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David Robertson: Virtuoso of the St. Louis Symphony and family life

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 10, 2013 - David Robertson’s "red phone" isn’t red at all. A black cell phone handles all urgent communications between St. Louis Symphony music director and his family. 

During our interview, his wife, internationally acclaimed pianist Orli Shaham, rings Robertson from New York.

“Hang on, this is home. It might be important,” Robertson says.

During Shaham’s Pilates class, Robertson is the point of contact for their young twins’ school. There’s no crisis this day; Shaham’s calling to say all is well.

But when you have a pair of 5-year-olds, it’s imperative that one parent be available at all times.

“In case the kindergarten calls and says the boys just bit someone,” Robertson explains. “Or in case the boys were just bitten by someone.”

‘Camelot’ to Chopin

Sandwiched between an older and younger sister, Robertson, 54, grew up in a music-loving family in Malibu, Calif. His research-scientist father played guitar, banjo, clarinet and harmonica, and his literature-loving mother played piano. The soundtrack of Robertson’s daily life also included his mother's daily singing around the house.

Favorites included: "'The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ because that’s where she was from,” Robertson remembers. “And music from ‘Camelot’ and ‘Oklahoma.’”

The mom who sang about “a girl who cain’t say no” rarely said no to any interest of Robertson’s, “no matter how wacky,” he recalls. She and his father supported his horseback riding, photography and love of theater along with his devotion to French horn and violin, and his conducting debut at the age of 12.

Music emerged as the frontrunner when it came time to choose a focus for higher education. As a student at London’s Royal Academy of Music, Robertson concentrated on horn, composition and conducting.

“It was clear the musical stuff was something I not only really liked, but it turns out it was something I was evidently good at,” Robertson observes.

Long-distance lullabies

Today, Robertson’s career path circles the globe. In the 1980s, he was resident conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, later followed by eight years as music director of Paris’ Ensemble Intercontemporain, and four years with the Orchestre National de Lyon and the Lyon auditorium.

He’s been principal guest conductor with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and has led other premiere orchestras in opera houses around the world. This year he begins his ninth season with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, after leading the SLSO on its 2012 European tour. And of course, he's also very much at home at major U.S. classical music venues including Carnegie Hall.

In 2014, he also takes on a new post: artistic director and chief conductor of Australia’s Sydney Symphony. Already, he spends one-third of his time in St. Louis, one-third in New York and another third, traveling, according to Shaham.

How will he fit Australia into the mix? By paring down his U.S. guest-conducting appearances and confining most of his time Down Under to the summer months, the core of the Sydney season, he says.

“The lion’s share of what I do down there will be during the period that St. Louis is not playing concerts,” Robertson explains. “That’s one of the things that made it attractive.”

Summer’s also when school breaks allow Robertson’s family -- including not only 5-year-old Nathan and Alex but also his 22- and 21-year-old sons Peter and Jonathan and a miniature Dachshund -- to be together more, whether it’s Australia or any other location the schedule takes them.

More videos and articles featuring David Robertson and Orli Shaham

Rehearsal of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue,"conducted by David Robertston and featuring Orli Shaham on piano, followed by an interview with Shaham about playing the ubiquitous piece

Robertson addresses the Sydney Symphony about his new position

Shaham plays and talks about Ravel

"New York Times" on Robertson's unique ability to attract diverse audiences

Traveling for work also means Robertson and Shaham take turns at parenting solo. But the younger boys always get a good-night lullaby from the absent parent, via cell phone.

“We sing the Brahms lullaby with our own words and then we give the boys a chance to choose what they’d like to hear,” Shaham says.

The twins’ current favorite? “‘The ‘Force Theme’ from ‘Star Wars,’” Shaham says, suggesting that their musical interests are as varied as those of the family Robertson grew up in.

Last month, the couple shared rare time together sans kids, thanks to the Symphony’s scheduling her as its soloist on Valentine’s Day weekend.

“Little perks like that help us out,” Shaham notes.

‘Little bit of a ham’

Robertson’s creative approach to parenting is illustrated by an activity that followed one twin’s recent request for a conducting baton. Shaham, busy with breakfast, was grateful when Robertson handled the subsequent need for a baton case.

“Of course, by now, both boys wanted one,” Shaham says. “So David made cases out of the brown rolls inside gift-wrapping paper, and stuffed tissue paper into the ends to hold the batons.”

Robertson enjoys music jams with his boys, even the young twins, who play piano and violin. What’s surprising is that they’re all learning together. A few years ago, Shaham gave her husband an electric guitar, a new instrument for him, which began a new hobby of covering work ranging from the composers of the Renaissance to modern-day rocker Eric Clapton.

“David is better than the twins are but at this point, not that much better, so they have fun together,” Shaham says.

Robertson mocks his own progress. “Here I work with musicians who are the finest in the world, literally, and I pick up this instrument and I’m so ashamed of what I sound like,” he says.

Robertson’s departure from the formalities and singular focus usually associated with prominent maestros is also evident in interactions with musicians and audiences. “He’s a little bit of a ham,” reports flautist Jennifer Nitchman, who’s been with the SLSO 10 years and worked with Robertson for eight.

Nitchman points to Robertson’s recent antics during the 2012 New Year’s Eve performance.

“He did the most amazingly spot-on, incredibly involved imitation of Garrison Keillor,” Nitchman says. “I think some people who were listening on the radio thought we actually had Garrison Keillor as a special guest.”

Another celebrity that some confuse with the SLSO music director is the other David Robertson, the Yankees pitcher. Not only do they share a name, they share a shorthand version: D-Rob. Naturally, this has resulted in numerous misunderstandings in Twitter and other cyber-communications.

“I’ve had emails from people who said, ‘I’m sorry to hear about your injury,’” Robertson says. “Of course, anyone who’s seen my try to throw a baseball immediately knows there’s a huge difference between us.”

More tours, broader support are goals

While St. Louis’ D-Rob is known for his humor, he’s quite serious about the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s revered presence and future potential.

The Symphony begins a California tour March 15. After touring that state three years ago, the SLSO was immediately invited back, but the money is only now available for an encore. Such efforts, including last September’s successful European tour, require a substantial financial commitment from the St. Louis community, Robertson points out. But the return can be enormous.

“The orchestra members are such fantastic ambassadors,” Robertson says. “They really do take the message about what sort of community St. Louis is, well beyond our borders.”

Along with more tours, another of Robertson’s goals fills a need closer to home. He’d like for the orchestra to offer student concerts -- which now require schools to pay for transportation and a small fee -- free of charge.

A wider, more secure financial base is the ticket to realizing these goals, Robertson says. He notes that a core group of “absolutely stellar” St. Louis families has supported the Symphony and other arts institutions “throughout the 20th century.” But in the 21st century, more is needed.

“What amazes me is that there’s not broader support for the orchestra,” Robertson says. “I think the citizens of St. Louis have historically been able to profit from the largess of these very generous people.”

Symphony like a family

For every ticketed event the Symphony holds, it offers two and half free performances, according to Robertson’s math. These include dozens of free community concerts in schools, neighborhood venues and places of worship.

Other, low-cost performances include a $20-per-person concert series at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts that responds to the arts institution’s then-current exhibition.

Powell Hall programming, with this year’s offerings ranging from Benjamin Britten to Barry White, is designed to attract a wide audience. This past December, ticket sales and paid attendance were the highest of any December in more than 10 years.

But ticket sales alone don’t go very far toward sustaining an arts institution, Robertson says. Grants and philanthropy are critical pieces of the support pie. Attempting to fund the Symphony with ticket sales would be as ludicrous as trying to support a fine visual arts collection with museum entry fees.

“Tickets would start at three figures,” he says.

Robertson likens an arts organization to a an actual family with a household budget for its members -- it audiences. It’s necessary to stick with that budget but it’s “not a business proposition,” he emphasizes, it’s a “nurturing proposition” -- one that St. Louisans are not asked to support on a line-item basis.

“At the end of a meal, Mom doesn’t hand everyone a bill and say, ‘This is how much this evening’s meal cost you, out of your allowance,’” Robertson says. “That’s the nature of a family.”

And also, the nature of the St. Louis Symphony, in this family man’s estimation.

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