Field of Play

Classic Arts Features   Field of Play
New Saint Louis Symphony music director David Robertson arrives in St. Louis open to possibilities.

David Robertson has a lot to look forward to as he begins his inaugural season as music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. For one thing, there's the burger and rock & roll mecca on Delmar, Blueberry Hill, a St. Louis landmark that he wants to visit soon. He's eaten Ted Drewes' famous custard, but has yet to make a pilgrimage to the South Side stand. The malteds down at Crown Candy Kitchen are still to be discovered.

But what Robertson anticipates most is the beginning of "the real relationship … to actually be in St. Louis and start to really make the music with people."

That relationship has already gotten off to an auspicious start. Whether as guest conductor or music director designate, whether at Powell Symphony Hall or Carnegie Hall, Robertson and the orchestra already have made magnificent music together. The depth of feeling between conductor and players is palpable. At the close of the 2004-2005 season, after a captivating performance of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony, Robertson returned to the stage for his bows and spontaneously began to stomp his feet. His small, personal, but very public, celebration was for both the musical experience that had just occurred and for the experiences to come.

Robertson may have ideas for change, but those do not include the signature sound of the SLSO. "I already love the sound of the orchestra," he says. "My approach, which has to do with having worked on gaining such a broad repertoire in the quarter century that I've been doing this, is to try and actually get a sound that is appropriate for each piece." He knows he is working with musicians who are uniquely gifted at finding that sound. "One of the principal differences between the work that I have done at other places, either as a guest conductor or as a music director, and that of St. Louis is that I feel the biggest potential we have here is that we play the music with the type of emotional understanding that few other orchestras match. So while we're trying to come as close to technical perfection as human beings can, what we're really working on is trying to get the raison d'etre, the reason for being, of that music."

For Robertson, then, the rehearsal process is not about directing the orchestra toward a certain expression that the players then attempt to replicate with each performance. Rather, Robertson seeks a "sense of being absolutely creative within the rules…. I tend not to think in terms of one mass of people that you unify, but rather as a field of play in which the inspiration might come from any group at any time, which then can be suddenly absorbed by the rest of the group. The reaction time feels instantaneous. You have music that none of you knew was going to be there before‹and suddenly arrives."

The rehearsal process involves keeping the ensemble open to the variables that may occur. "For example," Robertson explains, "Otto Klemperer was the one who said 'Rehearsals are the place to try things.' It's the place where you figure out how fast is too fast; how slow is too slow." Balancing sonorities between wind and brass, for example, might be achieved through locating the imbalances in rehearsal. "Once you do it beyond a certain point‹too much of the horn and not enough of the trumpet, the clarinet's louder than the bassoons‹you suddenly find you've lost something.

"But once you've done all of these things, once you've set up all the barriers so that you know where the space is in which you're going to make music, the actual space in which you make the music is huge. And that space has all sorts of different possibilities in it.

"What all of you know, because you've rehearsed, is that there are certain things you are not going to do because that would be counterproductive to the result. This means that the actual thinking that is going on in the concert is not of a reproductive kind, as it often seems in classical music, but is of a creative kind."

Robertson extends this sense of creative exploration out into the community as well. "Whether it's the type of music I'm involved with, which most people call 'classical music,' or if it's music of any kind, any style, any background, it's something that interests me. It's something A) that I want to know about, and B) I want to make sure is flourishing, because it's part of the source material of the things that we do at Powell Hall.

"This is one of the reasons why I think the outreach programs, the Community Partnership, is so great. I went to the Antioch Baptist Church and had an extraordinary time listening to the In Unison Chorus and being part of that experience.

"On another night I was fortunate enough to be able to go to one of the rehearsals of the St. Louis Philharmonic and listen to them rehearsing Mahler Five. It was great to see what else was happening in the city, who the people were that were involved with it. This is part of the whole experience for me of being in a musical community…. It's part of the excitement of being able to be in St. Louis."

Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Read a complete version of this interview with David Robertson at

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