As conductor David Robertson and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra embark on their first official season together, they come to New York for two intriguing concerts at Carnegie Hall this month. Robertson and the orchestra will juxtapose one relatively traditional concert (albeit with a twist) with one that takes a new approach to combining the visual with the aural.
The first performance, on November 18, is called Seeing Debussy, Hearing Monet, and its aim is to compare and contrast two well-known impressionists, composer Claude Debussy and painter Claude Monet. As a Sound Insights event‹under the auspices of The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall‹the concert will offer not only complete performances of Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune and Jeux, but also lively discussions of the two artistic worlds.
"I'm very bad at drawing," admits Robertson, who likes to visit museums during downtimes in strange cities, "but I've always been fascinated by how looking at things is different from listening to things. There's a difference in perception. At the same time, we use so many words in music that are like words used in art. So I thought it would be interesting to explore one particular period‹the movement that is perhaps incorrectly named impressionism, applied to two different art forms but the same ideas."
Robertson chose Debussy's Prélude because "it was an early work, and completely pathbreaking." It's an easy one for people to comprehend, he says, and it's followed by Jeux, "a work from the end of his life‹also pathbreaking, but much harder for some people to get."
In the case of Monet, Robertson notes, "both informed critics and lay art lovers started to get what he was doing when he began painting his series of subjects such as cathedral facades at different times of the day. Then, at the end of his life, his water lilies and Japanese bridges were still about representational painting, but they were almost abstract art.
"I thought it would be interesting to look at the parallels and the differences, not to find any eternal verities, but in a personal way to explore how one person might put these together and, by extension, how all of us might make our own personal connection."
Robertson chose the paintings himself‹this is a very personal project. And, as recently as September, he was still working on the visual elements, striving to keep them "fluid in their musical presentation."
From Monet's oeuvre, he chose to use some series pieces from the 1890s for Prélude, and some of the water lilies for Jeux. But his aim wasn't to create a music and art history lecture. "Instead, it's about empowering people to make their own connections," the conductor says.
The second Perspectives concert this month, on November 19, will also have visual elements, but they'll be limited and presented without commentary. That's because one work, Morton Feldman's Coptic Light, was inspired by the sight of ancient Egyptian Coptic tapestries in the Louvre; Robertson thought it would be useful to show projections of the tapestries without further verbal explanation.
Robertson takes care in assembling programs. The three pieces in that concert were all selected, he says, because they share a quality of "looking toward another culture‹and the sense of completeness that that culture has‹which informs its philosophy." Coptic Light looks toward Egyptian culture. The other two pieces on the program‹the overture to Mozart's The Magic Flute and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, inspired by Chinese poems‹are very different, but, as Robertson notes, they also reflect other cultures.
"I guess what I'm particularly proud about in these programs is that the concerts in St. Louis are the same as the concerts we're doing at Carnegie Hall," says the conductor. "What we're doing in St. Louis is exactly what I think artistically. It was an easy match and an easy decision to bring them here; they fit very well."
Robertson seems to bring an unforced, unfeigned enthusiasm to all of his endeavors, including his involvement in St. Louis. He and his wife, pianist Orli Shaham‹they met in the Green Room at the SLSO's home, Powell Symphony Hall, and may be the only people on earth who consider it a romantic spot‹have plunged into the life of their new city. They've rented a loft apartment in St. Louis's still-gritty downtown area. "I like being involved in things, being involved in an area," he says. "Downtown seems to be the place where one can make a mark."
In his first week in town, Robertson threw out the first pitch at a Cardinals game ("I was really bad at Little League, and now everyone can tell"); spoke at length to suburbanites in a "town hall" meeting; rehearsed for a hastily organized benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina victims; and made the rounds of local TV and radio stations. Not for him the role of the aloof maestro; Robertson genuinely enjoys meeting and speaking with people.
These are tough times for symphony orchestras, and the SLSO was ahead of the curve when it came to financial problems. It also suffered an ugly labor crisis last winter, from which the echoes have not quite died away. But Robertson is convinced that this orchestra can survive and prosper in a difficult climate, and he bubbles over with ideas to make it happen. Whatever his tenure in St. Louis brings, the Robertson era won't be boring.
Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.