Conductor  David  Robertson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


David Robertson – conductor, artist, thinker, and American musical visionary – occupies some of the most prominent platforms on the international music scene. A highly sought-after podium figure in the worlds of opera, orchestral music, and new music, Robertson is celebrated worldwide as a champion of contemporary composers, an ingenious and adventurous programmer, and a masterful communicator whose passionate advocacy for the art form is widely recognized. A consummate and deeply collaborative musician, Robertson is hailed for his intensely committed music making.

Robertson has served in numerous artistic leadership positions, such as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (2014-19), and a transformative 13-year tenure as Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (2005-18). With St. Louis, he solidified its status as among the nation’s most innovative ensembles, establishing fruitful relationships with a spectrum of artists, and garnering a 2014 Grammy Award for the Nonesuch release of John AdamsCity Noir, in addition to numerous other recordings, such as Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony, with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, on Blue Engine Records, and Mozart Piano Concertos, No. 17 in G Major K.453 and No. 24 in C Minor K.491, with Orli Shaham (sister of Gil), on Canary Classics. Earlier artistic leadership positions include at the Orchestre National de Lyon (2000-04); Music Director of the Ensemble InterContemporain (1992-2000); and Principal Guest Conductor at the BBC Symphony Orchestra (2005-12).


David Robertson holds a rich and eduring collaboration with the New York Philharmonic, and in the Americas conducts many noted ensembles, including the Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, National, Houston, Dallas, Montréal and Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestras. Robertson has served as a Perspectives Artist at Carnegie Hall, where he has also conducted, among others, The Met Orchestra, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He appears regularly with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, Bayerischen Rundfunk, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Staatskapelle Dresden, and other major European and international orchestras and festivals, ranging from the BBC Proms, to Musica Viva in Munich, to the New Japan Philharmonic and Beijing’s NCPA Orchestra.

With the Metropolitan Opera, Robertson continues to build upon his deep conducting relationship, which includes James Robinson’s 2019-20 season opening premier production of Porgy and Bess, and the premier of Phelim McDermott’s celebrated 2018 production of Così fan tutte, set in Coney Island. Since his 1996 Met Opera debut, The Makropulos Case, he has conducted the Met premier of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer (2014); the 2016 revival of Janáček’s Jenůfa, then its first Met performances in nearly a decade; the premiere production of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys (2013); Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro; and Britten’s Billy Budd. Robertson conducts at the world’s most prestigious opera houses, including La Scala, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Théâtre du Châtelet, and the San Francisco and Santa Fe Operas.


Since 2018, David Robertson has served as Director of Conducting Studies, Distinguished Visiting Faculty, of The Juilliard School. In Fall 2019, he joined the newly formed Tianjin Juilliard Advisory Council, an international body created to guide the emerging Chinese campus of the Juilliard School. He conducts the Juilliard Orchestra annually at Carnegie Hall.

Robertson is the recipient of numerous awards, and in 2010 was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Government of France. He is devoted to supporting young musicians and has worked with students at the festivals of Aspen, Tanglewood, Lucerne, at the Paris Conservatoire, Music Academy of the West, and the National Orchestra Institute.  In 2014, he led the Coast to Coast tour of Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra of the USA.

He has recorded for the Sony Classical, Harmonia Mundi, Naive, EMI/Virgin Classics, Atlantic/Erato, Nuema, Ades Valois, Naxos and Nonesuch labels, featuring the music of such composers as Adams, Bartók, Boulez, Carter, Dusapin, Dvorák, Ginastera, Lalo, Manoury, Milhaud, Reich, Saint-Saëns, and Silvestrov.

Born July 19, 1958 in Santa Monica, California, David Robertson was educated at London’s Royal Academy of Music, where he studied horn and composition before turning to orchestral conducting.  He is married to pianist Orli Shaham, and lives in New York.

==  Text (only) slightly edited from the Opus 3 Artists website  
==  Names which are links throughout this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In January of 1999, Robertson was in Chicago for his first downtown appearance conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  We met in his dressing room backstage at Orchestra Hall immediately before his initial concert in the series.  On the program were Printemps of Debussy, the Prokofiev Violin Concerto #2 with Kyung Wha Chung, and Petrushka of Stravinsky.

He was enthusiastic and even gregarious in speaking about musical topics, and we spent a very enjoyable time in conversation.

As we were setting up, we chatted about looks versus music . . . . . .

Robertson Bruce Duffie:   How much should the audience think about the looks, and how much should they think about the music when they come to concert?

David Robertson:   Oh, gosh.  It’s very hard to say, because you can’t really separate the physical aspect of seeing the musicians play, and being involved with your eyes and with your ears.  This is one of the big things.  There are times when, for myself as a musician, and also my colleagues in the orchestra, you will see somebody playing a phrase, and just the way you see them play the phrase, you hear the notes, and the commitment they show to your eyes is enough to really just make all sorts of things happen.  It is a strange thing, that one also notices in places like crowded restaurants.  You hear lots of voices, and the moment that your eyes fix a particular table, it may be very far away, but because of the way we are made as animals, our hearing immediately focuses on something because we have a direction to it.  So, this connection between eyes and ears is not something that one should neglect.  It’s not something that should be underplayed.  The difficulty is to never get it out of balance.

BD:   I assume you don’t want the concert hall to put a spotlight on each incidental solo instrument?

Robertson:   No.  It’s the same way that you wouldn’t want to take something as rich as the orchestral music of the past three hundred years, and smother everything else just to have one part.  The extraordinary thing is that one can take in an enormous number of things just in a moment.  The word in German is augenblicklich, literally the look of the eye.  We would say to take everything in at a glance.  This is possible to do, and the strange thing is that this depth of hearing everything is there when we listen, but it evolves over time in the same way that, with language or anything that’s oral, we need to get to the end of a phrase before we really understand the full significance.  Composers are doing this quite frequently.  They will start a phrase, and build up certain expectations, and then either allow you to see the resolution of those expectations, or withhold them and change the direction.  This is the whole aspect of storytelling in a nutshell.

BD:   Is it up to you, as the conductor, to direct the eye and the ear to what you want to be brought out at each particular moment?

Robertson:   The conductor is the only musician in the bunch who is not holding anything but a little piece of wood
or sometimes not even thatyet he becomes a focal point for a lot of people.  We shouldn’t neglect the fact that at times our turning to what might be considered a lesser-voice in terms of volume or orchestration may actually mean that for some members of the audience, they focus on something that they’ve never heard before in a piece that is familiar to them.

BD:   If you’re getting to a point where the second flute has a very interesting idea, will you point to that player to bring it out for the instrumentalist as well as for the audience?

Robertson:   The problem is that musicians are such incredibly subtle people.  I’m lucky enough on these concerts with the Chicago Symphony to have a situation where the merest gesture, or even just the change of look or shifting the eyes from one player to another player is enough to make a fairly drastic change.  You aren’t doing something that’s very didactic for the public, and teaching them that now they see this melody is in the cor anglais.  If people were looking at my face by sitting in the orchestra, I’m sure they would recognize all of these things.  This is also a way that it immediately lets all of the first violins know, when I look at the viola solo, that they may have piano or mezzo piano as a dynamic marking.  This gives them an idea of what volume they should play, but that volume is immediately relative to where the most important thing is happening.  What is wonderful is that this can change at every moment.  You might hear that one musician on a given evening is really on a roll.  The hand of God has touched them that day, and everything they are doing is fantastic.  It’s one of those things, and they are riding it.  So, if you can find a way of being receptive to that, and communicating that to the rest of the musicians, then everybody profits from this.

BD:   Are you the hub of the wheel, and everything radiates out from you, or is it the music that’s really leading the way?

Robertson:   The problem is that a lot of focus is on the conductor.  It is true that we have an important role to play, but there’s inspiration coming from a lot of different places.  The metaphor that I’ve used a number of times is that of a rather complex mirror.  This is to say that you have the inspiration which originally comes from the composer.  There is this extraordinary miracle, that out of someone’s imagination they can put hieroglyphs on a piece of paper, and a lot of other people who have instruments that make
air molecules which vibrate making sound.  They can then create this entire world which comes from the innermost thoughts of another human being.  Of course, they don’t play it in a vacuum.  They play it for people, so that the audience feels it.  The way that you can hear if people are listening is by the type of silence they give you.  It conveys the sense of just what’s happening in the whole atmosphere.  This makes a situation whereby what you have is a constant refracting of inspiration from above, with the composer, wherever he or she may be, to the musicians in front of you and the audience behind you.  When you’re doing it the best, everything is flowing in all directions at once, and in a sense, you aren’t really existing.  It’s hard to explain, but when that happens, you feel very much like a conduit for all of these experiences which make a very complex human interaction.  Then, the ironic thing, which is hard for us as conductors afterwards, is that it’s precisely when everybody thinks you have done the best job.  So, the public comes up with a great deal of personal adulation.

Robertson BD:   When, in fact, you have just made sure of the refraction?

Robertson:   You have just simply let it happen in the right way.  However, letting it happen in that way is not a simple task!

BD:   Are you directing what goes into the mirror, or are you adjusting the mirror to catch what goes into it?

Robertson:   It’s more the second, I would think, because every person has their own reaction.  One of the things that’s wonderful about the art of conducting is that no two people do it in the same way.  It’s impossible, and it’s just given that it’s hardwired into the profession.  It’s different than the technique on a violin or the piano or a clarinet, where there are a large number of things that are there, and beyond that, the personality of each individual artist expresses himself through the instrument.  What you, as a conductor, need to do is somehow find a way to focus all of these energies that people are giving you, and make enough room for the individual musician’s contribution
even if there are a hundred of themwhile at the same time being as faithful to the composer as you can possibly imagine.  This is one of these things where no matter how accurate the composer is in writing something down, there’s always the individual quality, the subjective part, which makes human experience so touching, that is brought in.  I love the example of Flaubert.  There’s no more precise writer in language, and yet everybody thinks of Madame Bovary a little bit differently.  We all see it, and this is the problem when a book that everyone loves is made into a film.  Though we may admire the actor or the actress, we personally have created a much different picture of the person who plays that character.

BD:   Then here at Orchestra Hall, are you fighting 2,600 preconceived conceptions of a piece of music that is familiar to the audience when you conduct it?

Robertson:   I don’t know.  I try not to sort of think in those terms.  It’s much more a case that there is, inevitably, a large element of subjectivity any time you look at anything, and the idea that there can be an objective performance of a piece of music is a misnomer in my opinion.  So, the question is how can you do things in such a way that you have the most specific interpretation possible?  The musicians are not in doubt of what tempo this is, or how these phrases go together.  By doing so, you leave the largest number of entry ways open for each individual person.  This is one of the reasons why I like to go over to things like prose writing or theater works.  These are things where, because of language, it’s easier for us to immediately conceive.  The idea is not that when every person who reads Crime and Punishment will have exactly the same experience.  This is because no one’s experience of language is quite the same.  The difficulty then comes when you, as a performer, are actually having to interpret.  This is the situation where we would have, for example, Dostoevsky in Russian.  I don’t speak it, so we’re in the situation that I will need a translator, or in this case an interpreter, to bring those pages and the wonderful things that are in them alive.

BD:   So, that removes one or two levels right away.

Robertson:   Yes, but at the same time it creates something new.  A wonderful translation creates something that is very special.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But, you’re further away from Dostoevsky.

Robertson:   Yes, because there’s no way for you to do exactly the same thing in English that you would do in Russian.  But, at the same time, we get into the whole question of hermeneutics, of how you really understand what someone else has understood in language that is encapsulated.  If someone goes to Russia, or learns the Russian language and spends their entire lifetime in a culture where no one else speaks Russian, they will understand something of Dostoevsky.  But we can argue very accurately that there are a number of things about Dostoevsky that they will have missed.  Whereas, reading the novel in English, having spent a great deal of time in northern climates and knowing during the summer what it’s like the entire day will make it somehow easier for you to understand certain things.  This is part of knowing that everybody is at a different stage in human experience.  So, when I come in with Petrushka, there’s no way that mine can be the definitive reading for anyone, and I shouldn’t try to be.  The thing that is wonderful is that each time you come and listen to a work
even with the same artist, and I find this even after three concerts with the same musicians in a close space of timeall of the performances will be very different.  It’s not because one is willfully trying to make them different, it is simply the way we interact.  I am reminded of the phrase of Mallarmé at the beginning of the Tombeau poem for Anatole, that he had gotten changed by eternity into his true self because this is what you need.  You need to have a concept like eternity, which is open-ended, and at the end of this open-ended concept you’ll have the final picture.  It is a very dynamic process.

BD:   But, in music, you have to go through the time.  You can’t just think about it, and mull it over.  You have to listen to it in the specified and pre-scribed time.

Robertson Robertson:   Absolutely, and this is the thing which makes the actual act of listening to music, and what we think of as Western  art music such an extraordinary experience.  What you’re listening to is a type of discourse which is really saying something at all sorts of moments, and the things that it can say can be subtly different from one moment to the next, even with the same players and with the same piece over a short span of time.  This morning in the rehearsal was just so fabulous to listen to the way that one can shape things with the players with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It is such that they never, never play a phrase the same way twice.

BD:   But they’re always trying to get it the way you want, are they not?

Robertson:   Yes, but I hope that’s not how they think about it.  I always
suggest because I’m listening.  I don’t say to just do a certain bar the way I think it should be, and then they have to follow.  Its much more that.  Between my first beat and my second beat, I’m listening to the type of sound, and the quality and the density of it, and the time and the color that it is has, and the loudness, and its relationship in space, and the preparation of the next note that’s coming which is already nascent in this first tone.  I’m listening to all of those things, and they inevitably effect on a level that is so complex that I can’t really begin to explain where I’m going to put my second beat.

BD:   Is it your ultimate perfection to become superfluous on the podium?

Robertson:   No, because if I were to do that, then there wouldn’t be anything to reflect back on.

BD:   So then, you’re the mirror?

Robertson:   Sure, but this is that complex mirror relationship where I’m able to pick up and transform from one soloist sitting in one chair to ninety other musicians who are suddenly all totally with that soloist.  Then, everybody feels that yes, this is how it ought to be.  Or, when the trumpet plays a phrase in a certain way, that makes me feel right, and means we should do this phrase that way.  Then, suddenly the second violinists and violas play a phrase like we’ve never done before, which we did this morning.  They were so wonderful being able to all perfectly do it together, that I was grinning like a Cheshire cat.  I felt like a child on Christmas day.  That’s what I love about working with soloists.  You read the music, then you come in and someone says this is what I want, this is how I play it.  So they do play it in their own way, but you interact with them, and then they feel they can do this, and they start doing these things.  This, then, becomes absolutely wonderful fun.  The marvelous thing for me is that six months later, I can be doing the same concerto with another soloist with a very different personality.  It will be the same piece, and be as the composer wished it, but totally different.  I remember doing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham, and my feeling was this is absolutely the way this piece should be played.  Then, six months later, I did the same concerto with Vadim Repin, and it was a totally different approach.  Yet, within the first half hour I thought this is the only way this piece can be played!  [Laughs]  This may be a bit canine, in the sense that dogs love whoever they’re with at that moment.  It’s just such a great thing, but I was born in the year of the dog as far as the Chinese calendar is concerned, so maybe this has some relationship.  I’m not sure...

BD:   Is this what perhaps adds to the greatness of a piece of music
that there is so much depth to it that you can find all these things, and that it is so flexible that it can be great one way, and another way, and another way?

Robertson:   Sure.  It’s precisely this which is why we come back to these works, and why they remain for me
contemporary’.  Remember, I do a lot of music that’s written today.

BD:   I was just going to come to this.  Is there a difference in the way you look at a work that you have heard and played, and a work that you are seeing for the first time and giving birth to at its world premiere?

Robertson:   Fundamentally no, and for me that’s a very important point.  The process is the same, and though it’s clear that one doesn’t have the same experience when one is twenty that one has when one is forty, when one is at a certain stage of experience for the moment let’s measure that experience in years.  One does, nonetheless, try to do everything that one can with what one is at that moment.  So, it’s clear that a piece you have played and lived with for ten or twenty years will benefit from the experience of that knowledge and that life together.  But, at the same time, one shouldn’t then use that as an excuse, when you come across something for the first time, to say that you’re not going to try and explain it to yourself and understand it to the fullest of your possibilities.  I’ve had experiences with composers which have taught me that if there’s something you don’t understand why it’s in there, think and think again until you do.

BD:   Rather than just ask the composer for the answer?

Robertson:   No, even if the composer is there.  What happens is that you say something doesn’t really make any sense, and the composer comes in and says something.  Then you think it was obvious that you didn’t get it, because what this composer has imagined is something totally new.  So, it’s normal that when I look at it with the experience I have, that I might miss it.  This is a very important thing for composers, and especially for performers who are performing not only music that has been written recently, but also music that’s been around for a long time, with really great creative individuals who are able to take these things.  It’s like a butterfly, and they manage somehow to arrest this butterfly in mid-flight, and to very delicately put it down on paper so that when you play the music, if you play it right, we will still have this butterfly quality, although they are now notes on the page and they don’t move.  You must constantly defer to the information that is on that page, and really try and understand it in all the depth that’s down there.  Why is it a quarter note and not an eighth note?  Here there’s a piano, and there’s no accent.  What does that mean?  Even on the conscious level, these composers think about things so tremendously carefully, and at the same time on unconscious level, the number of relationships that they’re working with, and the number of things that are going on is absolutely astounding.  There are many composers who talk about this, including Schoenberg’s famous article about thinking he was actually going to throw the manuscript at the Chamber Symphony, Op. 9 in the trash because there weren’t any thematic relationships.  Then it dawned on him at one point that not only are there thematic relationships, but practically everything in the entire piece is all related to this main gestalt, this main form, and it’s absolutely extraordinary.  It’s almost biological in the sense of the cell-division aspect.


BD:   He didn’t see it as he was writing it???  He had to look at it later?

Robertson:   Absolutely not, and this is because this is how we are.  I read recently that something like 20% to 25% of what we consider thought is actually the conscious part.  The rest is unconscious, and in the subconscious, and that’s a lot of stuff.  [Laughs]  This immediately explained very much of the complexity and sometimes rather confusing nature of dreams.  When one spends a lot of time trying to explain them, the people who are into the type of symbolic analysis understand that you cannot make up a catalogue with just,
“This symbol always means this.  It is very much an individual thing, and this is why I like languages.  It’s a hobby of mine.  But one of the things that I have noticed is that in languages that I’ve learned in the last twenty years, I can specifically remember situations and people and places where I learned a certain word and a certain language.  This is impossible for me to do in my mother tongue, where everything is a muddle.  All of us have this, and so, to go back to the Madame Bovary example, dealing with these concepts of wife, mother, husband, and so forth, will be a very individual thing.  One usually doesn’t think this way until you suddenly experience it yourself.  For example, I didn’t realize that I had very specific notions of the word parent until I was a father.  Suddenly, I felt myself confronted with all sorts of ideas, and I really had to think through and think well.  Meanings in my personal dictionary come from an experience of being a child, and having wonderful parents who did all sorts of tremendous things, and to whom I’m extremely grateful.

BD:   At that point you suddenly understood more of it?

Robertson:   You understand what that means, and you understand, in a practical sense, of now I want to try and be able to do some of these things myself.  This is where the whole aspect of understanding what’s going on, and thinking about it in conscious terms is a very difficult thing to do.

BD:   You’re dealing specifically with your children, but you’re not thinking of their children and further generations?

Robertson:   Perhaps not.  I wouldn’t know.  I’m sure at a certain point there will be that, and the concept of what children are is connected also with other things.  Now, when I mention the word
children, it’s impossible for me to say it without the experience of my own children.  The word no longer exists in its pre-1994 state.  So, this is rather a strange thing.

Robertson BD:   Is a concert in any way your child, or is it completely different?

Robertson:   It’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure.  I tend to look at it more like a conversation where the most important thing, or even the subject matter, may be known in advance, and you know more or less how much time you’re going to spend talking about the ideas.  You don’t want to have a rewarmed conversation.  You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re not listening to what the other person says, and that you’re not taking it in, and that you’re not letting it affect you, because that would then be very sad.  This is one of the reasons that a lot of people feel those recordings are wonderful, but there is this feeling that after a while it’s somehow stale, or it’s not quite the same thing.  This is because it is connected to the fact that it’s like in hearing someone say exactly the same thing, and however wonderful it may be, there are times where the same thing is set in a slightly different way, and we realize the tone that’s involved.  This is what makes poets so tremendously jealous of music which can be so specific and so vague precisely the same moment.

BD:   We will rehear music through a different interpreter, but when we reread a poem, there’s not a different interpreter.

Robertson:   But don’t you find that when you do read a poem for the second or third time, coming back to it again that it’s almost like asking,
“Who put those extra words in there, or, “Who changed it?  That phrase wasn’t in there when I read it five years ago.

BD:   So, I’m the different interpreter?!?!

Robertson:   Right!  This also happens when one is in a concert hall.  Rather than saying it is necessarily for a child, or that the idea was to somehow find a way that the novice who is hearing the Beethoven symphony for the first time can really have a major experience, it is also for the person who’s coming back to it with the knowledge of it over twenty years.  They can listen and find the freshness in it, which is there because that person who has twenty years of experience has changed, and brings with them their own experience.

BD:   Are you’re just coming down on a timeline which is constantly moving?

Robertson:   Yes, and for everybody that is different, and that’s what really makes it very tricky.  Coming back to this aspect of visual, that’s why you have to be very careful not to fix things in a way that makes them somehow constricted for the people listening.  This is why one is there, and one has to be completely there, yet drawing attention to oneself is a very dangerous element.  I’m entirely visual, but the musicians do most of their playing by ear.  It’s only very rarely where they really do something by sight.  This is one of the things where that aspect of the conductor’s place within the whole musical experience is one that is at the same time extreme force cuddled with tremendous delicacy.

BD:   Has that influenced you at all when you’re making a recording, which will be purely auditory?

Robertson:   I think so.  I think of them as entirely different things, especially because I really miss the public. The musicians and myself take a great deal of inspiration from the way the public is listening.  It’s very hard to explain.  You can hear it immediately, and I’ve heard it also in pieces where it’s actually very clear.  In things like Morton Feldman, where it’s more or less the same texture for forty or fifty minutes, you can hear when you’ve lost the public.  When they’re no longer really paying attention as a group, then you redouble your forces of concentration, and you make sure that what it is that you want to say comes through.  Then, bingo!  You can hear that you’ve got them again.

BD:   Is there ever a time when the entire audience gets it, or do you just aim at a good percentage of the audience?

Robertson:   You hope that the entire audience gets it.  The problem is precisely the
get it aspect, because everybody is naturally getting something different.

BD:   Are you ever surprised by what they do get?

robertson Robertson:   Oh frequently, but this is also a source of joy rather than a source of worry.  There are times when one’s own personal feelings sometimes make you think, I wasn’t really very happy with that performance.  Then, someone will come back to you, and it is clear that though on two or three levels you were aware of things which didn’t happen the way you liked, on other levels that you may not at all be aware of, and may think that you’re not controlling, in fact you did something for someone else which was very important.  There’s this marvelous line at the end of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke, which is terribly simple, and almost unpoetic.  When he saw the statue of Belvedere for the first time, which for him was the incarnation of perfect beautiful form, the last line of the poem is, Du mußt dein Leben ändern, you must change your life.  There is this sense that the true work of art is a call to change the life.  The problem is we can’t ever tell when this call will come for an individual, or what form it will take, or what is the nature of the change.

BD:   It seems like there are almost infinite variables.  [Vis-a-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Howard Sandroff.]

Robertson:   Absolutely, so this is what makes it so fascinating to do this job, because no one gets stuck in a rut.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be right now?

Robertson:   Yes.  I tend not to think of
the career, but I’m really happy to be able to work with the people that I’m working with now.  It’s just a big honor.

BD:   Your main position is in France?

Robertson:   It’s in France, with l
Ensemble InterContemporain.

BD:   Is this all new music?

Robertson:   Yes, but I also do a lot of non-new music in other places, because I need the balance.

BD:   How do you decide which new music you will work on, and which new music you will set aside?

Robertson:   That’s actually one of the reasons I took the job with l’Ensemble because there I did have control.  There are a certain number of things that inevitably one can call prejudices.  One can call them blind spots where not even a very gifted Renaissance man will be able to see eye to eye with everything.  But it was Pierre Boulez who really impressed me.  We didn’t know each other.  He’d only seen me conduct a concert, and then, after he had said hello after this concert, the next time we spoke was six months later, when he said, “I like you to be Music Director of l
Ensemble.”  We had had no real contact, and I said, “I’m very honored, but with all due respect, your ideas about contemporary music and mine might not always be similar.”  He replied, “So much the better.  What we need is dialogue.”  I thought I could go with this because inevitably, that’s what it is.

BD:   Why did he ask you to be Music Director rather than just regular conductor?

Robertson:   There was a Music Director before.  Pierre is Honorary President of l
Ensemble InterContemporain, which he founded.  He had a Music Director, Peter Eötvös, the composer and conductor for about fourteen years.  Then Peter wanted to do other things, and so Pierre asked me to take over the job.  The nice thing about it is that I’m entirely Music Director, so there were a number of composers whom I admire, and whom I think are important, and who seemed to me were important for the development of the French public that Pierre doesn’t necessarily go with.  There was never the slightest sense from him that I shouldn’t do this, or that’s not really very good music.  Not a bit.

BD:   He’s an inclusionist.

Robertson:   The difference, and this is very important, is that if you’re an author, you will actually be very interested in whether Dostoevsky or Tolstoy is better.  This is because you yourself, as essentially a creator, are involved with the same things.  I was sitting at a table with composers Philippe Manoury and George Benjamin, and they were talking about how this composer was wonderful, and that composer was awful.  These were even composers of the past.  As I was sitting there, listening to this with my friend, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, he said,
“There are only two places for composers to put peopleeither on the throne, or in the trash can.  [Both laugh]  This is, I’m afraid, a normal thing for composers.  They have this very special area of their psyche that they need to protect with a vehemence that is sometimes difficult to understand for those of us who don’t have it.

BD:   Do you have to sort them out, and pull some of them off the pedestal a little bit, and retrieve some others from the trash can?

Robertson:   As an interpreter, if we go back to the Dostoevsky and Tolstoy idea, I’m totally uninterested in this question.  I think both of them are really great.  All I’m interested in is that everybody has a chance to listen and decide for themselves.  What I will try to do is bring the message of one out as totally as I possibly can.

BD:   But when you’re conducting one composer, are you thinking this is the best composer in the world, and then when you go to the next composer, this one is the best?

Robertson:   You have to.  One or two times in the past twenty years of conducting I have gotten myself into a situation where I have done the work that I don’t really feel totally committed to, and it’s awful.

BD:   Did you tell the composer that, or do you just not program any more of his music?

Robertson Robertson:   It’s not necessarily composers who are alive.  One has to be very honest with oneself, and say, “At the moment, this composer is not something I should be doing.  There are lots of other people around, so let them do it.  However, it’s a very tricky question.  For example, I did a world premiere of a composer, Brian Ferneyhough, who, because of the complexity and the type of scores, I had a natural prejudice towards.  I’ve been with him on several, reading-panels of scores, and I found the person absolutely fascinating.  So I thought that this is a prejudice I should look at again.  As Music Director, we had this premiere coming up, and I decided to program it for myself.  So, I worked on it very hard, and sure enough, in working with the piece, and really working and really pushing myself to try and open my horizons to see what is this, why this note is here, why this texture, this notation, this type of sound, I found the experience absolutely fantastic.  It really was a case of suddenly being able to understand something within oneself in order to bring this out to someone else.

BD:   Is it ever possible to over-analyze a piece, or over-analyze even the details of a piece?

Robertson:   Diderot mentioned this.  He was speaking mainly about literature, but it applies to almost everything.  It’s a very Cartesian idea about breaking the thing down into its atomic parts further and further into the details about the piece, and yet, somehow, the essence of the piece still eludes one.  It’s not only in music.  You can talk to many scientists who are really at the cutting edge, and it’s still the wonderful mystery.  There was an article in Scientific American that Gil Shaham’s father wrote.  He was an astrophysicist, and it was all graphs, and was very technical, talking about galaxies and all sorts of things which one can barely even comprehend unless one is involved in the actual research.  Yet, the last line was,
“Twinkle, twinkle little star, how we still wonder what you are.”  [Both laugh  There is this aspect that just because something is phenomenally complex, it doesn’t mean that we can’t partake of the wonder that’s involved.  This is what is so great about clouds.  In trying to do a detailed description in atmospheric terms of what is happening in a cloud and everything that’s going on, you will spend a great deal of time, and have a lot of notes on a piece of paper.  We look at this, and can take in so many things.  Yet, it’s totally transient, and in five or ten seconds it will already be different.  In some ways, the changes are subtle, but we can register the difference.  We can see it’s there, and yet the analysis of it is so hard.  You need to somehow try and balance the point of analysis with the fact that knowing that the analysis is actually really a self-analysis of the piece.  It’s a very subjective thing, and this is wonderful when you read different people’s analysis of the same piece, because then you see that it’s themselves in this analysis.  This should be the subtle difference between an analysis of the piece and this open-ended discussion of it which is the performance.

BD:   Has music always had this special wonder for you?

Robertson:   It hasn’t shown any sign of abating yet.

BD:   Thank you for coming to Chicago.

Robertson:   Thank you.

BD:   I hope that in a few years we can continue this conversation.

Robertson:   It would be very nice.

[As we were saying our good-byes, I mentioned having interviewed Aimard, and Robertson said, Such a brilliant man.  We’ve done a number of things together, and it absolutely astounds me.  He is so inspiring.]



© 1999 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 28, 1999.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year; and on WNUR in 2003 and 2014.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.