How an entire city fell in love with David Robertson.
Photographs by Scott Rovak
He saw us in black tie and rhinestones, applauding. Then, at a Community Partnership concert on a weeknight in April 2004, he saw us relaxed, half the audience onstage with the musicians, one guy’s hair sticking out like crabgrass above the band of his ball cap, a squirmy 2-year-old’s bribe of french fries spilling from their red envelope onto the Powell Symphony Hall stage.
David Robertson had already been named the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra’s music director–designate, but he had yet to begin the job. That evening, for the first three-fourths of the program, he sat onstage, too, in the last row of folding chairs. No one gawked or leaned over him, all perfumey, to beg an autograph. But, like a teen with a secret crush, people glanced ever so casually in his direction, watching his reactions. And when the cellists walked past him after their bravura “Cello Dreams” and he beamed at them, the audience beamed, too.
Then he stepped to the podium, gave a quick no-nonsense salute and got straight to the point: “Messagesquisse,” a musical cryptogram composed by his mentor, Pierre Boulez. Suddenly he was singing, “The first three notes just happen to be” from The Sound of Music’s “Do-Re-Mi” and plunking the notes on the piano, sounding out the name of the friend for whom Boulez wrote the piece. He offered anecdotes, history, musical theory, a dozen different points of entry.
Then he raised his baton and was instantly absorbed in the music’s slow opening, pulling the notes like warm taffy, drawing out every nuance. When the tempo sped, he moved like a manic robot. Then he quieted, still as a monk at prayer.
Some conductors are all flutter and bombast yet seem somehow peripheral, as though they could be plucked offstage and the piece would continue uninterrupted. With Robertson, it’s as though the music lives first inside him and he summons it forth. He uses his hands to open a space for the musicians to fill with sound; then he cuts through the air and soothes the sound into silence.
He works a similar magic on human beings.
Now 125 years old, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra is the second-oldest orchestra in the country. Under Maestro Leonard Slatkin, it won international acclaim. But in recent years, battered by financial crises and the incapacitating illness of its previous music director, the late Hans Vonk, the orchestra stepped back from the spotlight.
Robertson’s appointment—a coup that brought tears of joy to the eyes of SLSO musicians and left Chicago gnashing its teeth—is already changing that. When he brought the SLSO to Carnegie Hall this past spring, “the orchestra outdid itself,” says concertmaster David Halen. “The audience was completely engaged; I didn’t hear a single cough. We’re reassuming our position as one of the premier orchestras in the heartland.”
“Lucky St. Louis,” wrote New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini, who has called Robertson “the most accomplished American conductor of this generation.” But such accolades took years to accumulate. From 1992 until 2002, Robertson directed Paris’ Ensemble Intercontemporain (founded by Boulez), and many wondered aloud whether this immersion in contemporary music had made him “too radical to run a major orchestra.” He responded by proving, as a guest conductor all over the world, that although he had an uncanny gift for seducing resistant audiences into new music, he had thoroughly mastered the classical repertoire.
By 2003, The New York Times Magazine was calling him “a 21st century conductor.” But now they had a new question: “Is it possible that Robertson is too even-tempered, too sunny—too Southern Californian—to be given the helm of a major orchestra?”
Reminded, Robertson laughs freely. “Part of the reason people think of me as even-tempered is because I have been fairly successful in a lifelong battle to keep an absolutely horrific temper under control,” he confides. “There is one group of things that make me upset, and they’d all be in the same place in the thesaurus: not caring. Not caring about someone and therefore trying to do violence to them; not caring about what you’re doing and therefore wasting people’s time. I shouted down an entire orchestra in Marseilles in 1988.” He winces. “Exploding like that is scary. It has the force and impact of a nuclear device, and you can’t grow crops on that field for years.”
At 35, he stopped exploding; at 38, he stopped biting his nails. “I’d started when I was 8,” he confesses. “Anytime I was faced with any monumental task, the finger would go up into the mouth. On my 38th birthday, I said, ‘This is stupid, and I don’t want to do it. I am 38; I should stop.’” A rueful smile. “The 38 years I wasn’t able to control that were a very good lesson.
“If you feel things intensely when you are a child, you have to learn to deal with these things,” he continues. “The little child is holding the balloon and, through inattention, loosens his grasp and suddenly the balloon flies away and there is nothing to be done about it, and the child cries hard. How you deal with that later is, in a cocktail party–psychology way, what makes up people’s personalities.”
Robertson learned to forgive the world when it failed to do his bidding. He also learned how to balance a sharp intellect that demanded mastery with an emotional sensitivity that urged surrender. Today, he is as concerned with control as any other conductor, yet he’s unusually good at letting go, letting the music transcend him.
“There are times when you are not really doing all that well, and the compliments are very, shall we say, polite,” he says, “because people know that praise helps. And you hear them and think, ‘Yeah, I don’t believe it, either.’ Then there are times when what you are doing is almost effortless. The music is passing, and it’s as though you have no influence over it; it’s just happening. And that’s the point at which everyone comes up to you and says, ‘You are so marvelous.’
“You can actually measure the sound in a concert hall when people think they are being silent,” he adds. “It’s 40 decibels. And you can feel that sound change: You can hear when a group is restless, but you can also hear the opposite. It’s as though you’ve managed to line up everyone’s neural circuits.”
Robertson sees the conductor as a three-way mirror, reflecting the composer’s original inspiration, the musicians’ interpretation and the audience’s response. “The more you can let these three types of inspiration interact without getting in their way—the clearer and more transparent you become—the better.” Robertson did indeed grow up in Southern California, with a mom and dad and two sisters, in a family so warm that “talking about hardships would be almost ridiculous,” he says. “I’d sound like a Norman Vincent Peale tract. I was lucky.”
Still, he felt things deeply—and had a problem talking in class, announced his fourth-grade teacher, whom he had corrected for confusing the Tigris River with the Nile. “This is why I should never sit in an orchestra,” he says wryly. “The great thing about conducting is, I have to shut up.”
From the start, he loved making music—as long as it was with other people. “My memory of practicing as a kid is, I didn’t like having to do it by myself,” he admits. “Music for me is something people do together.” In sixth grade, his beloved music teacher was ill one day. When the principal raced over to the classroom expecting anarchy, “there was organized sound emanating from the room,” says Robertson. “Apparently I was conducting.”
That must have been quite a rush for an 11-year-old? “No,” he says flatly. “There was never that sense of power, that whole idea of dominating people that everyone seems to think is part of the mystique of conducting. I skipped that class.”
Instead, he focused on collaboration—and on translating music’s beauty so that anyone could appreciate it. “My mother loved music, but she was not at all a musical sophisticate,” he says. “I grew up in a household where neither parent could tell me the opus number of a piece of chamber music. When I am presenting music, I assume people are very intelligent, very curious, and they bring their own unique irreplaceable experience of life to the listening.” He is famous for lucid program notes, preconcert talks, introductions that help people figure out how to listen to new music so they’re not still wondering how to get their bearings when the piece ends. “If I can do in St. Louis what I have managed to do in other places, I will never play a piece of music to you which is worthless and is wasting your time,” he promises.
“Music does not allow you to hide,” he says a moment later. “The reason we are so moved—and don’t even like to admit it—by La Bohème is that loss is irretrievable, and Puccini understands this perfectly.”
His own abrupt, profound loss came in the early ’90s. “Both of my parents were taken away from me while I was in hotel rooms,” he says. “It was the suddenness of the telephone call that comes at 5 a.m. because you are in Holland and the phone rings and your sister, in tears, says, ‘I’m glad I finally managed to find you.’ The two people who gave you life are suddenly no longer there. And that two-year period coincided with the arrival of my two boys.”
When the elder, Peter, was 4, he said, “David, did both your parents die?” Robertson nodded. “Yes, Peter, they did.” Johnny, the 3-year-old, looked up questioningly: “Weren’t they careful?”
“Well, I guess they weren’t,” said Robertson, seizing on the explanation. At least it made sense.
Robertson also skipped the lesson about perfectionist conductors who keep musicians on tenterhooks, terrified to make a mistake.
Witness the MollyWhoop stories.
He started making them up years ago at his young sons’ bathtime. “MollyWhoop is very clumsy and very funny,” he explains. “She’s quite lovable, but she gets herself—and her duck, Quackie—into all sorts of trouble.” Why make Molly clumsy? “Because kids are so admonished, all the time, to do things right that they love it when something wrong happens to somebody else.”
He wants to extend the same comfort and ease to musicians—even as he urges them toward perfection.
“Pierre Boulez said to me once, ‘I have the patience of an angel, but I am relentless,’” he says, grinning. “You can ask people only for what they can give—but the surprise is, often they don’t know what they can give. If you create an atmosphere where people feel protected, they can create great things because all their energies are focused on the creation. And that is why we have permanent orchestras. Because if you are worried about anything in a substantial way, the music will suffer.”
So he clears the path. And when he gestures toward the musicians at the end of a performance, inviting applause for them and not himself, it is not a stagey “After you, Alphonse” bid for adulation. Robertson does not soak up praise to keep his ego pliable. Whether his indifference is proof of that happy, well-loved childhood or a simple surfeit, because he receives so much praise, no one knows—because the praise has yet to stop. What is clear, however, is that his passion for music sweeps aside petty cravings.
And this makes him easy to love.
Mark Sparks, the SLSO’s principal flute, realized Robertson’s brilliance years ago, when they worked together at the Aspen Music Festival. “With David, there is nothing generic in the repertoire,” Sparks says. “He is able to see how each piece is put together, to get inside the composer’s mind. He’s also honest—very honest—and compassionate and complex. It would be easy to just order people around, but to make individuals feel invested in your vision and appreciated, all the time, requires real generosity—and a certain amount of ruthlessness. He hears everything; you feel naked. But it’s OK.
“It’s easy for musicians to become cynical; we invest ourselves emotionally, so there’s more at stake in our dreams,” Sparks adds. “To appreciate David means you have to give in to the idea that your dreams might actually be realized.”
Jeremy Geffen, whom Robertson brought from the New York Philaharmonic to be vice president of artistic administration at the SLSO, says, “David made a conscious choice, early on, to maintain optimism. He is unashamed of his enthusiasm. If there is any weakness to him, it is that he is incredibly sensitive, wanting to make everyone as comfortable as possible at all times. It’s much easier to force your interpretation on a group than to be sensitive and curious. But he has an energy level most 2-year-olds don’t possess.”
David Halen, the concertmaster, says Robertson “lives in the world outside himself. He’s so open with himself, he doesn’t try to be guarded at all. When you do that, you are giving up a lot of your private space. You are living in the public world on a wooden box in front of thousands of people.”
Friendship is one casualty: “Over the years he’s had a number of close friends with whom he’s sort of lost touch,” says his wife, pianist Orli Shaham.
But to work and family, he pays close attention. Horn player Tod Bowermaster notes that “the typical music director these days is a jet-setting conductor who comes in eight to 10 weeks a year and then disappears. David is committed to St. Louis. The relationship between him and the orchestra is already very tight. Others would still be calling someone ‘Third Horn’ at the end of their tenure.” He pauses. “With any music director, there’s typically a honeymoon—but I think this will be a very, very long one.”
“I’m David; I’ll be your guide this evening,” he called, twinkling, from the podium on New Year’s Eve 2004. Splashes of color caught the light behind him: Robertson had urged the women in the orchestra to wear festive gowns instead of their customary black. Now he was holding aloft the program, designed as a dance card. “If that bank president is someone you’ve always wanted to dance with, check him out,” he teased. Then he confessed to being a terrible dancer. “When Orli says, ‘Let’s go dancing,’ all I can think is, ‘But she bruises so easily.’ So I would like to dedicate this performance of ‘Circus Polka’—which Stravinsky once dedicated to a circus elephant—to all you guys who feel as I do when your wife says, ‘Hey honey, let’s dance to this.’”
The audience laughed eagerly and loudly, like kids giddy with permission to play at a grown-up party. Before the Latin dances, Robertson warned that “a herd of orchestra” had stampeded during rehearsal. Conducting ‘Estancia,’ he stomped like a gaucho, angular legs bent high, rear view deliberately funny. He introduced a Louis XIV minuet as “barely moving but very intricate little steps, like knitting—at the end, if you had needles connected to people’s feet, you’d have a sweater.”
The encore was Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town,” the audience by then so thoroughly charmed that they leaped to their feet when Robertson said, “Let’s take the ‘wonderful’ and transport it to St. Louis—permanently.”
He closed by using a symphony orchestra as a metaphor: Its instruments come from all over the world, each with its own rich history, and the music will not be the same if any one is missing. “The things that unite us,” he said softly, “are so much stronger than the things that suddenly seem to separate us and tear us apart.”
Two days later, the SLSO musicians went on strike.
No one had seen it coming—especially not then, with a brilliant new music director and so much reason to hope.
Robertson was rehearsing with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra when he heard the news from a Detroit musician. “What was hardest for me was that I loved everybody involved,” he says now. “I am divorced, and my two children are from a previous marriage. We would never fight in front of the kids, because it’s awful to watch people you love fighting, especially when you can see both sides.”
Still, he says, there is a remarkable generosity of spirit at the SLSO, and it will heal the rift.
“There are orchestras where the personality of a conductor or soloist can grate like coarse sandpaper,” he says. “It leaves marks. Depending on the group, they may say, ‘We will wear clothing that is made of sandpaper, too.’ In St. Louis, the musicians say, ‘Whoa, isn’t that fascinating? Well, let’s get back to what’s important.’”
He hesitates. “I get the feeling—and I don’t know St. Louis well enough yet to be sure—but I get the feeling that generosity of spirit is very definitely related to the place. I have been at Lambert picking up a coffee, having a two-minute conversation, and if that were the last conversation before my plane crashed, it was a good conversation to have—with a total stranger,” he says. “It brings to life the thing I think most people go to church for: the sense that we are all in this together, the feeling of belonging to something.”
On a Wednesday morning in April, Robertson was rehearsing with his new orchestra. He wore dark dress slacks and a short-sleeved knit shirt—he dresses like a priest on holiday—and the musicians were in jeans, relaxed and chattering. At the call to be seated, there was instant silence but no smell of fear—just an expectant tension, like racehorses entering the gate.
When Robertson conducts, it’s like an animator is bringing a wooden character to life, bending stiff limbs into dance steps and exaggerated stretches and swoops. Often he’ll stand with one foot on the ground, one on the platform, comfortable straddling the levels.
“Maybe wait just a little bit with your diminuendos,” he cautioned that morning. “Small detail: In the basses, you finish at 50 with a harmonic; would you please hold its full value, and anyone who goes over the bar line will not hear complaints from me.” He conferred with the strings: “Could we do this, violas, violins, on the first beat downbow, then up, down, up and just stay in the upper half? You parse it in absolute binary, and I’m not hearing that.” They repeated the crescendo. “Magic! That’s a keeper. It should be that way every time.”
Sitting in the sparse audience, the composer, Christopher Rouse, looked elated.
At the coffee break, Robertson murmured, “Once you have worked with living composers, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, we can do this.’ You might do something quite wrong.” Asked about his habit of using imagery—for Rouse’s piece, the suggestion of a boxing match elicited the desired crashing sounds— he said, “I was once conducting the New York Philharmonic, and I was trying to get a very metallic sound from the low strings. Finally I said, ‘This is the passage where all the people who listen to heavy-metal rock music will say, ‘Yeah, Megadeth!’
“Words are a quagmire,” he continued. “Everybody’s dictionary is different. So, as much as I can, with images and gestures and singing, I try to bypass verbal language.”
A knock interrupted him. “You’re at five minutes,” his assistant called. Did he need time to prepare? He shrugged, relaxed. “You either have music in you all the time, or you don’t.”
It is, already, one of St. Louis’ classic romances: Robertson met Shaham, now his third wife, in the green room of Powell Symphony Hall. He was here as a guest conductor, she as a guest pianist. “Whenever you accompany someone, you are trying to create a situation in which they will be able to do the most amazing things,” he says. “It allows someone to feel ‘Wow, I can do this now,’ knowing the other person will catch them no matter what. With Orli, that was there from the word go. I left thinking, ‘I’d like to work with this person again as soon as possible.’” He made arrangements. “And in talking about what you would like to play, the conversation deepens, and you find that here is someone who understands and can articulate things you have never been able to put words to,” he adds shyly.
Shaham says the secret to living with Robertson is “to always anticipate what’s going on. He’s very fast; he’s very smart. He’s also unbelievably caring and impassioned. If something is important to him, he will do everything it takes to make it right.” One of their marriage vows was: Always strive to share the other’s enthusiasms, even if you can’t share their tastes.
Their major difference? She leads with her head, and he, for all his brilliance, leads with his heart.
“When he gives, he gives from his whole body and soul,” says Shaham. From family lore, she’s realized that his mother had the same sweetness, would do anything for anybody. “When we walk down the street and see somebody homeless, he will take them to the nearest sandwich shop and buy them food. When we were performing in St. Louis that first time, he was a little late because a driver had gotten stuck and he’d gotten out to help push. I can’t remember if he was wearing his tails, but he may well have been.
“I worry that it won’t be understood or appreciated,” she admits. “That has happened in the past. To be honest, this is one of the reasons we thought coming to St. Louis would be a good idea. Our sense was that people here genuinely care. It’s not superficial, the way it is in other places—and we have been all over the world. His kindness will be appreciated here, appreciated and—this is something we would never have thought about—returned.”