Wednesday, January 11, 2006

David Robertson: Elliott Carter at the Barbican

From the Financial Times:

A fresh take on symphonic art

By George Loomis January 10, 2006

This weekend it's a celebration of the great American composer Elliott Carter; two weeks later it's Mozart. Both are full immersion projects and together they suggest the breadth and depth of David Robertson's musical persona.

Last autumn the 47-year-old conductor, a Southern California native whose musical career took off in Europe, assumed new duties with orchestras on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
In September he became music director of the St Louis Symphony, and the following month assumed the post of principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony.
The Barbican's marathon celebration of Carter, which includes two Robertson-led concerts by the BBC Symphony, fits handsomely under the broad brim of his contemporary music hat. From 1992 to 2000 he led Paris's formidable Ensemble Intercontemporain.
But you won't find him denigrating the Mozart 250th anniversary, which he will observe, among other ways, by participating in an All-Day Mozart Marathon at the Barbican Centre in London and other venues on the hallowed day of January 27.
For Robertson it is an occasion for new insights into a composer "who means so much to so many. His music has an extraordinary mix of the learned and the popular. In the C minor Mass, he demonstrates an almost musicological understanding of the past that sets him apart from his contemporaries. If you don't have an understanding of music before Mozart, it's hard to latch on to what he is doing. If you don't know Bee­thoven, you can't conduct [György] Kurtag."
Robertson argues so persuasively that one style informs another that his all-embracing approach seems the only sensible one. "I really wish I had time to devote to the Monteverdi operas, but I can settle for Idomeneo."

Robertson's appointment in St Louis lifted an orchestra that was in the financial doldrums and, due to the terminal illness of his predecessor, Hans Vonk, also bereft of a music director. As one of the leading American conductors of his generation, Robertson's presence in St Louis is an occasion for civic pride, especially since he accepted their offer when a vacancy was a strong possibility at another Midwest orchestra, the ChicagoSymphony.
"The orchestra has a 126- year history and plays as if it had a direct connection with the heart. The experience is never compromised by what might be a little embarrassment about what the music is expressing," Robertson said at the apartment on New York's upper east side that he and his wife, the pianist Orli Shaham, maintain.
"I spend the most amount of time in St Louis, next New York" (where his sons from an earlier marriage are in school) "and then on the road."

In 2004 he was named one of three who would regularly guest conduct the New York Philharmonic on a possible inside track to succeed Lorin Maazel in 2009.
Just what direction he takes the St Louis Symphony in depends in part on the city. "I see the kinds of programmes evolving as I learn what the community is like. I don't want to be a clothes salesman who knows it's not the right size but has a quota to meet."
Perhaps he will introduce short festivals built around contemporary composers that he programmed in Lyon when he headed the orchestra there and the city's auditorium from 2000 to 2004.
"We did Berio, Reich, Ligeti and Boulez. At first it scared the pants off people, and there were almost more performers than persons in the auditorium, but the audience became incredibly enthusiastic."

Another product of his Lyon days is Robertson's predilection for combining music with the visual arts. In a recent programme called "Seeing Debussy, hearing Monet" he drew parallels between composer and painter. "It's a lot of work to get permission from museums and to arrange for projections. But for people who are scared of the baggage of classical music, it's very user-friendly to bring in other art forms."

Clearly Robertson has answers for American orchestra administrators ever on the lookout for new ways to excite people about the symphonic art.
I mentioned that Carter, whose music has always seemed more popular in Europe than in his homeland of America, told me that an event like the Barbican's could never happen in his own country. "That's because of private funding for the arts. Where are you going to get the money? European art institutions are in an entirely different situation, which gives the impression that audiences are so much more sophisticated. No! Unfortunately, in the US we don't think that government has any responsibility for cultural matters."
Robertson's conviction that knowledge of one style sheds light on another guides his programming. In the Barbican concerts with the BBC Symphony, Carter shares billing with Bartok, Ives and Sessions. "It's often more interesting to hear the personality of a composer through his relationship with other pieces. Carter is a real 20th-century figure, with many colleagues."

Robertson's connection with the orchestra dates from his student days when he attended rehearsals after forsaking southern California to attend the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied conducting, composition and French horn.
"It's really invigorating to hear this orchestra sight-read a piece. And since they don't have a core repertory, they play Beethoven's Fifth with the same freshness that they bring to a living composer's work."

Opera is an area Robertson has neglected recently but plans to return to. He will conduct Oedipus Rex and a new opera by Ivan Fedele based on Antigone at a future Maggio Musicale in Florence; he also has plans to return to the Metropolitan Opera, where he made his debut in 1996.
"Opera takes so much time, and I'm not the type who shows up at the first stage rehearsal and says, 'No, it's all wrong!'"
Whatever he conducts, Robertson craves listener involvement.
"People think that there is one thing they should get from classical music. But it's empowering for them to realise they can look at music in their own way - rich works have all sorts of avenues of approach. And concerts are different from records. I want people to be listening, not just re-hearing."

Details of the Elliott Carter programme at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 from www.barbican.org.uk

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