An Interview with Maestro David Robertson

Sumire Hirotsuru sits down with Maestro David Robertson to talk about the rehearsal process, tips for success, and his upcoming position at Juilliard.

Sumire Hirotsuru (MM ’18, violin) interviews Maestro David Robertson on the rehearsal process, tips for success, and his upcoming position at Juilliard.

Posted on Categories Inspiration

Maestro David Robertson – photo by Sumire Hirotsuru

On a Tuesday evening, Sumire Hirotsuru (MM ’18, violin) visited a green room in the basement of the Metropolitan Opera, where Maestro David Robertson was eating a pre-show coleslaw. As newly appointed Director of Conducting Studies at Juilliard, concluding his 13-year tenure as the Music Director at St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) at the end of the season, Maestro Robertson is conducting the Juilliard Orchestra on April 2nd at Carnegie Hall. Sumire sat down with Maestro Robertson to hear his thoughts on the rehearsal process, tips for success, and his upcoming position at Juilliard.


Sumire Hirotsuru (SH): How has your experience working with the Juilliard Orchestra been? Had you worked with them before this concert cycle?

Maestro David Robertson (DR): The first time I worked with the Juilliard Orchestra was actually 20 years ago, as a guest conductor. While the students had always been extremely gifted, I find that students take orchestra more seriously now than 20 years ago. There’s been a real increase in the basic understanding of what you need to do in an orchestra, and it’s been a lot of fun for me to work with the group.

SH: What’s the difference between working with professional orchestras and student orchestras?

DR: When one is playing in an orchestra, there is a certain shyness to really play out in a student orchestra. I have seen this over 13 years of many auditions in the SLSO, but my colleagues always tell them to play out more. It is very interesting to work on repertoire with a student orchestra, because in some parts where you are expecting to hear something quite prominent, it’s often not there yet with the full personality and projection that you expect from a group of seasoned professionals. It comes as a surprise when you see someone who is not playing out and realize “Oh, this person needs encouragement, they don’t realize how important their part in the orchestra is.” What is very gratifying about working with the students is that once you tell them, you get the results immediately.

SH: Do you think more students were looking for soloist career 20 years ago?

DR: There was a feeling that going to an orchestra rehearsal was a little bit like a visit to the dentist – you know you have to do it, but no one looks forward to it. Now it certainly has gone out of dentistry, and has become something much more interesting and challenging. But there’s a misunderstanding that you somehow have to become anonymous in an orchestra. In fact, it’s the opposite. You can absolutely hear the difference when 14 first violins out of 14 are really playing, or only 14 out of 16 are playing. Each person brings their own individual sound, style, and personality, and that’s what makes the whole beauty of the section and orchestra unique.

SH: I totally agree. When I played in the conductor-less Juilliard Chamber Orchestra last month, everyone was contributing so much to the rehearsal by playing and speaking up. I was totally able to feel the difference, being in the middle of the orchestra.

DR: Definitely – when I am working in an orchestra, I like people to suggest something. Whether I work with an orchestra in Europe or in America or in Australia or in China, I want to hear what they think about the piece, because I’m interested in putting that together with what I know about the piece, through which we make something that we can’t make otherwise. If I come to rehearsals and just tell them exactly what they have to do, it feels more like I work for Starbucks. It will be high-quality but it’s not the same as when people contribute – it’s not how music works in my opinion.

SH: In Dvořák (Symphony No.9) rehearsals, you sometimes suggest non-traditional way of playing and to change the way we play. Because everyone already knows the Symphony, there is sometimes a discrepancy between their own ways and your way. Where does your inspiration for the piece come from?

DR: Any famous pieces like Dvořák or Beethoven tend to start taking a life of their own through recordings and performances. For me, the original document that composers left us with the ideas is the score, and I find it continually fascinating.

Sometimes in Mozart, for example, when there are two different ways of articulations on the same passage in the opening and the recapitulation, people assume that Mozart made a mistake or they assume that it has to be one or the other. I find assumptions like that will hurt the clarity of the piece. Of course, a composer may make a mistake, but in the 500 pages of manuscript of Cosi Fan Tutte, which I’m conducting, there are maybe 10 errors in three hours of music. Before you just jump to the conclusion that what he wants here is this way, maybe you should think about why.

If composers like Dvořák have a certain bowing, and you say “Oh you can’t play that bowing because the tempo is too slow,” then I would say “REALLY? Is your tempo not fast enough for this to work? Have you decided that you want to ignore the tempo markings at the beginning of the symphony because you think it sounds better?” Great works of art will probably sound good at any tempo, but at the same time I’m not sure that that’s the kind of respect you should pay for somebody who can write a piece of amazing music like that.

I believe that even if you stick very closely to what the composer wrote, there are still so many opportunities to express your own feelings about a piece of music. Whether it’s Bach or it’s all the way up to Elliott Carter, it doesn’t have to do with style – it has to do with interaction that we have and our feeling about the notes.

SH: You mentioned that we should always think about the reason why composers wrote in a certain way – in rehearsal, you also explain the reason why you want to perform your way. Do you have your own personal way of rehearsing that you keep to yourself?

DR: German conductor Otto Klemperer once said “Rehearsals are to play around with the piece and establish boundaries.” Boundaries mean that you will find certain passages faster, slower, louder or softer and you work out all sorts of things; you try different things to discover possibilities. Then, when you get into a performance, you can choose a lot of different possibilities because everybody knows where boundaries are. The performance doesn’t have to be the same way each time, so the rehearsal is for experimentation. I usually try to listen to how people are playing and analyze it – not just in terms of whether it is together or correct, but also what I see in the score, what you hear, and what kind of understanding and expression is coming across from players.

The other thing that I try to do in a rehearsal is to figure out the things that I can help people with by working together, and to leave things that people will have to do on their own. For example, in the Charles Ives piece (Three Places in New England), there is a very hard first violin part and you want them to practice it and realize, “Oh, now I know what to practice in what tempo.” We try the part as a group when they come back after practicing, which makes group rehearsals efficient.

SH: What do you think is the most important personalities or skills that they should have to succeed in this world?

DR: Firstly, you have to show up. Secondly, you need to be curious and constantly thinking about why something is the way it is in a musical phrase or why a piece is put together, so that you can get different insights and keep your curiosity alive. Then, the most important thing is not to give up when things look like they’re not going the way you want them. It’s very easy to get discouraged and to stop – and sometimes you don’t see that there are other opportunities right there.

SH: I have read an article that you stepped into SLSO when the conductor fell ill. Why do you think you were able to stay in the position, or did you even imagine you would spend so much time with the orchestra?

DR: There are certain people with whom you talk to for the first time and there’s a kind of immediate understanding and bond. I arrived in London as a 18 years old at the Royal Academy of Music, and the first student I saw was this crazy red hair trombonist parking his motorcycle at the parking. I had my French horn and he had his trombone, and we said hello to each other, and we are friends ever since. Likewise, it was a really deep immediate bond for me with the musicians in the SLSO; that was a kind of connection made at the first rehearsal that I had with them. When they invited me back, even though I had not seen them in 3 years, I remembered which instrument each musician played when I saw them in the hallway of Carnegie Hall. It’s just a great kind of bond right from the start, and you feel very lucky because sometimes you have good chemistry with people and it was spookily good at the SLSO.

SH: What are you most excited for as you approach your position at Juilliard?

DR: Interactions with the students. By the time they get to this level of the program at Juilliard, they are all remarkable, and I think one learns a great deal from dialogues with brilliant individuals. They will probably teach me more than I teach them because anytime someone asks you a question, it forces you to think and it’s the goal of what you want education to be. For me, the sense of constantly changing thinking about things is the important part, and I look forward to having a discussion about the Dvořák, where they may make me rethink what I do now. I first conducted the whole Symphony No.9 over 30 years ago, and I’m sure I do it completely differently now – not because now I’m good, but because I’ve learned so many things from people I worked with. What I’m looking forward to at Juilliard is helping the conductors discover who they are, and in the process, benefitting from all the things that they are going to teach me.

SH: Is there anything that is changing in the conducting world or classical music world compared to 30 years ago?

DR: The classical music world is changing a lot. But it always has, and there hasn’t been any time when it was completely stable. The question is, what does a classical musician want to do now, and the most important aspect of that has not changed – communication to an audience. One major aspect that has changed very much from even a hundred years ago is that fewer people now have direct contact with an instrument, and therefore the sense of what it means to listen has changed for them. It is essential for musicians to think that there may be people who have never heard an acoustic instrument – the instruments they’ve heard of always come through loud speakers. If you remember the fundamental idea that you want to communicate with the audience, then you might need to change how you present things to people. As I said, if people can keep their curiosity and ask questions then there will be the answers – although I am prejudiced, as my father was an engineer. For engineers, there is no problem for which there isn’t a solution, as they just have to think about it. And how I think about problems might be influenced by him.

SH: What do you like the most about conducting?

Maestro Robertson with Sumire Hirotsuru – photo by Sumire Hirotsuru

DR: It’s the inspiration that I get from people playing music, and I enjoy that I am able to shape a part of that. That’s why I am often smiling when I’m conducting.


David Robertson conducts the Juilliard Orchestra
Monday, April 2nd, 8pm at Carnegie Hall
David Robertson, conductor
Tomer Gewirtzman, piano

IVES Three Places in New England
BARTÓK Piano Concerto No. 3
DVOŘÁK Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World”

Ticket information: