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End of an era: David Robertson concludes 13-year SLSO music director tenure

St. Louis Symphony music director David Robertson spoke about the 2015-16 season with "Cityscape" host Steve Potter.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

On May 6, David Robertson will raise his baton for the final time as music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Coming to a close is Robertson’s 13-year tenure, highlighted by Grammy Award-winning recordings, national and international tours, and hundreds of concerts at Powell Hall.

Falling in Love with St. Louis

Although Robertson didn’t become music director until the 2005-2006 season, his relationship with the orchestra began as a guest conductor in 1999.

“I was staying in Clayton ... that’s where the orchestra put me up,” Robertson told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “I saw a sign on the way [to Powell Hall] - what I now know is Forest Park Parkway - that said ‘this way to Blueberry Hill.’

“I went ‘oh my God, that's not, you know, the Blueberry Hill?’”

Thus began a love of St. Louis and its musical heritage. Living downtown years later, Robertson said he marveled at an occurrence during his commutes to Powell Hall where he would pass the house where the great ragtime composer Scott Joplin lived.

Robertson’s down-to-earth appreciation of multiple music genres as well as his insistence that classical music be accessible are, perhaps, just two qualities that helped St. Louisans appreciate the conductor’s abilities and panache.

“The whole way in which a music can somehow become associated with a group and then the unfortunate aspect of humans reverting to tribalism [where] people define themselves by listening to this music or that music and then they war over which one is the better one,” Robertson remarked. “I find all of that really not very interesting and worthwhile.”

“We all have the same tones and there are lots of things that are unique about particular types of music and that's wonderful, but at the same time, I think what's even more wonderful is that this musical DNA is shared by all of us,” Robertson said.

Career Highlights

Robertson is hesitant to select a singular highlight of his tenure in St. Louis.

“There are so many memorable moments and so it’s better described almost in topographical terms, the way that you would [describe] a mountain range where there are indeed certain peaks that are higher than others,” Robertson said. “If you look at something like the Rockies or the Alps, it's not merely the height of a mountain that distinguishes it, it's all sorts of different extraordinary things that contribute to its beauty.”

One such peak Robertson explained was a 2013 performance in St. Louis and at New York City’s Carnegie Hall of “Peter Grimes,” an opera by Benjamin Britten performed on the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

“[It] was just staggering and those are the moments of which there have been too many to mention where you have the sensation - and sports people talk about this as being ‘in the zone,’” Robertson said.

Related: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is inviting patrons to share their appreciation of David Robertson.

Lasting Memories

The one thread that runs through all of Robertson’s highlights in St. Louis is the orchestra.

“The first thing I will miss [about St. Louis] is actually the connection with the musicians and through that, with the public,” Robertson said.

“The real legacy, I think, are all of the people that have come in while you've been there,” he said.

Indeed, Robertson appointed 44 current SLSO musicians including 10 of the principal positions.

“It's the actual personnel in the orchestra who are in a sense your living legacy,” he said. “There have been a lot of people that we have put in who have really contributed just amazing things and they'll continue to do that.”

“For me this is an era,” Robertson said. “The things that I found with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, I am extremely grateful that there has been this opportunity for me to experience these things because I am not expecting to ever see them again in this sort of way.”

You can hear Robertson’s final three concerts as SLSO music director at Powell Hall or by listening to St. Louis Public Radio’s Saturday night broadcasts.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.