New York Philharmonic: The Sense Behind the Sounds

Classic Arts Features   New York Philharmonic: The Sense Behind the Sounds
This month conductor David Robertson returns to the New York Philharmonic for two weeks that reflect his unique approach to programming.

At first, David Robertson seems like an all-American kind of guy: born in California, sports fan, easy-going. However, there's much more to this internationally acclaimed conductor than appears in a first impression.

He's a citizen of the world, and frighteningly intelligent," says pianist Emanuel Ax, who will join the conductor for the second of two New York Philharmonic subscription programs this month. "Perfect French, good German, pretty good Italian. He can relate a piece of music to something that's on TV at 9:30 tonight, and also to a painting at the Mus_e d'Orsay. That's what makes working with him so exciting."

Mr. Robertson can also dazzle his wife, pianist Orli Shaham, with renditions of 19th-century folk tunes and take care of babies (the latter has come in handy since September, when the couple became parents of twin sons, Nathan and Alex). The conductor's family came over from the British Isles and Sweden, bringing with it a love of singing and playing music in the home. "I didn't think of myself as becoming a specialist," Mr. Robertson recalls. "I just liked participating."

But a specialist he became, having studied French horn, composition, and conducting at London's Royal Academy of Music. Perhaps it was his strong sense of programming that eventually led him to focus on conducting, or maybe it was his skill in bringing out the virtues of an orchestra without overplaying them.

David Robertson, who turns 50 this year, received his first full-time appointment in 1985, when he was appointed resident conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. Five years later he became the music director of Paris's Ensemble Intercontemporain, the fabled new-music ensemble. In 2000 he was appointed music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon and named Conductor of the Year by Musical America magazine. Since 2005 he has served as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, in addition to maintaining a busy guest-conducting schedule.

Mr. Robertson's knack for unique programming has become almost legendary. "Program-ming is the fun part. Rather than looking at pieces of music as a series of Lego blocks, you look at them as parts of a novel," he says. "What a good program does is take you through pieces to illuminate your experience in a non-verbal way."

The concerts with Emanuel Ax are a perfect example of the conductor's seemingly wild, but in actuality exceptionally well-ordered, programming. Mr. Robertson explains: "First we have something written entirely for the piano, the ê_tudes of Debussy, orchestrated by the Swiss composer Michael Jarrell. Next is an unfinished orchestral piece by Schubert, existing only in a piano-type sketch, completed by the 20th-century composer Luciano Berio in the same way a painter would complete a fresco that had been damaged. After those two, we finish with a work that is familiar: Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. You can listen to elements of the Emperor come alive in a way that they otherwise might not, because you've been prepared by these other works."

The progress from piano/orchestration to sketch/completion to fully realized work makes the program "watertight," to use the conductor's word. "The program says something unique about music that will never be said again. The players and the audience will be affected by the combination of works."

David Robertson explains his motivation: "The thing that really animates me fundamentally, aside from the pleasure of sonic experience, is when I can see people making connections through ideas that leave them feeling richer and more aware than they were before."

Kenneth LaFave composes and writes about music.

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