‘Bright, energetic presence’: David Robertson prepares to take final bow as symphony music director
This weekend, St. Louisans will say goodbye to a maestro known for honoring the magnificence of classical music while also making it approachable for the everyday person.
Among Robertson’s most enduring accomplishments is that he hired 44 of the orchestra’s 80 musicians, including 10 of the principal positions. Robertson brought in cellist Bjorn Ranheim in 2005 after hearing him play, as a student, with the Aspen Music Festival.
“I remember seeing him walk in,” Ranheim said. “He was just this bright energetic presence.”
Under Robertson’s tenure, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra won a Grammy Award, played at Carnegie Hall 17 times, and went to Europe for the first time in 14 years.
Robertson has constantly amazed the orchestra with his mind, according to Ranheim.
“He has surprised us in the breadth of his musical knowledge from Bach and early Mozart and Haydn all the way through the most modern of pieces, that were just finished a week or two ago,” Ranheim said.
But while Robertson is known for his expansive knowledge, it’s his sense of humor that many admire. Felicia Foland remembers a 2014 performance in which she and the other bassoonists swaggered on stage wearing black leather motorcycle jackets, holding fake but realistic-looking cigarettes to perform a concerto called “Hell’s Angels.”
“Maestro shook his finger at us. You know, he’s saying, ‘No smoking on stage,’ and we are acting angry as we put out our theater cigarettes,” Foland said. “And we had a lot of fun with that. He's just, he's just incredibly playful.”
Foland says Robertson’s good humor also shows up in the rehearsal process, where mistakes are viewed as a natural part of experimentation.
“He's very patient with us,” Foland said. “And when you are patient with 100 people, you get a real trust.”
Developing that trust with individual musicians benefits the entire orchestra, according to Robertson.
“You don't have this sense of, ‘Oh, I better not screw up,’” Robertson said. “Because if that's the atmosphere I find in a group, the actual creative expressive work that we look to, in music, never happens.”
‘Everybody sort of melted’
Sometimes it’s not the orchestra but the Powell Hall concertgoers who disrupt the flow of the music. For example, in the midst of a symphonic moment, someone might drop their purse, or start to cough.
Former professional singer and symphonygoer Kati Guerra knows well the many ways in which an audience can inadvertently contribute to the auditory experience.
“Sometimes there are people who sound like they should be in a tuberculosis ward — and of course the unwrapping of the throat lozenges,” Guerra said.
Instead of giving a stern look, Guerra recalled a specific incidence in which Robertson smiled toward the offender and shrugged.
“And all of a sudden this tense mood — we were all expecting, ‘Oh, it’s wrong to make that noise’ or whatever — but instead everybody sort of melted and laughed along,” Guerra said, “and all of a sudden the orchestra and the audience were together.”
Racial diversity remains elusive
Robertson’s 13-year legacy started with his serving as a kind of ambassador for the orchestra — and St. Louis, overall — as the symphony recovered from a difficult time. Months before he became music director, a conflict between management and musicians brought the season to a halt for two months.
At the end of his tenure, Robertson’s leadership paves the way for a smooth transition as Stéphane Denève prepares to step into the role of music director in 2019.
An unmet challenge that will fall to Denève: furthering racial diversity. While the number of female musicians increased during Robertson’s tenure — to 54 percent, a level not found in any other U.S. orchestra —but only one African-American in the group. The symphony has several Asians and Asian-Americans but no Hispanic or Latino members. It’s an issue not only in St. Louis, but every city with a major orchestra, Robertson said.
“What I would love is, indeed, to have an orchestra that reflects absolutely the various different individual groups that make up any society,” Robertson said.
The path to achieving diversity is paved with early intervention, Robertson said. During his time here, Robertson worked to expose a much wider group of St. Louisans to classical music through the In Unison Chorus and programs such as “Symphony in Your School.” The idea is to offer new listeners a variety of music in unorthodox settings, he said.
“You present something with integrity and with heart and with passion because there are different kinds of tastes, and some people may be drawn more to one thing or to another,” Robertson said. “You never know what may spark somebody.”
Robertson will continue as artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia through 2019. He recently began a new post as director of conducting studies at Juilliard.
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL
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