“You never feel resistance to what you are doing,” he says. “People may have individual opinions on things but it is never expressed in a way that becomes in the slightest detrimental to the overall result. That’s not something you can say about every group.”
Quietly spoken and thoughtful, Robertson appears to have been well-liked and respected by the players. Selecting highlights was, he said, as difficult as picking a favourite child, but he did name a few standout moments – including February’s collaboration with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, when they gave the Australian premiere of jazz legend Wynton Marsalis’s fourth symphony. He also highlighted a performance of Messiaen’s epic From the Canyons to the Stars that was accompanied by stunning images from photographer Deborah O’Grady.
Then there was the orchestra’s 2018 European tour and a performance in Paris of Gustav Mahler’s monumental fifth symphony.
“That is going to be very hard for me to beat in my lifetime,” he said. “It was better than most of the performances I have heard of the work and certainly was a pinnacle for me.”
Last year, Robertson also ended his 13-year tenure as musical director of the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. He says he is now looking forward to the luxury of a freed-up calendar that will allow him to say “yes” to more one-off projects.
“Not being responsible for a musical organisation for the first time since 1991 is going to be very liberating,” he said.
He has also been appointed the director of conducting studies at New York City’s Juilliard School.
The SSO has yet to name a replacement for Robertson, relying instead on a rotating group of conductors consisting of Vladimir Ashkenazy, Donald Runnicles, Simone Young and Robertson himself as an occasional guest.
Beyond the musicians, many of whom he now counts as firm friends, is there anything else he will miss?
“Absolutely. I will miss the coffee in Sydney,” he said. “That’s really much better than it is in most other places. Don’t tell the people in Melbourne.”
Intelligence and enthusiasm shine through
The hallmarks of David Robertson’s performances with the SSO have been musical intelligence and vivid enthusiasm for great thought wherever it is found. Whether it be in Mahler’s Third Symphony or Wynton Marsalis’s The Jungle, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in the Opera House or young Australian Lisa Illean’s Lands End at Carriageworks, Mozart concertos with pianist Emanuel Ax, or Nigel Westlake’s Spirit of the Wild with oboist Diana Doherty, Robertson has drawn audiences to the music by the strength of his own fascination.
Robertson took over from much-loved pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy as neither old world nor new world, neither traditionalist nor iconoclast. His particular virtue was to bring fresh, cogent perspectives that were neither tradition-bound nor wilfully unconventional to both standard repertoire and contemporary works. His leadership of the youth-oriented Meet the Music series has sown seeds in the next generation whose blossoms we are yet to see but will certainly be surprised by.
Robertson inherited a very fine orchestra from Ashkenazy, and helped it avoid complacent stagnation by guiding it through a potentially ruffling process of generational change. Highly respected concertmaster Dene Olding moved on, allowing Andrew Haveron to mould a different style of cohesiveness and the wind section retained some gems and welcomed new sounds. This has been a strong and important phase in the SSO’s history. Robertson leaves an orchestra with a sense of artistic purpose, playing as well as it ever has, and millions of memories in the minds of those who were there.
Peter McCallum, the Herald’s classical music critic
Nick Galvin is Arts Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald