Champion of the World |

Champion of the World

Stewart Oksenhorn
David Robertson conducts his wife, pianist Orli Shaham, the Aspen Festival Orchestra and electric guitarist Stephen Mackey on Sunday, July 8, at the Benedict Music Tent. (Michael Tammaro)

David Robertson recently completed his second season as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra – his third if you count the year he spent as music director designate. It struck me as a remarkably short time, given what apparently has been accomplished in Missouri. When Robertson took control, in 2005, the St. Louis Symphony was reeling from severe financial strains; there had been a shortening of the season, the sudden resignation of music director Hans Vonk, then the cancellation of two months of concerts, all amid labor disputes. (Don Roth was the executive director in the period leading up to the turmoil; he left St. Louis in 2001 to take over the presidency of the Aspen Music Festival and School, a position he held into 2006.)Not the least of Robertson’s achievements has been the elevation of his own stature. Robertson hardly came out of nowhere; the California native had led the Orchestra National de Lyon and Lyon’s Auditorium, and had conducted many of the world’s major orchestras. In 2000, he had earned the conductor of the year award from Musical America. But putting the St. Louis Symphony back on track – it has been earning wide applause for its music and its connection to the community – has put the 48-year-old Robertson onto another tier. He has been the subject of adoring articles in The New Yorker (a Dec., 2005 piece titled “The Evangelist”) and The New York Times. Though he extended his contract in St. Louis last year through the 2010 season, there is much press chatter about his next job, presumably with an orchestra in one of America’s major cities.All of this attention has heightened nearly everything Robertson does musically. He has been hailed for his devotion to contemporary composers, to American music, to opera, to community outreach. “I’ve been seen as a champion of so many different things, I’ve lost track,” he quipped in a phone conversation. “If I’m not seen as an enemy of something, I’m happy about that.”Robertson is, in fact, devoted to all of the aforementioned, and more. His upcoming appearance in Aspen, on Sunday, July 8, with the Aspen Festival Orchestra, concentrates on his interest in 20th- and 21st- century American music. The program includes Gershwin’s Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, featuring pianist Orli Shaham, who is married to Robertson, and a 2000 work, “Tuck and Roll,” for electric guitar and orchestra, by Steven Mackey. Mackey, a composer-in-residence in Aspen this summer, will be featured on guitar in the piece. Rounding out the program are two works by Stravinsky: the Capriccio, created after the composer left his native Russia for France, and the Symphony in C, written after Stravinsky’s 1939 move to the States.Robertson – who last year earned the Ditson Conductor’s Prize, for his focus on American music – says the American composers are prominent in his concerts now because of his residence in the U.S. “When I was in Britain, I played a lot of British composers,” said Robertson, who has been principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 2005. “In Paris, I played a lot of French composers. Now that I’m in the U.S., I do a majority of American composers.”

He quickly adds, though, that trumping any issues of living and dead, U.S. or European, is the quality of the music. “It’s not that I think it’s more important to play one than the other,” said Robertson, who spent his college years at London’s Royal Academy of Music, studying horn and composition before turning to conducting. “All composers who have something to say deserve to be heard.”Robertson is interested in taking in a vast swath of musical languages. His catalog of recordings include Europeans Bartók, Saint-Saëns, Dvorák and Pierre Boulez, his mentor in France, as well as Americans John Adams and Elliott Carter. In May, at the closing of Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Robertson conducted the Juilliard Orchestra in pieces ranging from theater and film (Bernstein’s “West Side Story” and Bernard Herrmann’s “Fahrenheit 451”) to swing (“Cherokee”) to out of the mainstream 20th-century classical (Messiaen’s “Oiseaux Exotiques”).”It’s about what kind of sound world the individual composer inhabits,” he said. “And what’s so interesting is, each of these different sound poets inhabits a totally different world.”While Robertson says he loves the collaborative element in working with contemporaries, one of the things that he looks for in such projects is finding keys to unlock the past.”Having that experience with a living composer, it almost helps you to understand what it’s like to talk to George Gershwin,” he said. “You’re talking to a living composer, who is reflecting and interpreting what is going on in his world. You get to see that composers; they’re living people, not some alabaster statue that’s on your desk.”This week’s concert is the first time that Robertson will conduct one of Mackey’s works. But he is diving in; after “Tuck and Roll,” he has several other Mackey pieces scheduled with the St. Louis Symphony.Robertson is looking forward to the full immersion in a current composer. “There are all sorts of things they can fill out that you otherwise don’t know,” he said. He is looking forward to utilizing that collaboration to learn something about Sibelius, Brahms and Mozart, all of whom he is scheduled to conduct in St. Louis next season.”Then you go back to composers from the past and bring that experience to your interpretation,” he said. “You understand more about why they wrote something. So you can go back to Brahms or Beethoven and you don’t try to change what they wrote, but try to understand what they did write.”

It’s safe to say that, at 72, most people have gone a considerable way toward narrowing down their sensibilities. David Zinman, however, who turns 72 this week, seems still in the wide-eyed, expansive stage of discovery common to the teen years.For the current Aspen Music Festival season, his 12th as music director, Zinman came up with the slightly radical theme of “Blue Notes,” an examination of the ties between classical and jazz. And while the Music Festival’s embrace of jazz hardly includes the cutting-edge – the emphasis is on Gershwin and Piazzolla, not Ornette Coleman and Rahsaan Roland Kirk – the attitude is all about keeping open ears.

“I believe music is a giant home, and it’s all part of it: 12-tone, techno, Latin, rock,” said Zinman. “We hear it all, all the time.”This summer, more family members have been welcomed into the Music Festival’s house than probably ever before. Last week, listeners at the Benedict Music Tent were treated to an explosive performance that combined the forces of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the African percussion ensemble Odaada! Still to come are late-night performances (supposing a 9 p.m. start is late by classical standards), pairings of classical artists with pop and jazz acts, and regular programs sprinkled with jazz- and even rock-influenced music.Zinman doesn’t see this season as a one-time musical glasnost. Audiences, he said, have been “more than receptive. It shows us some of the things we need to think about in the future.” That translates to more onstage talks from conductors, more experimental programming. “It’s expanding in a more loose way,” continued Zinman. “And that’s probably the way it will go in the future. If you hear a Christopher Rouse piece, you’ll hear him talk about it.”The season kicked off in earnest with a John Corigliano piece, performed at the first Sunday afternoon Aspen Festival Orchestra concert, and it had audiences chatting. Corigliano’s “Circus Maximus,” conducted by Zinman, had a squadron of musicians spread across the Music Tent. “There was music coming from everywhere – a marching band, a stage band,” said Zinman. “And it had every element – cool jazz, upbeat jazz, roaring noise – louder than you could get in any club – Beatles, sleazy bar music.”One of the interesting things about these cross currents is that they come from a variety of directions. Corigliano comes from what Zinman calls “a severe classical background” to incorporate rock and jazz. Rouse, a longtime Aspen composer-in-residence, has the influence of all kinds of music. Michael Daugherty (whose “Jackie’s Song” will be performed at a chamber music concert Saturday, July 14) and Steve Mackey (who will have the world premiere of his “Groundswell” performed by the Brentano String Quartet, July 21, in addition to “Tuck and Roll” on Sunday, July 8) are both composers who came to concert music from rock.To Zinman, it is essential to see that none of this coming together is forced. Jazz, he notes, is, in its way, America’s folk music, and thus an almost necessary influence on 20th- and 21st-century American composers.

“Every composer that’s come along has dabbled with that because it’s part of our lives,” he said. “Milhaud, Bernstein, Gunther Schuller – all came out of jazz as part of their lives.”No composer is a more precise exemplar than Gershwin. After coming up through Tin Pan Alley and writing musicals, he pursued his longtime passion to write classical music. The result was “Rhapsody in Blue” and the opera “Porgy and Bess,” two of the finest examples of jazz’s influence on classical forms. The former is the centerpiece of the Music Festival’s all-Gershwin Season Benefit on Saturday, July 14. The concert, conducted by Zinman, will have soprano Kathleen Battle singing a selection of Gershwin songs, and performances of the Cuban Overture and the overture to “Strike Up the Band.”For Zinman, this isn’t crossing over to anything, but a perfectly natural expression of his makeup. “I grew up with that,” he said. “My parents were always singing Gershwin. Gershwin was the ’30s, an evocation of Manhattan, the immigrant experience in New York.”He was a genius, and it was all natural. And with this naturalness came something that was typically American.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is

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