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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

These days, when we hear about symphony orchestras in the U.S., more often than not, we hear about financial troubles, canceled concerts and labor strikes. But today, we're going to hear from an orchestra that has been transformed.

Ten years ago, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra had been through a strike and a falling out with its conductor. Then it got a new musical director, Robert Spano.

Now, as Jeff Lunden reports, Spano has turned the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra into a world-class ensemble and an incubator for new American music.

(Soundbite of music)

JEFF LUNDEN: That's a new fanfare by composer Christopher Theofanidis. It's one of 10 new fanfares commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra to celebrate Robert Spano's 10th season as music director.

Like most American orchestras, the Atlanta Symphony plays all the standard pieces in the repertoire, from Mozart to Gershwin. But under Spano's tenure, he's made it his mission to showcase new music, and he champions the music of a group of composers now known as the Atlanta School.

Mr. ROBERT SPANO (Music Director, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra): We had the idea not to have a composer-in-residence, but rather to work with a few composers regularly over time, and not play just one work of theirs, but to play existing music of theirs - second, third, fourth performances; also to commission and do premieres of their music, to record it, to repeat it, to make them part of our musical life, our musical family.

(Soundbite of music, "Higdon: City Scape: I. Skyline")

One of the members of the family is Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon. She's had six works performed and recorded by the orchestra, including "City Scape," a musical portrait of Atlanta.

Ms. JENNIFER HIGDON (Composer): You know, for a composer, that sort of experience is the complete dream. I mean, it's just incredible to have a phenomenal orchestra with a really committed music director who believes enough in a piece to record the work on a major label and get it out there in the world. I don't think it gets any better than that, to be quite honest.

LUNDEN: But Higdon remembers when Robert Spano first got the job, there were doubters.

Ms. HIGDON: They said, you know, Atlanta is a southern town. It's conservative. It's a social scene at the orchestra. New music isn't going to fly. And I remember talking to him about this. I'm like, how do you feel about them saying this? And he said, not a problem. I know what to do. I'm going to go in. I'll be convincing on the podium, you know? He says, this is a journey we all need to take together, and he was already, right off the bat, planning kind of long term.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Spano is well aware of his audience and says he doesn't want them to just appreciate these composers, but to love their music. Before new pieces, he presents videos and gives talks. And concerts featuring work by the Atlanta School of Composers are regularly filled close to capacity. While these composers have different personal styles, they write in an accessible musical language. And Spano says there's one thing they all share.

Mr. SPANO: They're interested in tunes. They use tonality, and they're all interested in either popular or world music or both. And that influences their writing and is part of their musical language.

(Soundbite of song)

ATLANTA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

LUNDEN: Composer Christopher Theofanidis says he appreciates the care Robert Spano takes to prepare each new work for performance.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER THEOFANIDIS (Composer): He did something unheard of, which is that he gave me two full two and a half hour rehearsals with the orchestra to kind of workshop the piece prior to the actual performance week. Then the performance week, we have the full rehearsal schedule, of course, and everything else. It was just done in the best possible way. So by the time we got to the performance, it was - a lot of what could have been some pretty serious kinks were really ironed out.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PIERRE RUHE (Music Critic, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): It almost brings a tear to your eye when the orchestra plays beautifully, plays well, plays this world premiere. It's not the orchestra getting the most applause, it's the composer.

LUNDEN: Pierre Ruhe is music critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. And while he appreciates Spano's commitment to new music, he feels that not all of these composers are challenging the audience.

Mr. RUHE: They're giving the audience what the audience is expecting from a good piece of music. And so the craft is very high. The sound world is familiar.

LUNDEN: But Argentine-born Osvaldo Golijov is one composer whose sound world is frequently challenging and unexpected. Robert Spano has played about a dozen of his pieces with the Atlanta Symphony. And Golijov says the collaboration has made him a better composer.

Mr. OSVALDO GOLIJOV (Classical Music Composer): I feel that Robert is not just the conductor for my music, but also he's a great editor. He's someone that challenges me in sometimes very provocative ways. And he doesn't take the text as sacred. He elevates me. He questions me.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: Robert Spano says his proudest accomplishment over the past 10 years has been to foster, nurture and record new work.

Mr. SPANO: I get excited about being part of a process where the person who's writing the music is also going through a voyage of discovery in their own musical life and in terms of what they're writing, what they're writing for, what forces. And to be part of that is just exhilarating.

LUNDEN: Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra just announced they've created a new record label - ASO Media - so that they can continue to record new work.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: At our website, you can hear more of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Robert Spano conducting. That's at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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