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David Robertson conducting

Our Q&A with David Robertson

November 17, 2023

Mahler's Fifth

Wed, Nov 22–Sat, Nov 25, 2023
View Event

Few figures in contemporary classical music embody the polymathic essence as distinctly as David Robertson. A conductor, artist, composer, and profound thinker, Robertson is an American musical visionary who has graced some of the world’s most prestigious podiums in opera, orchestral, and new music.

As a stalwart champion of contemporary composers, Robertson's legacy is etched in his ingenious and adventurous programming. His career has traversed various   positions in artistic leadership—including a transformative 13-year tenure as the Music Director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and his role as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

His global footprint can be found on the podium of luminaries such as the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic, Czech Philharmonic, São Paulo State Symphony Orchestra, and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. Recognized for his profound contributions to the arts, Robertson holds the title of Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, alongside numerous artistic awards. Beyond the podium, he serves on the Tianjin Juilliard Advisory Council and holds the position of Director of Conducting Studies, Distinguished Visiting Faculty at The Juilliard School in New York.

Looking ahead to the 2023/24 season, Robertson's itinerary features engagements with esteemed orchestras such as the Seattle Symphony, Royal Danish Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Minnesota Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the New York Philharmonic. Ahead of his début performances with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) — stepping in to replace Michael Tilson-Thomas—we caught up with Robertson to discuss his preparation process, connections with Mahler, and what listeners can expect in the concert hall.

NW: Which stylistic feature of Mahler’s Fifth as a whole that made an impression on you?

DR: I have always loved how the dreamlike beauty of the 4th movement, the famous “Adagietto”, is transferred to the very lively and playful music in the 5th movement.  It is as though he brings the ephemeral down to earth!

NW: Mahler completed his Fifth Symphony more than 100 years ago. Why do you think this piece is important to perform today?

DR: The joys and sorrows, tribulations and triumphs that are part of the human condition from our start as a species, are beautifully expressed by Mahler with a depth and sensitivity that rewards repeated hearings. It is returning to a miracle and experiencing it anew.

NW: What does your prepartory process look like, especially when stepping in for another conductor on short notice?

DR: Having purchased my first score of the Fifth Symphony in 1975, I have been studying it for a few years now. I read and re-read the score, which always reveals more of what was already present. Part of the important thing is to keep permeability as part of the process. Meaning one gains specific ideas from the composer's meticulous indications, yet one must leave the individual musicians free to add their unique inspirational insights in order to make a performance that can only happen this one time.