CONDUCTOR OF THE YEAR


The 2000 Honorees

By Sedgwick Clark

This 40-year-old, European-trained Californian is only now becoming known in his own country, but all signs point to a major career in the offing. With so many vacancies imminent on podiums in America, he seems just what the doctor ordered.

David Robertson is not an instantly recognizable name to American concertgoers. But it will be, and soon. Musical America's honorees are customarily artists whose careers are well established in the international music scene, but this year we herald a young American conductor whose presence until recently has been centered in Europe.

His appearance in the conductor ring comes not a moment too soon for several American orchestras. At year's end, the Cleveland Orchestra has signed Franz Welser-Möst as Christoph von Dohnányi's successor, and Simon Rattle, who was being pursued by the Philadelphia Orchestra, has accepted the Berlin Philharmonic's offer to succeed Claudio Abbado. But music directorships in the orchestras of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Houston, Minnesota, Atlanta, Saint Paul, and Indianapolis will open within the next two years, and thus far the rumor mill of successors is largely wishful thinking. One thing is clear: After years of relying on an older generation of solid but not always scintillating conductors, orchestras have little choice but to turn to younger, less-known territory. It's time for the inspired gamble that Philadelphia took in 1912 with the 30-year-old Leopold Stokowski or, more recently, Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles.

Enter David Robertson to these wide-open spaces. Hailing from Santa Monica, California, and educated at London's Royal Academy of Music, the 40-year-old conductor recently was appointed music director of the Orchestre National de Lyon, effective September 2000, and this season he concludes an eight-year tenure as music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in Paris. His guest conducting stints have included the orchestras of Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Amsterdam, London and BBC Symphonies, Orchestre de Paris, as well as concerts at the Aspen Music Festival, Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, and Salzburg and Edinburgh festivals. His New York Philharmonic debut will follow in 2001. His repertory of over 35 operas has taken him to the Metropolitan Opera (Janávek's The Makropulos Case and Bizet's Carmen), La Scala (Berio's Outis), and San Francisco Opera (Verdi's Rigoletto).

Reviews of his American appearances describe him as "a marvel", "profoundly gifted", and "unmistakably the genuine article, a conductor of brilliance, power and dramatic flair". Paul Griffiths wrote in The New York Times of a 1997 Robertson concert of works by Schubert, Wagner, Beethoven, and Brahms at the summer Caramoor Festival: "I am at a complete loss so far as to what music this excellent conductor likes, since he does everything so well."

The object of such praise is soft-spoken, articulate, and has obviously thought a great deal about his craft, illuminating his points with quotes from Rilke, Shakespeare, Proust, and others. "Montaigne says that I can't be a specialist on anything but myself and then compares himself to a horse who runs around getting involved in everything, fantastically curious about all things. I'm struck by how huge the repertory is and how many directions we can go. I love so many composers that it is easier to say whom I don't like-like Gounod." There are many others who can do his music well, Robertson adds, and perhaps he'll come to it eventually. "When you don't understand, keep thinking until you do."

Two years as resident conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony (1985-87) opened his vistas to the basic repertory. "I've done all the Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, some Bruckner and Mahler, Tchaikovsky, practically all Stravinsky, all late Mozart, 20 or 30 Haydn. The important thing, though, is to know not only the four Brahms symphonies, but also the songs and the chamber music." The German Requiem is a favorite work he has studied in depth but never conducted: "I want to wait until I have the right orchestra and soloists because there will be times when I will be so involved that I'll need the help of the musicians to get through the performance. Daphnis in Saint Louis was that way. I'm very fragile in many pieces, and that trust needs to be there."

He ascribes his facility with orchestras to his early years as a French horn player and knowing what the musicians need. "The conductor is there to instill a sense of time for the performers. But 'rigorous' doesn't mean 'rigid.' When you work with an orchestra you realize how much a score leaves room for the human spirit-it's astounding the almost overwhelming variety possible in a piece of music. I never go to one orchestra and think 'that was so good in Philly or in Cleveland,' because it limits your experience and that of the audience and orchestra. One must have a sense of flexibility because we're people and not machines. Working with computers in Paris makes you realize how complex the elements of music are."

Like nearly every leading conductor of his generation, Robertson shares a strong interest in contemporary music. His work with Pierre Boulez, who entrusted the musical directorship of his Ensemble Intercontemporain to Robertson in 1992, is particularly evident. Although he never actually studied with Boulez, one recognizes certain of the Frenchman's gestures in the younger conductor's overall ease and clarity of direction. In a December 1998 performance of Elliott Carter's Double Concerto with the New Juilliard Ensemble in New York, Robertson's comfortable beating of four against three toward the end of the work (try it sometime!) was a subject of lively intermission conversation. And his U.S. premiere in that concert of Boulez's arrestingly sensuous Sur Incises, for three pianos, three harps, and percussion revealed no less brilliant a conductorial ear than the composer's.

"I have taken a slow route. You do a concert well and then are invited back, and they want you to do more of the same thing. I went to Spain and did Rossini, then they wanted Bellini, then Così, then L'Elisir. Then when I went to the Ensemble Intercontemporain, they looked at my background and said I wouldn't be able to do the changing tempos of so much contemporary music. But I understand Carter better because I do Rossini. The Carter Double Concerto makes you see things in Haydn's Creation-they have many of the same ideas. One repertory and one style and period nurture the other; it's the mix, the communication that makes it better. The whole original-instruments movement comes from contemporary-music concerns."

His views of a healthy orchestra in the 21st century seem almost revolutionary after decades of podium-hopping maestros. "The central focal point must be to relate to the community. We have to be very responsible in our long-term commitment to the public. It's a social contract that we break at our extreme peril. We must make choices about how to bend the formula of concerts to allow the experience of the concertgoer to expand. The concert was perfectly adapted to the society of the Franco-Prussian time in the late 19th century. Remember, sport was not invented at that time, or TV, or automobiles. You have to be very sensitive to the changes. When reality doesn't fit with the way you think things ought to be, you have to change your approach. Once you convince people of your vision, it requires a monumental commitment, a mammoth effort to make it work."

David Robertson seems ready to make that commitment, and all those orchestras shopping for a music director should be falling over themselves to engage him.

Sedgwick Clark is editor of Musical America.

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