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Beacon blog: Robertson rules Britannia at final Prom of the year

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 10, 2009 - Conductor David Robertson has a history of leaving trails of glory in concert halls around the world, and on Saturday night, it was a trail of “Hope and Glory,” a selection on an eclectic program presented at the Royal Albert Hall in London on Saturday in the concluding concert of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, the Proms.

There, Robertson, music director the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted the last night of the legendary concert series. As he led the BBC Orchestra and the audience in performing the magnificent hymn “Jerusalem,” former St. Louisan Richard Gaddes wrote the Beacon an exuberant email. The Albert Hall, he reported, was packed for the concert with “hundreds - yes, hundreds - of people waving Union Jacks of all sizes.

“The conductor is David Robertson,” Gaddes wrote, “and I think this is a very great honor for an American. I'm not sure I remember an American conductor ever conducting the last night.”

Gaddes was founder and for many years general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis. He recently retired as director of the Santa Fe Opera. He is no stranger to the musical world of Great Britain, his homeland. Originally, he aimed at a concert career for himself, and helped to pay his way through school turning pages for pianists at the Wigmore Hall in London. At that legendary hall, importantly, he started a program to encourage the development of young artists, and this established a tradition for him, one continued in America, in St. Louis and in Santa Fe.

He achieved great success and high honors not as a performer, however, but as an impresario. In 2008, he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts inaugural opera award, along with soprano Leontyne Price, conductor James Levine and composer Carlisle Floyd.

David Robertson, whose performance at the Proms was such a grand success Saturday, is principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra as well as music director of the St. Louis Symphony. This season is his fifth as music director here and in his time at Powell Hall the orchestra has performed spectacularly and audience numbers have risen appreciably.

In a career spanning 25 years, Robertson has been on the podium of major music halls and in the pits of opera houses around the world. In St. Louis this fall, Robertson commences his fifth season as music director of the 130-year-old St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, while continuing as principal guest conductor of the BBC orchestra.

In April, in St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performances at Carnegie Hall in New York, Robertson not only conducted the orchestra but also played the kazoo and subbed for a missing composer/singer H K Gruber.

The Times’ chief music critic, Anthony Tommasini wrote, “The orchestra sounded terrific, especially in the Sibelius Fifth and in a luminous account of the “Good Friday Music” from Wagner’s “Parsifal,” which opened Saturday’s program. More and more the players sound energized by Mr. Robertson, now in his fourth season as music director.

“As they applauded the boss after the Gruber piece, the musicians seemed impressed with Mr. Robertson’s daring and versatility. How many conductors could gleefully sing the crazed words “Frankenstein is dancing with the test-tube lady” and then 24 hours later lead a serenely confident account of Wagner’s most spiritual music?”

The Prom Saturday had something in common with those April concerts in New York. The program at the Albert Hall included not only such music as the stirring “Jerusalem,” and works by Franz Josef Haydn, George Gershwin and Sir Edward Elgar -- but also a lark, or amusement.

Gillian Reynolds reported in the newspaper the Telegraph on Saturday that “Larks are an essential part of the Last Night tradition and tonight there will be plenty of them, with more people than ever to relish the vacuum cleaners (and floor polishers) of Malcolm Arnold’s “A Grand, Grand Overture.” The program listed Sir David Attenborough as commandeering the floor polisher, with Jiri Belohlavek, Goldie (no last name) and Jennifer Pike on vacuum cleaners.

The rambunctious, enraptured audience in the Albert Hall fell under a spell similar to the one cast by Robertson in April on 57th and Seventh, for larks, classics, hymns, processional music, dance tunes and -- as forever – the jerking of tears with “Auld Lang Syne.”

Gaddes described Robertson's warm address to his English audience, aoologizing in jest for the waywardness of our forefathers in revolting agains the Crown, and describing himself as a Yank. Then, Gaddes write, "He ended seriously and wonderfully by commenting on the state of the world."

Robertson told the Last Night audience, "The things that unite us are far stronger than the things that keep us apart." Then, Gaddes continued, "everyone sang 'God Save the Queen,' and it was over."

There were fireworks in Hyde Park across Kensington Road from the Albert Hall, and Gaddes mentioned that display. But what came through equally incandescently was his joy in the way the evening evolved, and his pride in that Prom and its magnificent, democratic history in British music and culture. He also showed he wasn't unaware of his strong ties to St. Louis and its musical life. “St. Louis,” he said, “can be proud of David tonight.”