by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Dec. 5, 2005.
One recent morning, David Robertson, the vigorous new music director of the St. Louis Symphony, stood up in front of eighteen hundred schoolchildren in Powell Hall, the orchestra’s home, to present a Young People’s Concert. “My name is David,” he said, in a mellifluous, singsong baritone. He introduced the instruments of the orchestra and picked out some themes from the morning’s selections, the Prelude to Bizet’s “Carmen” and scenes from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.” He spoke earnestly at first, but an off-the-wall sensibility crept in. During the performance of “Romeo,” the conductor, who is forty-seven years old, encouraged his listeners to stamp on the floor to the thudding strong beats of the Dance of the Knights. He also proposed that a trombone figure represented Mrs. Capulet, “who’s really big, and she’s saying, ‘Where’s the food?,’ and when she finds these little tiny sandwiches she gets really, really mad.” If Lorin Maazel has this side to him, we haven’t seen it yet.
Robertson’s next appointment on this busy day was with fourteen children at Dunbar Elementary School, on the run-down north side of St. Louis. Still in high spirits, he led a sing-along and read aloud from a story about a mole: “ ‘I want to make beautiful music, too,’ Mole said to himself.” Deborah Bloom, a violinist with the St. Louis Symphony, supplied musical illustrations, culminating in the “Ode to Joy.”
By 4 P.M., Robertson was at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, a museum featuring modern art owned by the Pulitzer family, rehearsing an all-twentieth-century chamber program. The music had been chosen as counterpoint to a group of minimalist works that the Pulitzer had on display, and the concert took place that night in one of the exhibition spaces; a huge blue-and-black painting by Ellsworth Kelly hung overhead. The St. Louis players gave sensationally crisp performances of Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments, Morton Feldman’s “The Viola in My Life (1),” Karlheinz Stockhausen’s total-serialist showpiece “Kreuzspiel,” and David Lang’s postminimalist rave-up “Cheating, Lying, Stealing.” Robertson made deft prefatory remarks, asking listeners to notice a military-march tempo in the Webern and some Bud Powell-esque piano writing in the Stockhausen. He somehow wrapped up each part of his presentation just as the last bongo drum or vibraphone was being brought on for the next stage setup.
At 10 P.M., he was still talking to patrons, elucidating Webern’s twelve-tone construction with the same passion that he had brought to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
Not long ago, the typical maestro would ride into town, bark Central European-accented commands at the orchestra, conduct some concerts, attend a banquet, and move on. These days, music directors have an expanded job description: they must not only convey the repertory to an extant audience of music lovers but also try to explain it to the great silent majority who rarely go to concerts. A singular thing about Robertson, who was born in Santa Monica, California, and has led the Ensemble Intercontemporain, in Paris, and the National Orchestra of Lyon, is that he actively enjoys his evangelical duties; not many maestros at his level condescend to lead Young People’s Concerts on a Tuesday morning. He’s also a brilliant musician and a master programmer. The St. Louis Symphony, which has gone through various financial crises and labor blowups in recent years, has seldom sounded so wide awake. It proved as much to New York audiences before Thanksgiving, with a strong pair of concerts at Carnegie Hall.
The mere survival of this orchestra is something of a miracle. A hundred years ago, St. Louis was the fourth-largest city in America—a Gilded Age metropolis with architectural wonders to match. Now it is ranked fifty-second, and its population is smaller than it was in 1880, when the orchestra was founded. The usual urban ills have scoured the landscape. Powell Hall stands on the edge of the old downtown; the north side of St. Louis, containing some of the poorest African-American neighborhoods in the country, lies across the street. A few blocks to the northeast is the land once occupied by the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, a notorious disaster in the history of urban planning. Now there are hopeful clusters of multifamily dwellings and low-rises amid the stretches of ruined buildings and empty lots.
What is the function of a symphony orchestra in such a world? What, exactly, are you selling at a Young People’s Concert when more than thirty-five per cent of the city’s children live below the poverty line? One thing that the orchestra can do is help fill in the gaps in arts education; many St. Louis Symphony musicians double as part-time teachers in public schools. Whether or not they succeed in building an audience for classical music, they are putting instruments into the hands of children, teasing their minds with themes and variations, and showing them unsuspected possibilities. The fact that Prokofiev is a deceased Russian gentleman mattered little when the orchestra launched into the Dance of the Knights: the rhythm was universal. When, in the latter part of that piece, the main figure came back in at low volume, the kids began stamping along to it, without any prompting from the podium. As the hall rumbled in time to the music, Robertson wheeled around, in surprise and delight.
Another part of Robertson’s St. Louis strategy is to place music side by side with visual works, on the theory that the people who mob exhibitions of Matisse and Picasso should also be thronging to Ravel and Stravinsky. This was the idea of the Pulitzer concert, and both performances at Carnegie also had an audiovisual dimension. On the first program, Robertson showed slides of paintings by Monet—the “Mornings on the Seine” series and the water lilies—to illustrate Debussy’s “Prelude to ‘The Afternoon of a Faun’ ” and “Jeux.” Lecturing from the podium, baton in hand, he related the ever-changing play of light in the Seine series to Debussy’s habit of composing around a fixed set of figures and pitches, principally the C-sharp and G-natural that are heard in the flute in the opening of “Afternoon of a Faun.” Robertson suggested that when those notes recur in the double basses, beneath an opulent new theme, we are in essence still looking at the same stretch of the musical river, except that it’s now bathed in midday light.
On the second program, Robertson again focussed on Morton Feldman, an intensely visual composer who preferred the company of painters to the company of musicians. “Coptic Light,” from 1986, was inspired by microscopically varied motifs in ancient Coptic tapestries. One of these tapestries was projected behind the stage as the music went on its hushed, charged course. The gimmick helped to sharpen the audience’s attention; the aggressive quietude of Feldman’s music often makes listeners fidget, but this time a rapt atmosphere prevailed. Still, there had been a lot of talk in two days, and it was a relief when, after intermission, Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” was allowed to speak for itself. Stuart Skelton and Michelle DeYoung dug into the vocal parts with uncommon urgency; the conductor relaxed his grip; and the orchestra took off.
As an interpreter, Robertson displays a split personality. On the one hand, he’s an unpretentious enthusiast who devours repertory of every kind, from the classical to the avant-garde, and enjoys Wayne Shorter and OutKast on the side. At the same time, he’s an exacting technician whose style was shaped by the unsentimental Pierre Boulez. To my ears, his performances have sometimes sounded too detached and angular, as if the sheer liveliness of his mind, together with his prodigious memory and ear for detail, were making the musicians antsy. I wish he’d let more of the notes sing straight out, instead of molding dynamics at every turn. But this “Das Lied” was warmer and more spontaneous; the St. Louis players, who lose little in comparison with better-paid counterparts in bigger cities, supplied all the necessary precision while also relishing the color and character of Mahler’s score.
The great Chicago Symphony recently descended on Carnegie Hall like a phalanx of proud Roman soldiers, their shields glinting in the sun. The St. Louis Symphony put me in mind of artisans in studios, fashioning beautiful things by hand. Mark Sparks, the principal flutist, gave a husky tone, almost a Japanese shakuhachi timbre, to his dreamy solos in “Afternoon of a Faun.” Jennifer Montone, the principal horn, gave an easy, sauntering rhythm to her solo in the same piece. When the orchestra unleashed its collective fortissimo, as in the first song of “Das Lied,” it did not box the ears; the music never stopped singing. The St. Louis Symphony sounds like an orchestra made happy, and it is a mighty thing to hear.