David Robertson / Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra & St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
WYNTON MARSALIS: Swing Symphony
Blue Engine Records, 2019
“What amazing music this is, a feast of colors alternately bold and pastel, textures by turn delicately transparent and busily turbulent. Robertson and the DSO made it all as fresh and vivid — and frankly sensuous — as it must have been at its premiere. The music never lost balletic buoyancy or visceral urgency.”
Scott Cantrell, Dallas Morning News
On Stravinsky’s Firebird
Dallas Symphony Orchestra
April 26, 2019
The production was asking bigger questions: “Where does creativity come from? Where does love stem from, and what happens when love and creativity are blended together?”
Mr. Robertson said he thought the project was a wholly new take on Mann’s story. “This doesn’t replace the novella, the film or the opera,” he said. “It augments this fantastic creation that Thomas Mann has made.”
“… carefully paced cohesive dynamism from conductor and SSO Artistic Director David Robertson…”
Peter McCallum, The Sydney Morning Hearld
Sydney Symphony Orchestra
February 11, 2019
“The program ended with a strikingly fresh account of Sibelius’s popular Second Symphony. Mr. Robertson drew out the music’s misty colorings and hints of Finnish folk song, while emphasizing the visionary elements of this 1902 score, especially its structural daring, full of startling disruptions to the music’s flow.”
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
New York Philharmonic
October 11, 2018
Brahms Revelation: A Sydney Symphony Orchestra Mini-Festival
“Conductor David Robertson and the orchestra realised Dean’s evocative accompaniments with flair and precision, smoothly shifting between foreground and background.”
“He and the orchestra tore straight into the finale from the scherzo, and the impassioned urgency was almost overwhelming.”
Murray Black, The Australian
On the World Premiere of Brett Dean’s Cello Concerto, and Brahms Symphony No. 4
August 24, 2018
My recent concerts in Beijing with the China NCPA Orchestra – at the spectacular National Center for the Performing Arts – were framed as an opportunity to experience the changes that classical music has taken over the past hundred years. Two programs included Stravinsky’s Petruschka and Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (The Age of Anxiety), Alfred Schnittke’s Viola Concerto, and Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a now nearly ubiquitous work by my musical compatriot, John Adams. The compositions span about 75 years (1911-1986), and a range of musical ideas, some of which fairly directly reflect the moment and place in which they were written. There is the argument that the world changed more in the 20th century than all the centuries that preceded it, and that transformation is certainly profound. But stepping into the 21st century, if only in the realm of music, with its digital bridge between cultures, the rapid, two-way elevation of interest in ‘classical’ music between East and West, and the relative ease of communication and exchange of ideas is head-spinning and exhilarating in a whole, new way. Making music with a new orchestra (this was my first visit to the China NCPA Orchestra, and I hope the first of many), is never just about the musical selections, but about the creative energy, ideas, and even heritage – among other things – that musicians and conductors alike bring to the stage. China’s interest in classical music, both as import and export, has been codified over the first years of the 21st century (I can think of more than a few Chinese musical artists who are now recognized internationally, and European and American Orchestras now regularly visit China). The wonderful discovery for me in Beijing, was what the young, extraordinarily talented musicians contributed to the music-making, their influences or interpretive tendencies, questions in rehearsal or even interesting quirks. It seems to me that the playing field of classical music is now bigger and more secure than ever, clearly spanning more continents than its origins suggest, and that its future is about collaboration, from many points of view.
You could call the Sydney Symphony Orchestra 2019 Season valedictory, a crescendo or culmination, and it is all of those things for David Robertson, but it’s also a portal. Although 2019 is his final season as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director with Sydney, he lends a willing hand to the Orchestra as it begins the search for a successor, and to the city he has fallen in love with as its beloved Sydney Opera House prepares to close for a major renewal.
“This is a transition year in certain ways so that was one of the things we thought about,” DR told Limelight, Australia’s Classical Music and Arts Magazine. “How does the SSO move to the next chapter?” For his part, “I’ll be coming back every season for the foreseeable future.” With pleasure.
To help the SSO build bridges to its future, DR welcomes – and welcomes back – esteemed colleagues to the podium. In recognition of his 50 year relationship with the SSO, former Principal Conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy will return as Conductor Laureate, Scottish conductor Donald Runnicles will become Principal Guest, and the Australian Simone Young will assume the title Guest Conductor.
Perhaps the most consequential of new beginnings is the first official season of Emma Dunch as the Orchestra’s CEO – and a fitting musical celebration for DR, Australian-style, is a first order of business: “Next year we celebrate the conclusion of David Robertson’s acclaimed tenure as our Chief Conductor and Artistic Director and his concert weeks will be pulling out all the stops with ten blockbuster programs,” she said, as an introduction to 2019.
DR kickstarts the festivities with the February 2019 SSO Season Opening Gala, featuring an encore performance of Nigel Westlake’s 2017 Spirit of the Wild oboe concerto, with SSO Principal Diana Doherty, and music by R. Strauss and Grainger – and ends on a November high note, with American Harmonies: the Australian premiere of Christopher Rouse’s Bassoon Concerto and John Adams’ Harmonielehre, with Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. That’s only a taste of the terrain DR traverses in the musical adventure of the 2019 season. Stuart Skelton sings Britten’s Peter Grimes in concert performances; The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra joins their SSO colleagues for the Australian premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ The Jungle – Symphony No. 4; Susan Graham sings Canteloube’s ethereal Songs of the Auvergne in a Francophile’s dream, with music by Charbier and Saint-Saëns; and Lang Lang returns for a gala Mozart performance, with music by Berio and Schubert. Varèse, Janáček, Reich, Bartók, and Shostakovich, also ignite the season – but the show stopper may be Tom Stoppard and André Previn’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour: A Play for Actors and Orchestra… it’s hard to choose!
On July 16, 2018, David Robertson and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra received the Helpmann Award – Australia’s equivalent of the Tony Awards – for Best Symphony Orchestra Performance for their performances of Bluebeard’s Castle at the Sydney Opera House, November 29 – December 2, 2017. On November 21, 2017, Limelight – Australia’s Classical Music and Arts Magazine – published the article below, “David Robertson on the Darkness at the Heart of Bluebeard’s Castle.”
Like Béla Bartók, many turn of the century composers were attracted to the story of Duke Bluebeard, perhaps because for the first time the complexity of women was being taken seriously. Major novelists like the Brontës and George Sand, and characters in literature like Madame Bovary, meant that all of a sudden, Bluebeard was seen as not just a European version of the Thousand and One Nights, but a deeper questioning of the differences between the sexes.
On the one hand, you can look at Perrault’s 1697 folk tale with its inquisitive wife as an extension of the Wagnerian Lohengrin-Elsa dilemma or the Christian idea of Eve’s curiosity being her downfall, but by the time we get to the works of Maeterlinck, which influenced Béla Balázs’ poem from which Bartók’s libretto was taken, there was a sense that psychoanalysis had gazed into the depths of the human soul. It’s as if you are looking into a very deep well and you can’t see the bottom, but occasionally you can put a bucket down and bring something up.
Bluebeard’s Castle is less an opera about action as it is an opera about people. Isaiah Berlin has a wonderful phrase for it, which is “the dark mass of factors that make up human kind”. It was a male dominated society beginning to recognise the importance of the feminine point of view that inspired Schoenberg’s Erwartung or the work of Austrian writers like Schnitzler or Stefan Zweig. There’s a new awareness of just how complex the interaction can be between male and female. The director Peter Stein once said to me “Thank goodness, because if there weren’t, there would be no theatre left!”
Balázs’ poem clearly struck a chord with Bartók, and his opera is a culmination of the way love works as shown in his three theatre pieces (The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin also show extreme forms of the male-female relationship). The dynamic between Bluebeard and Judith especially appealed to the composer who had been in a doomed relationship with the violinist Stefi Geyer, for whom he wrote some very passionate music, that had never come to fruition. Bluebeard’s Castle is actually dedicated to his first wife Márta, though I’m not sure this is one that I would devote to my significant other.
Bartók, I think, identifies with both characters, so I hope audience members don’t just root for their own team as it were. The aspect of fear at the beginning with a male character who is trying to let someone in is certainly not exclusive to one gender. And then there’s Judith, wishing to know more about this person, but as she begins to understand her sense of idealism diminishes. I think males and females can reach a certain point and think “Really? That’s you… I see”. And that’s the difficulty of finding a mate.
The work is modern, but not overtly so. It’s never outwardly trying to shock. Stravinsky reached back into traditional Russian music to pull out primitive materials for The Rite of Spring, which he clothed in a great deal of dissonance. In Bluebeard, Bartók plugs into a much deeper tradition through his use of Hungarian folk music. The elemental melody right at the beginning that comes back at the end is in a sense saying that this is timeless – the eternal case of two different parts trying to find a unity.
In Bluebeard you hear Bartók finding his mature style, a style that is unlike anything anyone else is doing at the time. His use of the pentatone is highly original, and superimposing two separate whole tone scales that always remain themselves and never intertwine makes for music of an intensely chromatic colour.
The challenge for a conductor is to keep it feeling as though the singers are making it up as they go along, even though the structure is tightly controlled by the composer. You need a sense of going with the drama, because there’s no major action on the stage. To some extent it’s little more than “Here’s a door” – “Can I open it up?” – “Sure, here’s the key”. The piece has to gradually tighten towards the final door, while balancing an ever more enthusiastic Bluebeard with an ever more recalcitrant Judith. The final moment epitomises the passion and the tragedy of a union that can never transcend the fatal flaws contained within it at the outset.
“Through an absorbing, wide-ranging and emotionally consequential reading of the Haydn, one of the composer’s late great London symphonies, he and the players made everything count…. In the long and eventful first movement, the conductor and his adopted San Francisco players mustered a premonitory pressure in the slow opening bars. When the valve was released, in the quickening second subject, the driving impetus kicked in. Robertson turned the angular shifts and whirling development into an urgent musical argument, punctuated by hairpin-turn dynamics and dramatically sudden rests.”
Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle
On leading the San Francisco Symphony
May 27, 2018
It’s been an amazing partnership right from the start. It’s one of those things that lives on, and so to some extent, although I won’t have the regular rendezvous on the stage of Powell Hall, I can’t think of the experience with the orchestra in the past tense because it’s a living thing, it’s one of the things that has made me who I am, and so you carry that around with you all the time. There was this immediate chemistry, and then it developed into something which has meant a thirteen year music directorship where you can argue who’s been blessed the most by this, whether it’s been the musicians, the community, or myself… it’s just been an amazing, amazing thing.
David Robertson, on spending thirteen years with the St. Louis Symphony Orcherstra, Charlie Brennan Show, KMOX St. Louis, April 24, 2018
“Robertson is a brilliant polymath who can casually toss a connecting reference to a painting or a work of literature into a musical discussion. He’s got a great ear for talent, a gift for gab, a well-tuned sense of humor and a friendly way with audiences… Over 13 seasons, Robertson introduced dozens of pieces new to the repertoire, including some commissions. He and the SLSO played the soundtracks to Charlie Chaplin’s silent films and brought in new audiences. He started a series of contemporary chamber music with the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, with concerts that sold out almost instantly…He’s put his mark on the orchestra in other ways, too, hiring 44 of the SLSO’s current 91 musicians, including 10 principal players. Under Robertson’s leadership, the St. Louisans have been in the forefront of American orchestras…Robertson made the orchestra synonymous with the work of composer John Adams and made three recordings of his music for the Nonesuch label. That paid off: In 2015, the SLSO’s recording of “City Noir” won the Grammy Award for best orchestral performance. It was the orchestra’s first Grammy since 1991… In 2012, Robertson took the orchestra back to Europe for the first time since 1998 [including] an unforgettable debut for the SLSO at the BBC Proms in Royal Albert Hall. There were also four trips to Robertson’s native California, including university residencies. Visits to New York’s Carnegie Hall were once again a regular event…”
Sarah Bryan Miller, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
A look back on David Robertson’s tenure as Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
May 4, 2018
“David Robertson’s conducting was buoyant (as in the clipped phrases of the chorus “Bella vita militar!”) and hauntingly transparent when necessary…”
Heidi Waleson, The Wall Street Journal
On Così fan tutte, at The Metropolitan Opera
March 19, 2018
I have often given a talk before a concert to highlight certain ideas it might be helpful to think about before listening. There is a danger inherent in speaking about something as ungraspable as music. In crucial ways, the music and the program where it finds its local context have to speak for themselves. What is fascinating is just how free the associations can be for each of us. It requires us to be receptive not only to the works at hand, but to ourselves. For this, we often need quiet to really be in the moment. This is the same quiet the composers need to write a piece, the same one the performers need to convey its ineffable meaning.
“Over the course of four movements, no precise narrative is spelled out, yet Adams’ descriptive titles and his cinematic music go a long way in unfolding a potent drama, masterfully illuminated by conductor David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra… It begins with a strum of harp strings, the whoosh of winds and the clatter of a cimbalom (hammered dulcimer), as if a brightly colored curtain is swept back, inviting listeners inside. Here, we meet Scheherazade in the form of violinist Leila Josefowicz, a longtime Adams collaborator and courageous champion of new music, who gives a searing performance.”
Tom Huizenga, NPR Music
On Scheherazade.2 by John Adams
September 22, 2016
“David Robertson, the St. Louis’s music director, shaped ‘Canyons’ with a sure hand. He quelled any suspicion that the work is indulgent or rambling; at the same time, he respected Messiaen’s meditativeness, his silences. The orchestra responded with playing of focus and fire.”
Alex Ross, The New Yorker
On Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars…
February 22, 2016
David Robertson talks about Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars… photographer Deborah O’Grady’s extraordinary visual accompaniment, and building the 2016 project for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
“David Robertson and his St Louis orchestra do a sleek and beautifully layered job…” – David Nice, BBC Music Magazine
“That David Robertson conducted the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night in the most transparent and riveting account of Sibelius’s elusive Fifth Symphony in memory would have been momentous enough…. As they applauded the boss after the Gruber piece, the musicians seemed impressed with Mr. Robertson’s daring and versatility. How many conductors could gleefully sing the crazed words ‘Frankenstein is dancing with the test-tube lady’ and then 24 hours later lead a serenely confident account of Wagner’s most spiritual music?”
Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times
April 5, 2009