There was as much a sense of bewilderment as anticipation as the musicians and staff of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra began to congregate in the foyer of Powell Hall on a warm December evening. They'd been called to gather at the end of the work day for an unspecified announcement. A stage and podium had been placed at the base of the staircase. A photographer roamed the room.
SLSO President and Executive Director Randy Adams entered, followed closely by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Dr. Virginia Weldon. It didn't take long for the musicians to recognize the next couple, conductor David Robertson and his wife, the pianist Orli Shaham.
The applause began. Then the audience was on its feet. Shouts of recognition, joy, and triumph erupted from the crowd. Concertmaster David Halen, joining the group on stage, pumped his fist in exultation.
After months of rumors and uncertainty, the search was over. David Robertson, the preeminent conductor of his generation, had accepted the appointment of Music Director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. After the applause and cheers had died down, Weldon told the assembled staff and musicians, "One candidate stood out above all the others. We decided to reach for the stars‹and we got our man."
"This is one of the happiest days in the history of the Saint Louis Symphony," Halen told the audience. Perhaps Adams described the occasion most succinctly: "This is huge."
How huge is it?
At this moment on the planet, there may be no conductor more sought after, nor more critically acclaimed. Robertson's vita is superlative. The 45-year-old California-born conductor was educated at London's Royal Academy of Music. He served as Resident Conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. From 1992 to 2000 he was Music Director of Paris's Ensemble Intercontemporain, founded by Pierre Boulez, who has been a mentor to Robertson. Most recently he was Music Director of the Orchestre Nationale de Lyon as well as the Artistic Director of the city's Auditorium. He has acquired, as what seems to be a necessity for American conductors in the current industry climate, European experience and European acclaim.
Yet this list of accomplishments fails to reflect how vital Robertson's appointment is to the Orchestra and to the community. To better understand the significance of this, you merely need to be in the man's presence‹whether one-on-one across a table, or in a room of people, or when he is on stage in front of an orchestra. He is that rare combination of passion and intellect that draws musicians and audiences toward him. He inspires.
Robertson and Shaham are a complementary couple. He flares with exuberance as she maintains a composed brilliance. They are attentive of each other, and tend to each other, as the best couples do. On the morning after they flew from Germany to St. Louis to accept the appointment and attend the requisite dinners, meet-and-greets, and press conferences, the two looked far from jet-lagged. They were refreshed and excited.
"I'm watching this transition," Shaham says of her husband's move from Europe to the American Midwest. "The thing is there's a philosophy here. That's where the heart of it is: the American philosophy of openness and open-mindedness and inclusiveness. That's the thing that's so different, and that's where I see David sort of drinking it up. He's so thirsty for it."
Robertson's conducting and programming has been described as "adventurous" by more than one critic. The maestro has said, "The people I make my programs for are people perhaps not well informed, but simply interested and curious." He has declared that he seeks to "leave the door open" to both the specialist and the uninitiated.
In an art form too often, and too often unfairly, charged with "elitism," Robertson's "open-door policy" sounds like the antidote classical music needs.
"You have this whole orchestra in front of you," Robertson says as he sits in the Music Conductor's suite in Powell Hall, "and they're all playing different instruments, which all have a different background, and they all have a different way of coming to the fore. Yet at the same time, the thing that's going on is that every single person is adding their own quality to this communal experience. Without one single member of that orchestra, it wouldn't be fulfilled, it wouldn't be whole, and it wouldn't be what it is that we need.
"This aspect of having the world-class‹really the highest level of achievement‹in the midst of a group of people, can be a constant source of inspiration on so many different levels. It's impossible to describe. However, it's not impossible to make that felt over the course of one season, two seasons, three seasons. That's the reason that we have a symphony orchestra here."
"A constant source of inspiration": That's why having David Robertson in St. Louis is huge.
You can read the complete interview with David Robertson and Orli Shaham on www.slso.org.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.