Q&A: St. Louis Symphony Conductor David Robertson Preps for Opening Weekend

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture
David Robertson, courtesy of Dilip Vishwanat/St. Louis Symphony.

David Robertson, courtesy of Dilip Vishwanat/St. Louis Symphony.

The debut of the St. Louis Symphony’s 2014-2015 season is this weekend, with a great program for music-lovers Friday and Saturday night masterminded—as ever—by Music Director David Robertson. These first performances mark the start of his 10th season conducting the Symphony (which turns 135), a milestone celebrated with 50 solos sprinkled throughout the season. He’s not had a vacation, either: Robertson’s just back from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s season, where he serves as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director.

Robertson, who has led symphonies across the world, is notable not only for his skill but also for his unique style of programming: Pieces that might not normally be associated are juxtaposed to enable new experiences for the audience, like reshuffling readings in a classroom to suddenly reveal a new insight. In this case, the debut program includes John Stafford Smith’s “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Johannes Brahms’ “Piano Concerto No. 1,” Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” and Carl Nielsen’s “Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable.”

ALIVE caught up with Robertson (and his hectic schedule) to talk music, the concert experience and what it all means in an age of Spotify and music-on-demand.

ALIVE: What are you most looking forward to about this weekend’s opening performances?

Robertson: Just getting back and hearing the orchestra is already such a fabulous gift. Yefim Bronfman is one of my favorite pianists and the way he shapes and plays something like the Brahms concerto is really the very best you can find anywhere. That’s one of my favorite pieces. And then there’s the second half, where we’ve really kind of taken a nod to the anniversary of the First World War: “The Lark Ascending” and the Nielsen, “Symphony No. 4 The Inextinguishable.” The great thing about the Vaughan Williams is, not only is it a beautiful piece, but it will kick-off the 50 soloists featured throughout the season.

ALIVE: Your programs are, at the very least, intriguing: At first glance, it seems as though the sequence of pieces are disjointed, yet once you listen through them, it all makes sense. What is your inspiration for creating these unique concerts, and what’s your thought process behind it?

Robertson: I don’t think of a concert as replaceable by anything else. For me, it’s kind of like an evening at the theater where you might see a play and it’s supposed to be about one subject, but it’s touching on many, many things all at the same time. A concert is really about engaging with concepts that are both inside pieces and those that become unlocked when those pieces are placed with other pieces in the same context. That means there are things you can say in a concert that you can’t say anywhere else, that can’t be replaced by listening to those pieces one after another, or listening to the radio or somehow engaging with them in a personal way in your own living room. There really is a kind of narrative that each person finds in a unique way when they come into the experience.

For me the most poignant thing is that program never gets repeated, so while you may have pieces that return on a relatively regular basis—in the past 10 seasons, we’ve played the Brahms piano concerto two, maybe three, times, but it’s never been in the same constellation of pieces. So what happens is that you suddenly see something differently than you ever realized or thought about before in that context. [St. Louis Symphony blogger] Eddie Silva said no one comes to history in quite the same way, and we try to set that potential up in the same way with each concert. That’s a big fundamental of music – we also react to the public.

ALIVE: Can you explain that a little more?

Robertson: We don’t play the music the same way when the concert hall is empty as when it’s full, and the public is listening. Imagine you’re telling a story to a wall, and then imagine you’re telling it to a person in front of you. They might not say much, but you’re picking up microexpressions, body language, in certain ways that you might not even be conscious of. Afterwards, you might be able to point those out and say, we did take a longer silence there, or we did expand that phrase.

ALIVE: What’s the place of a symphony and live performance today?

Roberts: I think we’re really important because so much of consumer-oriented society is about repeatable experiences, and the important things in life are the things that are not repeatable. I think we accidentally fall into the trap of thinking that everything in life can come around again, when in fact much of it is one time only. Music reminds us just how precious those things are.

The St. Louis Symphony’s Opening Weekend runs Friday, Sept. 12, and Saturday, Sept. 13. Each of the 8pm concerts (tickets and more info here) will feature a red carpet entrance, a toast sponsored by Freixenet and video enhancement by NYC-based visual artist S. Katy Tucker. 

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