Mission: To Seek and Share Inspiration

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Q&A with David Robertson


by Kayla Moore

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After a 13-year tenure as Music Director for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, how does it feel to branch off and begin new ventures in the world of music? What are some new projects you’re particularly excited for?

My world of music has always been about new beginnings, overlapping ideas and timeframes—digging into different layers of things in a kind of archeological way to discover something that is unknown. As my extraordinary partnership with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra was culminating, I’ve been immersed on the other side of the world in a wonderful five-plus year creative journey with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. But even during my valedictory 2019 season with Sydney, which is a fantastic musical adventure, including a concert production of Peter Grimes, the Australian premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s fourth symphony, The Jungle, with Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra joining the orchestra in the performances, and much more, I’ll be working with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam on a music-theater production of Death In Venice, created by the fascinating director Ivo van Hove. I’ll be preparing to conduct a major new production at The Metropolitan Opera in New York, to be announced soon, making debuts with orchestras I haven’t had the pleasure to conduct yet, returning to conduct orchestras I’ve long loved, and developing some curatorial ideas for festivals to explore a single subject deeply. This past September, I took up the post of Director of Conducting Studies, Distinguished Visiting Faculty, of The Juilliard School.

While in Cincinnati you’ll be conducting Boulez’s Rituel, and Mozart’s Requiem—why pair these pieces in one program?

Both of these profound works are about remembrance, vastly different in style and form, and composed close to 200 years apart. Each remembers an individual, and their commission or creation might both be viewed as acts of love. They’re also both beautiful works—one is a mass, and the other a secular piece—and as a single concert, perhaps it is an exploration of personal devotion.

The notion of death seems such a monumental thing for humans to confront—it is so formless, such a frightening void. Mozart’s use of structure, or Boulez’s gradual coming together and then dispersing of musical ideas, goes some way toward finding a form for this sense of eternity. Mozart’s music pays attention to the liturgical form of the requiem, a ritual of coming to terms with the enormity of something that is alive, that contains so much energy, and then, all of a sudden, is no longer present. For Rituel, Boulez thought of the ancient Gagaku Japanese imperial court music—its centuries-old ritual of musical sounds—to inspire him to create a modern ritual of remembrance and memorialization for his friend, the composer Bruno Maderna.

Mozart’s Requiem was unfinished at the time of his death. It was completed by his devoted student, Franz Xaver Süssmayr, an awe-inspiring task and perhaps itself an act of memorialization. So, the idea of one musician commemorating another plays into this program, and shows the unique way musicians have of being able to evoke someone no longer living. This is the first time I am performing Rituel, a work I had discussed many times with my friend and mentor Pierre Boulez, who is no longer here.

Since Mozart’s Requiem is somewhat “iconic” and recognizable to many, how do you make the piece unique during performances?

Especially in an iconic work, I am always interested in digging deeper, in that archeological sense. A work like the Mozart Requiem is so big and complex that each time I have the chance to revisit it, I see more, and I understand its dimensions in new ways. There is also the dynamic of collaboration—what happens between conductor, orchestra, vocalist—each journey of the Requiem feels like a thrilling new beginning.

What do you hope audiences take away from this program?

I certainly hope the audiences will see the beauty and depth of these works—but the experience of the individual in the concert hall is a very personal endeavor. Some might seek to consider the intellectual idea of musical remembrance, others may have a purely emotional experience of memorial. There is really such a wide array of ways to approach an evening of music, this evening in particular, and each one is perfectly legitimate. I especially hope that people will leave Music Hall with a sense of having been uplifted, and connected through time, from one of the 20th century’s most innovative composers, and his tribute to a colleague, to one of the most beloved composers of all time.