In writing about the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary American cities, the word infrastructure frequently issues forth from the keyboard. Sometimes it is paired with the words “challenges” or “failures.” In a more neutral context, it often is a corollary to nitty-gritty utility systems that keep the metropolis heated, moving, cooled and lighted, or on another scale, buildings that provide shelter for commerce and living. Then there are transportation systems that allow us movement from here to there and also businesses and institutions that finance our communal lives and provide education and information in its many forms. There are more elements of infrastructure, but that’s not the point here.
The point is, I insist something far more subtle but equally dynamic qualifies as infrastructure, and that is our collection of cultural and scientific institutions. I believe they belong as essential members of the infrastructural litany. My list may be incomplete, but it covers what I regard as mandatory in a city of the size, maturity, historical significance and value of St. Louis.
My list includes my craft, journalism, and its manifestation as public media –a bias-free flow of information reported in depth as a public service. St. Louis Public Radio, my employer and my source of news, for example, is essential. So too are powerhouses such as the history museum, the art museum, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the Danforth Plant Science Center, Citygarden, the Eads Bridge, and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Zoo. All essential.
But high on my list – oh yes indeed – is the St. Louis Symphony. And standing on top of that organization, literally, waving his baton and radiating magic, is its music director, David Eric Robertson.
In the past two years I have been lucky – privileged really – to see and to hear the orchestra and Maestro Robertson in St. Louis at Powell Hall and at the Pulitzer Foundation, and that should be enough to satisfy even the most devout melomane. But in addition I have followed along in 2012 as the orchestra and its conductor performed their way through great music halls in Europe – the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Berlin Philharmonie, the Kultur- und Kongresscentrum in Lucerne, and the Salle Pleyel in Paris.
Robertson is no stranger to the European musical establishment and is a regular on podiums all over the world. He, in fact, organized the 2012 tour himself in collaboration with his manager, the distinguished artistic manager David V. Foster, president and CEO of Opus 3.
During the intermission of the final 2012 tour concert in Paris, Foster and I talked about the tour and its obvious success, and how he and Robertson accomplished the intricate business of putting it all together. What that conversation revealed was not only the strength of the 2012 tour itself, and of the St. Louis orchestra, but of Robertson’s ability to navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of touring and performances abroad. As it happened, the Europeans knew all about us.
“’We went to halls where people knew what St. Louis was doing,” Foster said. “The possibility of a visit was discussed, and agreements were made and details hammered out. For a while, there were five possible performance venues. Eventually the four halls and festivals came into focus: the Albert Hall in London, the Philharmonie in Berlin, the KKL in Lucerne and the Salle Pleyel in Paris. And in January, the tour was announced. A couple of weeks later a free preview concert was performed in Powell Hall, and the St. Louis audience was psyched.”
The audiences in Europe were psyched too. Each concert hall was filled; audiences responded enthusiastically, often on their feet. The response to the first concert at the sold-out Albert Hall was tumultuous; there, thousands of concertgoers stood for the entire Proms concert, joined by the seat-occupying patrons who rose as one when the show was done.
Similarly, this November, I was in the audience for yet another over-the-top response to the work of the St. Louis orchestra. There was silence when the music ended. But then, a huge commotion of applause and cheering commenced – a loud standing ovation that went on and on in recognition of a orchestra’s supreme and even historic moment -- its performance of Benjamin Britten’s” “Peter Grimes” at Carnegie Hall in New York City, marking Baron Britten’s centenary.
All these concerts were conducted by music director David Robertson.
On Tuesday, some good news came by email from Adam Crane, symphony vice president for external affairs. Robertson, one of the most luminous pieces in our civic infrastructural mosaic, has extended his contract as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Society through the 2017-18 season.
As much as I love our new Mississippi River bridge, resplendent in its bold, cable-stayed magnificence, for me and thousands of others in St. Louis – some of whom have never darkened the door of 718 North Grand Blvd. – Robertson’s contract extension has implications that extend far beyond western Illinois and eastern Missouri. By adding years to his contract, he has contributed mightily to the St. Louis region’s efforts to reinvent itself and to emerge as a dynamic 21st century metropolis.
A major city simply cannot hold up its head unless it wears the cultural crown of a major symphony orchestra led by a player in an international ensemble of top-flight artists.
But before we perform a coronation, let’s look at the foundation of this man’s character, a major component of which is his generosity. If you didn’t read St. Louis Public Radio’s article story about his purchase and donation of a bassoon to a school band in Marissa, Ill., take a look at it.
And after the 2012 tour, I wrote this about him.
“David Robertson’s communicative skills are not reserved for music alone. He loves the spotlight and is a showman extraordinaire …
“But in a one-on-one dialogue, when he makes you feel you’re the only person in the world, to entire music halls filled with listeners eager to be beneficiaries of his good humor and deep understanding of music and philosophy and history and his ability to put a subject into context, one can count on Robertson’s being interesting, and smart and funny and personal….
On the last evening of the tour, I wrote that at the closing night party, “The most touching moment came when [Robertson] looked around the room at the musicians his colleagues and fellow soldiers in service of art. ‘You have made us so proud,’ he said.”
And indeed they had.
But then again, over and over again, so has this maestro, this Mensch, this musical wizard made us, his fellow St. Louisans, proud and happy, whether he is conducting Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or John Adams or Elliott Carter or John Cage or Jean Sibelius or Benjamin Britten – or Bach and Beethoven and George Gershwin – or perhaps changing a boy’s life by buying his school a bassoon.
Grateful is what all of us should be with the good infrastructural, aesthetic, musical, heartwarming news brought to us this morning.
We shall have David Robertson among us through 2018. Let’s start agitating now to have him here for years and years beyond.