After a Conductor Fell Ill, David Robertson Stepped In—and Stayed

Classical Music Features   After a Conductor Fell Ill, David Robertson Stepped In—and Stayed
 
The music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra bids farewell after 13 years.
David Robertson
David Robertson Jay Fram

On a Friday night in February 2002, David Robertson stepped in to conduct the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on tour at Carnegie Hall, replacing Hans Vonk who had suddenly fallen ill. Robertson was already music director of France’s Orchestre National de Lyon and had conducted many of America’s leading orchestras, but had led the SLSO only once before as a guest in 1999. He had a single three-hour rehearsal with the orchestra in New York.

The press raved over his last-minute performance. “This gifted and technically assured American conductor achieved brilliant results,” critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times. “The concertmaster David Halen engulfed Mr. Robertson in a bear hug, as the players put down their instruments to join in the applause.” The musicians didn’t know it then, but a fruitful 13-year music directorship would germinate from that moment.

“The orchestra was in a particularly difficult situation where we had that last-minute change at a very important time,” recalls SLSO bassoonist Felicia Foland, who has been a member of the orchestra since 1990. “What we actually learned that week was an incredible ability to collaborate with someone very joyously and successfully.”

The following December, the orchestra announced Robertson as its next music director, replacing Vonk, who had retired the previous April. Robertson officially arrived as music director in 2005, and will depart after this season. “For me, maestro Robertson’s whole tenure has been a joy of music making, and providing a welcoming environment to audiences,” says Foland. Her musical colleagues as well as lay members of the St. Louis community echoed these words, paying tribute to Robertson as both a musical visionary and a man of the people, who built the SLSO into a 21st-century orchestra.

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“How do I love him? Let me count the ways,” says radio host Charlie Brennan, who has frequently interviewed Robertson on his morning KMOX show. Brennan has also been a guest of the SLSO, most recently narrating Weill’s The Flight of Lindbergh at last season’s opening concert. “He doesn’t just stand there, conduct the orchestra, and conduct great music. He’s in the community, approachable, likeable, stays in great shape. He drops by the radio program, sometimes unannounced, and makes music sound so interesting. I can’t say a bad thing about him.”

David Robertson - cr. Jay Fram.jpg
David Robertson Jay Fram

Soprano Christine Brewer, who lives in Southern Illinois, has also enjoyed a long relationship with Robertson and the SLSO. “Working with David Robertson over the years has been one of the highlights of my musical career,” she says. “There are times when we don’t have to say a word, when a look from David will say it all. Of course, we’ve found a couple of spots in Strauss’ Four Last Songs and Barber’s Knoxville Summer of 1915 when we absolutely cannot look at each other or we’ll both burst into tears!”

Brewer began her career in the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, and has frequently returned as a soloist. She is also involved with the SLSO’s community programs and credits Robertson for supporting music education in the area, inviting sixth-grade students to closed rehearsals and surprising a local band program with an unusual donation. “David is always generous not only with his time, but with his spirit in engaging with the students,” Brewer wrote. “He even found out one year that one of the students wanted to play the bassoon, but the school didn’t have one. David bought the school a bassoon and sent the SLSO bassoon section to deliver it and to give this young man his first bassoon lesson!”

While deepening the SLSO’s roots in the St. Louis region, Robertson also raised the orchestra’s profile nationally and internationally. He led the orchestra in its first commercial recordings of the 21st century and took the ensemble on multiple tours to California, New York, and Europe. Through many of these projects, Robertson has championed modern American music, especially the work of composer John Adams.

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“I really see him as someone who wants to be right on the edge of what is new,” says William James, the SLSO’s principal percussionist. “We played works like Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony, that’s now a major piece. We were the first to record it and among the first to play it, so I really commend David for being ahead of the curve and trying to find the new gem out there. That takes a lot of work and isn’t as easy as people think. You’re trying to establish relationships with composers, and sometimes you’re committing to play something before it’s even finished. But that means you’re being involved with the creation.”

The orchestra’s recording of Adams’ City Noir won a 2015 Grammy Award for best orchestral performance (the orchestra’s seventh Grammy), and its recording of his Scheherazade.2 was nominated for another Grammy last year. Robertson has taken the orchestra on the road to perform Adams’ works everywhere from Palm Desert, California, to Champaign, Illinois, to New York, to Madrid.

Again and again under Robertson’s baton, the SLSO has triumphed at Carnegie Hall. From his first appearance in 2002, to a well-remembered 2009 performance where he unexpectedly performed the vocal solo in HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!!, to last year’s celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday, he made memories with the orchestra on that famous stage. But perhaps best of all was a 2013 performance of Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten’s 20th-century opera about the death of a fisherman’s apprentice.

“I have never heard this chilling scene performed with such vehemence,” Tommasini wrote in The New York Times. “David Robertson, conducting the St. Louis Symphony and Chorus and an ideal cast of singers headed by the superb tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, led an extraordinary concert performance.”

Foland, the bassoonist, recalls, “for me, the performance of Peter Grimes at home and at Carnegie was a real demarcation of a maturity of our relationship. A real excellence, too. I think the orchestra has never veered or slumped from that.”

The orchestra Robertson leaves at the end of the season is largely one of his making. The music director shapes the orchestra’s repertoire, crafts its sound, and has the final say in choosing new musicians. Over the last 13 years, Robertson has hired more than half of the current players, each selected through competitive rounds of blind auditions. In 2014, the SLSO also became the first major American orchestra to have over 50 percent female musicians, a landmark in an historically male-dominated field. And for musicians of every gender, the orchestra has developed a reputation as an inclusive and familial place to work.

“David genuinely cares about the people in the orchestra,” says James, the percussionist. “Time and time again David’s proved and shown he’s really a people person and he cares how we’re doing. I just had my second child, and David reached out to me to say congratulations. At the end of the day that’s far more important than any music we make.”

Charlie Brennan reflected on his appearances over the years as a narrator with the SLSO. “When working with David Robertson, one knows he is the presence of greatness. Every second is appreciated,” he says. “At the end of the concert run, it’s kind of sad, like the carnival is moving out of town. It’s like my weekend with David is over. But that’s show business.”

After Robertson’s tenure as music director draws to a close in May, there’s no doubt many more people in St. Louis will know this feeling. He will be missed on the podium and in the city, but his mark will remain on the orchestra he guided into the 21st century.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer, writer, and publications consultant to the St. Louis Symphony.

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