California -born conductor David Robertson was educated at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where he studied French horn and composition before turning to orchestral conducting. Serving as music director of the Ensemble InterContemporain in Paris from 1992 to 2000, Robertson gained international recognition for his affinity for both twentieth-century music and operatic repertoire. He is currently in his seventh season as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and also serves as principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Does the American orchestra need to adapt to a changing climate?
I would say that orchestras adapt as a normal result of new musicians coming in who may have a different experience, due to their generation, of what the music world is like. We tend to look at the structures of orchestras and say, ‘Oh, they haven’t changed at all!’ but just in the period of my lifetime, orchestras went from being groups that were beat into shape by the conductor to a network of individually refined artists who are seen as such and who collectively feel responsible for their musical level — and it’s not only the conductor’s responsibility. In the newer generation of players coming in, you see people who understand that their role is not just to play in the symphony orchestra but also to be ambassadors for music in whatever context they find themselves in — playing in the orchestra, riding a bus, working with community projects, helping their kids’ school programs, whatever it might be.
As regards ‘beating into shape,’ I’ve had the opportunity to observe you in rehearsal, where I was impressed by the calm atmosphere, the sense of dialogue and exchange of ideas that held sway.
When I was in Europe, people always used to refer to that as a very California attitude. There can be so much tension and stress in playing music at a really high level, I often feel that a three-hour rehearsal can be like a three-hour tennis match between Federer and Nadal — and they’re trying to do everything perfectly right the whole time, so it can be very exhausting. Therefore, almost like a tennis match, you try and limit any extraneous things that might hamper the players’ ability to do well. And that means keeping it as calm as you can in terms of the process. And that’s mainly because [laughs] in the middle of the music there may be stuff which is anything but calm.
One thing that I have found is very helpful — and I wish that we could do it more in real life — is to focus on the solution rather than trying to define the problem. So very simply, you don’t say, ‘Basses, you’re late,’ you say, ‘Basses, we need more forward motion on that triplet.’ And so, all of a sudden, that’s not looking at the problem as ‘Those people are rushing’ or ‘Well, I thought I was in time,’ or ‘Well, these two notes take more time on the bass than they do on the cello’ — by missing the thousands of ways you could talk about the problem you focus on the one which in the end everyone has to do. There will need to be forward motion on those three notes even in the performance, even when it’s played right. So let’s start working on what’s right, from the start, and not worry about what might be the definition of what was wrong.
So is there a bit of marketing there?
No, not even marketing, it’s a question of the point of view.
Everybody is trying to play the piece as best they can. There are many ways to do that, and I don’t think the conductor has the sole voice of reason there. In St. Louis, for example, if the clarinet plays the theme first, everyone is going to listen to how our clarinet plays the theme. They are actually then going to play the theme like that. And that’s before I say how to play the theme. What I like about that approach is it allows for the maximum flexibility. Now if something doesn’t work, when I stop, rather than saying, ‘This and this and this aren’t working,’ I say, ‘This and this and this need to be more like this,’ and then everyone concentrates on that! So the question of what the problem was, or even looking at it as a problem, actually disappears.
Marketing, I feel, would be if I were trying to sell it — and that’s not actually the reality. Marketing is saying, ‘This food is better for you because we have processed it and we
will make money by selling it to you, rather than you just going to a local grower where it tastes really good but we make no money on it.’ That’s marketing. [Laughs.]
OK. Speaking of food that’s good for you, coming from Ensemble InterContemporain to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra does not permit you to set the table with the same programming.