Off the Record: David Robertson

by Yoon Kwon, violinist

"Each [performance] will not be the same experience. So the point is to make that one experience the most it can possibly be.” - David Robertson

“I would be happy to, but under one condition, that we don’t talk about politics,” replied David Robertson when I asked him if he would be willing to sit down with me for an interview.  

“Of course!” I quickly agreed. I had no interest in talking about politics anyway. At this point, we were six performances into the run of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, and the only controversy I saw was who was more impressive: the chorus, the dancers, or the orchestra. Despite all the the hype and press, the Met’s eight-performance run of The Death of Klinghoffer included only one “protest prelude” outside the theatre.

David Robertson and Yoon Kwon

David Robertson and Yoon Kwon

Conductor David Robertson is truly a citizen of the world. He is Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia, Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and calls New York City his home. This is his seventh production with the Met and his next visit will mark the 20th anniversary of his debut. 

“There is something about being able to sleep in your own bed and ride your bike across the park to conduct one of the greatest orchestras in the world," he says. Unless he is at the Met, he only conducts only a couple of operas per year because, “you have to commit so much time away. And honestly, if it’s not ‘working,’ and you are far away from your family, it’s very difficult.”
Even if it is working, I suspect that an opera production is not a walk in the park.  

“What are the greatest challenges of conducting an opera?” 

"You need to be very clear about what your responsibilities are, but you also have to be aware of the collective intelligence: 50 technicians behind the scenes and close to 250 people on stage, all of whom have something very specific to do at the highest level. As a conductor, your job is to enable everyone to do the best they can.”  

“Then the challenge must be finding that balance between flexibility and control,” I added. "Every artist, I think, has their own relationship in performance between emotional inspiration and mental and physical control. Standing on a podium, to me, seems overwhelmingly difficult to find that balance. How do you deal with that?”
He likened conducting with surfing.  

“Oh, are you a surfer?” 

He chuckled. “Well, not now. When I was about 18, I used to body surf. Growing up in Malibu, there were some great waves there. When you get out in the water, one of the things you learn is that this is an immense amount of power. Your job is not to tell that wave where to go; your job is to ride it and get as much power out of it as you possibly can, and do it with as much beauty and grace as you can manage. When you have an audience and musicians, your job is to harness the creative power of the human imagination, and use that to make something that is memorable and unique. That is where the balance of control comes in because in the end when you are surfing, the rush and the enjoyment is tremendous and you have to have the control in order for it to take place."

"What is it about the MET Orchestra that is unique and special to you?”  

“I was talking to Cristian Tetzlaff not long ago, and we were talking about how the MET [Orchestra] is one of the only orchestras to whom you can really talk about what the music is about, and they really go with you. You play each note with meaning, even when you are playing symphonic works, because you are so used to every note telling a story. Also, MET Orchestra musicians are like incredible athletes. You've figured out how much you have to give and when. It’s like a marathon. There are great runners, but knowing when you take the first step, what the last step will feel like, is a whole other story and skill. You give everything that you need, all of the intensity, but at the same time, nothing is wasted. That ability is something very few orchestras possess."

“From your point of view, as a conductor, what is it exactly that you are trying to do?” I asked bluntly.  

He smiled. “I had the privilege of studying in London at the Royal Academy of Music, where I was a horn and composition major. I was lucky enough to be able to sit in some of the rehearsals of the London Philharmonic, and one morning Sir Georg Solti was conducing, and the afternoon session was [with] Klaus Tennstedt. You could swear that all the musicians were different. They sounded so different yet all the faces were the same! Every single great conductor, the common thread is that every one is completely themselves. If they are a scary SOB, that’s who they are. If they are incredibly soft spoken, that’s who they are. What it taught me is that you need to figure out who you are and try to do that when you interact with the orchestra. You have to use your strengths and make them as strong as possible and keep your weaknesses from interfering with the work that the others are trying to do.” 

Figuring out who you are, and doing that… That is hard enough on your own, let alone doing it front of 100 musicians. It’s also a never-ending, ever-evolving process. In any position, in any profession, the same pitfalls arise: insecurity, arrogance, indifference. Perhaps most vitally, humility cannot be taught, cannot be faked, and is absolutely necessary in a leadership position. How does one become a great leader?

“Did you have a defining moment as a young conductor when you realized what it means to be doing what you are doing?” I was curious if he ever felt a fight-or-flight instinct.

Maestro Robertson recollected one of his first times in front of an orchestra. He had stopped the orchestra, was looking at his score, and searching for the words to express his thoughts, when he realized that around him was complete silence and 100 pairs of eyes of him. “It dawned on me that they could see that I wanted to say something, and they were interested. They might not agree with me, but they were actually interested. I often say this to young conductors: ‘Have you ever met a musician who, when they play a piece for the second time, does not try to play it better? It is a mistake to think that as a conductor, you are the one who can make the music sound better. Add into that the musicians are experts at their instruments. Your job is to know the score better than anyone else, and therefore know the possibilities so when someone in the orchestra or on the stage has an artistic inspiration, [you can] determine if that will add something or subtract something from the overall music.’”  

I first worked with David Robertson at the Aspen Music Festival, when I was yet to become a teenager; he was making his US debut conducting Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with the Aspen Festival Orchestra. I remember his commitment and passion for the music, but what really struck me was his desire to share his interest in contemporary music. He spoke from the podium to the audience and was intelligent, articulate, and poignant, just as he is today. The performance was an incredible success. The audience gave him five or six curtain calls and the orchestra was so impressed with this young dynamic conductor, that we didn’t even stand up, ensuring that the audience’s appreciation went to him alone. He has since then continued to be a champion of 20th- and 21st-century music. However, he does not like being labeled a specialist.  “Asking me who my favorite composer is, is like asking me to name my favorite child!” He paused. “It depends on the day!” We both laughed. “Bach - the Goldberg Variations - Brahms, whatever I am conducting that day.”
I asked if he listened to any pop music.  

“Oh yes, I’m hoping that Iggy Azalea will win a Grammy!” When you truly love music, you are interested in all aspects and genres of music. "We all look at the past from the viewpoint of our present. For me, to have a love for Mozart, but not be interested in composers of the present who also have a love for Mozart, doesn’t make sense. It is very important to know what is going on now, because it gives us an actual vantage point.”  

“One last question, Maestro.”  

He glanced at his watch. “Oh wow, yes, I need to get something to eat before the show!”  

“Do you have any pre-performance rituals or something you always do?” I have always been fascinated by what artists do before going on stage. I have heard everything, from doing headstands to eating a can of tuna.  

"I don’t get nervous, so I have a shot of espresso. It gives me a little kick."

“Good evening everyone. This is your 30 minute call. Act I of Klinghoffer in 30 minutes,” the intercom interrupted.   

An hour had passed since I stepped into his dressing room. As if on cue, chorus master Donald Palumbo entered to go over some last-minute details.  

“Thank you so much, Maestro, for your time,” I said, while Donald graciously snapped some candid photos of us.  

“It was my pleasure. See you in the pit,” said the Maestro.  

I had some time before the 15 minute call to grab a bite to eat and collect my notes, so I headed to the Met cafeteria. There I ran into a good friend, Maestro Michele Mariotti, who is here for the run of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. (Look for that interview soon!)  

“Eight minutes. Act I in eight minutes,” the intercom reminded us.  

As I stood up to head to the pit, I saw Maestro Robertson, espresso in hand, walking out of the cafeteria.  

He walked onto the podium and acknowledged the audience. He turned around to face the stage and slowly scanned the orchestra, anticipating the currents in the ocean of sound that he would soon summon, determining where the waves will come from tonight, how powerful they will be. His eyes were eager and focused. He reached into his jacket’s inner pocket and pulled out his eyeglasses and placed them carefully on the bridge of his nose. His movements were deliberate. It was almost as if time stood still; the calm before the storm. His right hand found the baton that was waiting for him on his score. Downbeat = Takeoff. The first F minor chord resonated; we were all in for a ride.