Monday, November 14, 2005

American Music: Looking Toward The Future?

"In St. Louis, David 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....(The New York Philharmonic clearly has its eye and ear on [Robertson] as a potential successor to Lorin Maazel, who is scheduled to step down in 2009).

Mark Swed "Classical Music: Urbane renewal" Los Angeles Times November 13, 2005.

Albert Bierstadt, Untitled, 1859

Photo credit: Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.


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