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A Native Son Returns--a Leader

David Robertson visits as conductor of Ensemble Intercontemporain and a driving force in new music.

April 11, 1999|JOSEF WOODARD | Santa Barbara-based Josef Woodard writes about classical music and jazz

Despite its lingering reputation as fringe cultural territory, Los Angeles has played an important role in the landscape of 20th century music. It has been a landing zone for iconic composers of Stravinsky and Schoenberg's ilk, and a place where new music has always found a performance home. And then there are the Angelenos who have dispersed into the world, establishing themselves elsewhere: The most notable export, perhaps, is John Cage, and among the living, Santa Monica-born and -bred conductor David Robertson.

For the past eight years, Robertson, 40, has led the Paris-based Ensemble Intercontemporain, one of the most respected contemporary music ensembles in the world. Robertson went abroad to study at the London Academy of Music before the age of 20, and never came back.

His career has been cemented across the Atlantic as a conductor with ears wide open, interpreting and championing contemporary work without turning away from standard, cross-historical repertoire. Last season, for instance, he conducted both the world premiere of Luciano Berio's "Outis" in Milan and made his San Francisco Opera debut with a new production of "Rigoletto." "There are some people," he says, "who don't need both, and there are those who do, for whom the cross-fertilization is what makes it all click."

When Robertson leads the Ensemble Intercontemporain at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall this afternoon, it will be his local professional debut and the first U.S. tour for the ensemble since its founding director, Pierre Boulez, handed him the baton in 1991. In fact, Robertson arrives here in the twilight of his tenure in Paris. Beginning in the fall of 2000, he'll give up his post with the ensemble and become head of the Orchestre de Lyon. His guest-conducting work continues to expand westward, and he has been invited to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic next fall.

Most of Robertson's musical evolution has occurred in his post-California life. He initially studied French horn and composition at London's Royal Academy of Music, eventually settling on conducting. He led the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra from 1985 to 1987, guest-conducted a long list of European orchestras and found himself a regular in the opera world.

Although his parents have passed away and his direct link to the Southland has diminished, Robertson is looking forward to revisiting the city of his formative years.

"Of course, there are such strong memories connected with things there," Robertson said, in a phone interview from Lyon, where he was making arrangements for his forthcoming orchestral assignment. "I remember going to the library at UCLA and seeing all of the scores that they have, and wanting to bring my sleeping bag and camp out there. So to go and play at UCLA is going to be a big thing, from a personal point of view." He laughed. "But I'm supposed to be way too cool and not gush like that. Still, it's hard not to."

A strong link also exists between the ensemble and UCLA. When Boulez was the group's active head, its appearances on campus included a memorable 1986 performance. There, Boulez's ambitious, electro-acoustic spatial piece "Repons" was staged on a basketball court, with musicians on platforms situated around the audience.

As always, this ensemble, more than most any other in the world, has embraced the interface of electro-acoustic music, a still-experimental world in which conventional instruments are combined with sounds made via circuits and computer programming. It's a natural side effect of an affiliation with the electronic music think tank known as IRCAM (Insitut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique Musique), formed in 1976 and headed by Boulez, who remains its president. The work nurtured at IRCAM tends toward atonal or post-serial writing, as with Boulez's scores, or toward an emphasis on texture and process over melodic logic.

Ironically, at the time he was brought on board, Robertson's reputation was leaning more toward the opera world than the domain of new music. He had just done a high-profile tour with Marilyn Horne and had scored kudos for his work conducting operas by Rossini, Mozart and Bellini.

"All these people said, 'But he's a bel canto specialist. How is he going to be able to conduct all those strange time signatures?' " Robertson said. "I'm happy that I do have the opportunity to do both things."

And it wasn't just the technical confines of electro-acoustic music that made observers doubt his fit with the organization. There was also a notion that IRCAM-style music was so mechanical, passionless and abstract that it wouldn't be open to the kind of expressive insights Robertson was known for in his other work.

"When I arrived, journalists said, 'Why are you involved in this repertoire? There is no interpretation involved.' I was shocked. It doesn't matter how accurately a composer notates something; the fact that we're all subjective individuals means that it will change.

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