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Urbane renewal

To find one of the smartest, most exciting conductors in the land, head to St. Louis and spend some time with its symphony's ebullient leader, David Robertson.

November 13, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

St. Louis — LATE in September, the St. Louis Symphony began its 126th season with a terrific concert. It was David Robertson's first as music director of the orchestra.

Robertson, a 47-year-old Southern California native whose career has until now been most prominent in France, is an irrepressible burst of fresh, good news both for this city and for music.

With an arrestingly open and curious mind, a rascally sense of humor and an energizing and controversial conducting technique, he has risen from relative obscurity to prominence in a few short years. Not only is he viewed by many as the savior of this once-major orchestra crippled by deficits and a recent strike -- it will give two concerts this week at Carnegie Hall -- but the New York Philharmonic clearly has its eye and ear on him as a potential successor to Lorin Maazel, who is scheduled to step down in 2009.

In St. Louis, Robertson has attempted to transform the symphony practically overnight with the most adventurous programming in the country, more daring than that in Los Angeles or San Francisco. And by opening night, he had already motivated the most miserable musicians in any major American orchestra (at least to hear them publicly complain); turned on teenagers as well as dowagers; and begun reaching deep into a racially divided community.

Driving around that autumn afternoon, I saw many appealing signs of urban renewal in this fine old city on the Mississippi. In the loft district, once-spectacular industrial buildings have lately become spectacularly livable. I strolled through Forest Park, one of the loveliest city parks in America (where everything, including museum admission, is free).

Then came the orchestra's exciting, illuminating and decidedly strange concert in Powell Symphony Hall. A handsome, acoustically acceptable former movie palace, the Powell is the centerpiece of a newly designated arts district that has attracted interesting galleries and theaters and a first-rate jazz club (where anyone attending the symphony gets a discount and where Robertson is a regular).

But the next morning, I saw a different St. Louis from a cab on the way to the airport. The driver, a jazz drummer, knew what the symphony was up to and was pleased and impressed that Robertson, whose eclecticism would have put Leonard Bernstein to shame, is a jazz buff and had invited the Wayne Shorter Quartet to perform with the orchestra the following week. He was well acquainted with gentrification and politicians' boasts.

Yet he trusted no one's motives and had little good to say about the city. Insisting I see another side of it, he turned off the meter and took a detour through some of the worst parts of town. He pointed out the drug dealers. The terrible poverty needed no pointing out.

"You hear all about New Orleans," he said, "but this is no better. This is New Orleans. You tell me how David Robertson can change this. How anybody can change this."

The restoration of a great city is hardly a job for the music director of a symphony orchestra, no matter how inspired or inspiring. But symphony orchestras are also small societies and can serve as models for larger ones.

First, though, St. Louis will have to figure out what to make of a clean-cut, intellectually brilliant music director who can also exhibit a Robin Williams-like wackiness.

The morning of his first concert as music director, he attended a ceremony for the arts district in an outdoor square. Other leaders of the arts, business and the community wore business dress and mouthed platitudes. Robertson had on formal black pants, a casual colored shirt, a rakish white fedora and shades.

His remarks were brief, generous and amusingly to the point. His teenage son, he said, was taking his dad's opening in stride. But having just discovered Broadway, the kid was way impressed by the fact that "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" was playing across the street. That's why, Robertson concluded, a city needs an arts district.

An untiring activist

ROBERTSON is difficult to capture in print. He wants to jump off the page. He loves to talk and has an exhilarating mind that leaps from idea to idea, but the run-on sentences don't come out well in transcription. He is a talented mimic who doesn't always check himself and says things that, if printed, could get him in a lot of trouble.

During an interview in his office, he absent-mindedly banged his fist on a table, hard, while enthusiastically making a point, and that caused my tape recorder to jump and nearly spilled the espressos he had proudly just made for us. He then went into a hilarious, sheepish riff about the loud pop I would hear when playing back our conversation.

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