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Helmsman

WILLIAM R. BRAUN speaks with conductor David Robertson, whose musical passions run from Billy Budd to Barber to The Music Man.

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Portraits by Dario Acosta
Grooming: Affan Malik
© Dario Acosta 2012
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© Dario Acosta 2012
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At work with the St. Louis Symphony
© Dilip Vishwanat 2012

When David Robertson enters the orchestra pit at the Met this month to conduct the revival of Britten's Billy Budd, audiences probably won't realize that one aspect of Robertson's interpretation is what he learned about the opera from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Last summer, when Robertson was in Santa Fe for Berg's Wozzeck, he was invited to a brunch. In what he describes as "the coolest moment of my life," he was seated next to Ginsburg. "Of course, you're not supposed to talk about any of the court cases," he says. But he thought of his wife, pianist Orli Shaham. "If she wasn't a pianist, she would love to be a judge. So I'm trying to live vicariously for her and think about what I can bring back. And we're talking about things, and Justice Ginsburg has this incredible recall, not just about court cases, but she'll recall who was the set designer and the director and who sang which role in some opera production she saw in 1963. And she said, 'Do you know the origin of where the Billy Budd story came from?' which I didn't. I thought Melville and the sea, I knew about the play Billy Budd, I'd read Moby-Dick, but I hadn't realized this. She explained that Melville's father-in-law was a judge in Massachusetts. This was the period before the Civil War, and a case came to him where a slave had escaped, and they knew who the slave owner was, and according to the laws of Massachusetts at the time he needed to be returned. The case fell on his docket, and he had to make the decision. And Melville watched as this went on and then, against everything his father-in-law believed in, he had to send the slave back, because that was what the law decreed."

Hence Robertson's interpretation of the trickiest moment Britten bequeathed to conductors, a long sequence of nothing more than a few dozen slow, solemn whole-note chords in Act II, when the orchestra must somehow portray the agonizing judgment Captain Vere passes upon Billy. "She turned to me, and I wish I had a recording, and she said, 'because slavery is such an abomination.' And the way she said it, the voice and everything, it was like opera in and of itself. What Britten has done in the opera is very carefully given all the melodies, with the possible exception of the very beginning and the very end, a movement which is like the deck of the ship, so that everything has this kind of undulation, this kind of positive and negative quality — which, if you look at it, is a wave. Whether it's a wave on the water or a wave in sound or a wave in calculus, it has a shape to it. And of course it's our own experience of life, which has its highs and lows. Our body rhythms, basically our whole nervous system works in that way, continually ebbing and flowing. And the story of the opera, as well as the actual choice of intervals for all the melodies throughout, is about this — which for me is the extraordinary thing when it becomes fragmented in the chords of the interlude in Act II, when Vere goes in to talk to Billy, when this easygoing, flowing movement is suddenly broken up into block chords. We feel the normal musical flow literally come apart. It's as though Britten has said, 'This law is so against nature, it is such an abomination, that the laws of nature no longer obtain on these chords.' And that is why they are so amazing."

When Robertson says a word like "amazing," you can't help believing in it. At first, you think you have been taken in by his eyes, which are such a striking shade of teal blue that you have to remind yourself not to stare. He is rail-thin and unfailingly enthusiastic. His conversation is peppered so many times with "Gee," "Oh my gosh" and "Wow" that one might think he came from the Midwest. (He grew up in Santa Monica, California.) But his emotions come out so easily that his orchestra, the Saint Louis Symphony, has come to anticipate it.

"They're not at all surprised or upset when it comes to the surface," he notes. "Christine Brewer and I were doing a New Year's concert in St. Louis about the changing of the seasons, so we did Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Chris and I had done that one in London, and it was just fabulous, although the British reviewers don't really understand it, so they didn't get what she was doing with it. But in the rehearsal, we got to the amazing part where the poet says the line 'By some chance, here they are, all on this earth,' and elicits the line 'my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father.' And of course Barber has got this total understanding of how to manipulate the emotions, in a subtle way — he's never coercive but so strong. He has this thing where the high note is going up on 'my mother.' And I looked at the fiddles, and I said, 'This is the climax of the piece, just give it to me.' And it wasn't the loudness. I can't explain what they do — this is one of the things I love about the St. Louis Symphony — they just put their heart into it. And Chris went up, choked on the high note, and Chris and I looked at each other, and both of us are bawling. This is in the space of a bar that they do that. And Chris said, 'I'm so sorry,' and I ran offstage to get us both Kleenexes, and the orchestra is just sort of sitting there going, 'Take it easy, calm down, you'll be fine.'"

As if on cue, Robertson's eyes are watering again at the memory. "I'm leaking all over the place," he laughs. We are sitting in a back room at his publicist's office. He toddles out to the reception desk in search of more Kleenex. For my benefit, he moans to the front office, "He's got me crying, he's being so tough." Back on track, he remembers the first time he was overwhelmed by a performance. "In the late '80s I did Suor Angelica. I remember doing the whole thing, shaking the hand of the concertmaster and walking out and, the minute I was in the darkness outside the pit, just exploding into almost inconsolable tears. I'd never had anything like that before. I remember Jim Levine once saying, 'I can't get too excited in La Bohème, because otherwise I throw the whole performance on the floor.' It's very tricky to do these things."

The precarious state of Levine's health, of course, has lately become the elephant in the room during any conversation with a conductor. His frequent cancellations of engagements in recent years have resulted in a constant shifting of responsibilities in the world of guest conductors and music directors. (Robertson began filling in for Levine on a Boston Symphony tour a few years ago, and he will do it again at a Met Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall this month.) Moreover, illness and injury to other conductors, such as Riccardo Chailly and Riccardo Muti, have added to the shuffle. When we spoke just before Christmas, Robertson had returned to New York after filling in on short notice for Chailly in Munich. But the idea of committing to a music directorship of an opera house, no matter how appealing it may seem to outsiders, will never be a slam dunk. Of music directorships, Robertson says, "In theory, everything is great. But it's about the particulars. The question is like 'Do you want to be married?' Well, in theory, sure! But of course it really depends on finding the right person. I am on my third, and final, marriage, because I finally found the right person. When I was first of marrying age, she was something like five years old. So I had to wait." And a music directorship, once accepted, is draining. "You occupy this remarkable position of being a part of the administration of things and having to take administrative decisions, as well as being a part of the actual performance aspect, so therefore being on the receiving end of what those decisions might mean. And this is a really involved process, and I try not to overdo the number of things that I can be involved with."

Nonetheless, Robertson did come close to accepting the music directorship of Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu, and the reasons he ultimately declined illustrate what a conductor has to face. "I'd had a great relationship with them, I love the orchestra, I love the house, the level of singers that come through the place, and I love Barcelona. But one of the things I said was that they were dealing with an outdated contract whereby the orchestra can only have one service per day. Now that service can be six hours long, which is not fair somehow, but there's only one of them. So let us say that you're doing a Mozart opera, which has a particularly small orchestra. You can't do anything else with the other musicians on the same day. Let us say that you have performances, and you want to bring in a really great conductor as a guest conductor to work with the orchestra on a concert to help make their level better. You would have to block that conductor in for fifteen days to give them enough rehearsal in between the opera performances in the evening. And nobody is going to have that kind of time if they're really the desirable person that you want. So the Liceu was a case of everything else was fine, the operas would be great to do, I was really looking forward to doing them. But they said, 'We can't change the contract before you come. You'll have to come down, and we'll see if we can get it changed.' And I said, 'You know if that's it then I'm going to be suffering with it for years, and I can't do it.'"

In the symphonic world, Robertson is especially noted for his thoughtful programming of concerts. (Last June with the New York Philharmonic, he offered Shostakovich's First Symphony, Rachmaninoff's The Isle of the Dead and Deborah Voigt in Erwartung, all on the same program. The three pieces initially seemed to have nothing to say to each other, but on reflection, and in performance, they proved to make a remarkable statement about the early twentieth century.) If he had an opera company, he says, he would work to have the season provide similarly intriguing juxtapositions. He might produce the original French La Favorite of Donizetti alongside the original five-act Don Carlos, to show the influence of the former on the latter. Asked if any of the symphonic composers he regularly works with showed a potential gift for opera, Robertson laments, "I'm very sad, and I've talked to him a number of times, that Pierre Boulez never wrote an opera, because his sense of opera and theater is just fabulous. I think Steven Mackey would be able to do something really special. He has this gift of being able to do the kind of fun, effervescent party music like you get in Rigoletto and La Traviata and then suddenly go into this 'Oh my goodness, my world is closing in' music."

But Robertson seems more interested in the tricky job of getting a second production for a new opera. "I worked very hard to get Berio's Outis a second production, in Paris, with a superior orchestra, some better choices for the vocal lines, as well as a production where I was really able to work with the director." He has also been consulting on revisions to Nico Muhly's Two Boys after its premiere run at English National Opera. And when Robertson helps refine the vocal writing in an opera he comes from an unusual perspective. Nearly all conductors at some point mastered a musical instrument — Robertson himself started as a horn player — but it is hard to think of another conductor with as much vocal experience. In high school, he played Harold Hill in The Music Man. "People say I have a nice feel for voices. Well, let me tell you, there's nothing like the lesson of singing Harold Hill, finishing the entire dance routine in the middle — you're dancing across the library tables and all of that, then you suddenly get back to 'Maaa-aaaaa-rian'" — he pants repeatedly on the rest — "'Madame libraaa-aaa-rian' [panting again]." Taking a conducting class at London's Royal Academy of Music with Edward Downes, he filled in when a singer was ill, working his way through the thorny lines of the Captain in Wozzeck. He performed the deeply odd vocal part in HK Gruber's Frankenstein!! at Carnegie Hall, which he was planning to conduct, when a travel delay kept Gruber from doing the part himself. And, he says, he did the lion's share of the English translation for the Met's premiere production of Janácˇek's The Makropulos Case, which also served as his Met debut.

Whatever else Robertson may do in his Met career, he'll always be associated with the sad, frightening opening night of that production. Tenor Richard Versalle, portraying the law clerk Vítek, climbed a ladder, suffered a cardiac arrest and fell to the floor, dead. The performance ended, just a few minutes after it had begun, with Robertson calling out from the podium in a sweet, comforting voice, "Richard, are you all right?" For those of us in the audience, accustomed to singers hanging on wires in Philip Glass's The Voyage, it had first appeared as if Versalle fell in slow motion. Robertson, oddly, initially thought the same thing, even though he knew it wasn't true. "That's what everybody thought, because of the way he let go and didn't try to save himself. I still viscerally remember the experience of slowing the tempo down because he wasn't singing and hadn't gotten the cue. The violins were trilling, so they just kept changing bow."

Asked how he managed even to try to conduct the production again, he answers, "I think it would have been much harder if this had been an opera like L'Elisir d'Amore. My first Così Fan Tutte coincided with the Gulf War in 1991. And how, as a conductor, could you do this kind of thing, with the pretend going-to-war? But I was lucky enough to come across George Steiner's book The Death of Tragedy, and reading it between rehearsals somehow put into perspective the whole human drama. And in a way I couldn't explain in words but could explain in music, it made sense to be doing the Così. I think, with hindsight, it's important to remind ourselves that, thank goodness for Mozart, at these moments when we're not very proud of our actions and how we behave, Mozart reminds us that being human is not all about the bad things. And that we're made up of these amazing emotions, and we can get totally fixated on one thing, which can make us ridiculous, yet this is part of the human story, the human drama. With Makropulos Case you need to focus on what the opera is actually about, which is the fact that it's all ephemeral. And that is what makes it so beautiful." spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut. 



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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2