2 December 2019

David does something from the podium that no other conductor does...

There’s a tradition among orchestral players, says Sydney Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Andrew Haveron, that after someone has played a significant solo in a symphony, the musicians around that person will, in the middle of a performance, shuffle their feet inaudibly as a way of applause.

“David does something from the podium that no other conductor does,” he says. “Because he started his career as a horn player in an orchestra, he’s perfectly aware of the tradition, and will surreptitiously – or not so surreptitiously sometimes – slide his feet backwards and forwards in the middle of conducting to say, ‘Well done, I loved that.’ He may well be the conductor, at the front and taking responsibility, but he knows what it’s like to be in a team. It’s a very collegial way of working, and one that we enjoy.”

Haveron, who first worked with David Robertson in London more than 10 years ago, has always appreciated his approach to musicmaking. “He doesn’t come with preconceptions or try to micromanage – he’s aware of the talent in the room and the importance of allowing it its own space. He can direct it in certain ways if necessary, or allow it to blossom, and he really embraces anything that happens spontaneously. That’s a skill that takes conductors quite a long time to learn.”

David Robertson conducts a program of Adams, Copland and Rouse in his final concert as Chief Conductor, November 2019. Photographer: Jay Patel.

Robertson’s expertise with contemporary music, in particular, has been invaluable to the Orchestra, says Haveron. Part of that is to do with the efficiency of his rehearsal process. “He knows what’s challenging, explains difficult passages or, for instance, when the metre changes from five beats in this bar to 13 in the next, he puts you at ease immediately – ‘This is going to be easy, you just do this here, and that there…’.” The result is that the Orchestra “is now very confident to play more complex pieces. It’s second nature to us.”

That becomes noticeable, says Haveron, when visiting conductors come with music of that ilk, and are slightly concerned at how experienced the Orchestra might be. “When we play it through the first time, it’s, ‘Wow, you guys know what you’re doing.’”

There’s clarity to Robertson’s conducting, says Haveron, and an eloquence when he speaks to the audience about new music. Sometimes, he creates a synthesis from unusual and, on the surface, seemingly unrelated ideas. “David has a reputation, and he’s very well aware of it, of talking quite a lot during rehearsals. His brain works so fast that he makes connections that not everyone would make, between something quite esoteric and cerebral and, for example, a cartoon he was familiar with in his childhood or one that his children watch. We can be somewhat perplexed by what he’s just said, and how it’s relevant to the music, but it always has some sort of significance.”

"Robertson’s expertise with contemporary music has been invaluable to the Orchestra." Photographer: Jay Patel.

The Orchestra has witnessed more of “the extraordinary stuff that goes on in David’s head” when, on international tours, he would announce any encore in the local language. “And I’m talking about Chinese, Korean, Japanese and some of the European languages. We ended up in Denmark, and he announced the encore we’d be playing in Danish, with very good pronunciation, apparently.”

Robertson’s broad interests and idiosyncratic mind led to interesting programming. It has given the Orchestra the chance to play pieces they might not have done otherwise, and for the audience to experience them, says Haveron, whether that be an opera-in-concert such as this year’s Peter Grimes or an immersive event like Messiaen’s From the Canyon to the Stars, programmed in 2016. “He pushes the boat out a bit, and that’s to be applauded and celebrated. When Wynton Marsalis came here recently with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, David had the audacity to program Varèse’s Amériques in the first half. It’s not very long, but it’s one of the most controversial and loudest pieces of music. Everyone knew they were coming for an interesting jazz program, but also got this really interesting starter course they weren’t expecting.”

With plans for David Robertson to return to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as guest conductor, Haveron says, “Luckily, we won’t have to miss him too much. We’ve been on a journey with him, and look forward to continuing to do whatever he wants to do. We trust him and he trusts us, so there’s a certain element of calm there. We know each other extremely well, and that counts for an awful lot in a relationship.”

David Robertson returns to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as guest conductor in July 2020 for Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and Brahms A German Requiem.