"You don't begin from nothing."
Next September David Robertson becomes the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra's 12th music director. He will be the second American-born conductor to serve in the position, the previous being Leonard Slatkin. He will be the Orchestra's first music director since the late Hans Vonk resigned, due to illness, in 2002.
Robertson arrives in St. Louis after serving as Music Director of the Orchestre Nationale de Lyon as well as the Artistic Director of that city's Auditorium. From the experience of filling these dual roles, he knows some things about programming and audience development. From 1992 to 2002 he was Music Director of Paris's Ensemble Intercontemporain, founded by his mentor, Pierre Boulez. It is perhaps from this relationship that it has been perceived by some in the critical community that Robertson is more interested in the modern and postmodern repertoire, and less adherent to the classical core.
But when Robertson discusses the programming for his inaugural season, it is clear that he is far from being a musical radical. He is an artist of inclusion, meaning not only that he seeks ways to combine works of various periods and styles, but that he also wants to include a wide and varied audience. He wants to entertain those who are "perhaps not well informed, but simply interested and curious." He means to "leave the door open" to both the specialist and the uninitiated. He intends to take audiences beyond the familiar.
Robertson has a deep understanding and knowledge of the nearly 300 years of orchestral repertoire. He also appreciates the history of the orchestra he's come to direct. "Having the second-oldest orchestra in the United States goes very well with me, because I'm the second child," he offers as an aside.
"You want everything in the program to have an awareness of heritage, an awareness of the lineage it comes from," Robertson says, describing the basis for his selections. "Although we live very definitely in the present, we find our sources where the spring comes from, in an earlier place and an earlier time. But the water we're working with right now is flowing right with us." Robertson looks to works of the past both for their historical importance, "and also for their present importance to us."
To understand Robertson's philosophy in regard to time, history, and music‹and how these all come together to form the orchestral experience‹a good word to know is "palimpsest."
In the ancient Greek form of the word, it literally means "scraped again." A palimpsest is writing material, such as parchment or even a stone tablet, which is used again and again. Even as earlier writing is erased, the impressions of previous marks remain. Palimpsest provides a useful metaphor for history, how one generation builds as the next rebuilds, the next renovates, the next destroys, the next builds again with the rubble of past time.
Having lived in Europe as well as in the Middle East (he was a resident conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra), Robertson has seen the metaphor as it is lived in the quotidian mix of ancient and modern life. "You see it in stone surfaces," he says, "and you see it in places like Jerusalem and Rome, where you have ancient foundations over which are built newer things. This is precisely how our experience of music works. We build on our experience of music of the past with things that we bring from the present."
Palimpsest is also the title of a work by contemporary English composer George Benjamin that will be performed late next season. On the same program, Robertson will conduct Sibelius's Seventh Symphony and Brahms's Second Piano Concerto. Robertson conceives of every program as a window into a realm of human experience. Each program is not only unique, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience as well.
"This particular program is really about timeless serenity," the conductor says. Benjamin's contemporary work "seems to rediscover music of the very ancient past; it takes the idea of early music as a continuum and brings it right up to the present day." The Sibelius, then, "is a work looking forward, but also seems to hark back to music of an elemental level. He's tapped into the elemental stuff, and I suppose it's the purity that connects with the Benjamin, which is also a pure kind of sound.
"In the Sibelius Seven," Robertson continues, "the tension of his earlier work has been transformed into this architectural masterpiece. Follow this with Brahms's Second Piano Concerto, which contains much of the struggle of his first concerto, but now is totally controlled and transformed. By the last movement it doesn't have to try to solve the crises because all of the age and wisdom that has been gleaned is made palpable. Sibelius has pushed the Seventh Symphony into a realm where you wonder if 'symphony' is still the name you should use. In the same way, the Brahms concerto makes you ask if 'concerto' is really the right term for that."
Robertson builds his musical ideas layer on layer. In the act of performance, with Robertson conducting the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Powell Symphony Hall audience in rapt attention, these ideas expand so that all involved‹conductor, musicians, audience‹become participants in a dialogue, exploring, deciphering, interpreting, discovering the varied strata of musical experience.
"In the end," Robertson affirms, "the reason this music is interesting to us is that there's a human expression that comes from one human being and goes over to another. And how it affects each person individually is what makes the musical experience so fascinating."
You don't begin from nothing, nor do you end there.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.