuring pianist Jeremy Denk, and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. For more information and tickets, visit the FWSO website.