When David Robertson is in front of an orchestra, the musicians onstage have a way of coming alive. Whether it's due to his easygoing rapport with the players, his transparent love for a large range of repertoire, or his precise and efficient rehearsal techniques, this 44-year-old, California-born conductor, currently music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, has made an impressive career of leading top-tier ensembles through glorious performances.
Robertson's experience with the New York Philharmonic is no exception. The unassuming maestro made his Philharmonic debut in April 2001 with a gripping program that combined fresh interpretations of audience favorites (Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and the Prelude from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde) with an expert and dramatic reading of a lesser-known 20th-century work (Schoenberg's Erwartung). The orchestra's playing was animated and visceral; one critic described the debut as "tremendously exciting."
After that encouraging introduction, Robertson returns this month to Avery Fisher Hall to lead the Philharmonic again in a program that similarly combines beloved standard repertoire (Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Peter Serkin) with less familiar music from the 20th century (Janácek's Sinfonietta). This time around, he will also lead the American premiere of a piece by Danish composer Poul Ruders, entitled Listening Earth.
Commissioned for Robertson's debut with the Berlin Philharmonic this past December, the work was still being written when tragedy hit on September 11, 2001. As a result, Ruders chose to base the piece's final movement on W.H. Auden's now-famous poem "September 1, 1939." "It's a very uncompromising work," explains Robertson. "The feeling of complete oppression and real evil hangs over the end of this piece in the same way that Auden writes 'the odour of death offends the September night.'"
"It's one of those things that's very hard to talk about," he continues, "but musically, it hits you right between the eyes."
With Robertson's skills and reputation, we can take his word for it.
Jeremy Eichler is a critic and essayist living in New York.