Stuart Challender Memorial Lecture – David Robertson

In a fit of masochism, I went to this lecture.

It was at the Long Barnet room at Customs House – a building which most prominently houses the City of Sydney Library. I’d never made it up to the first floor before. I’m still trying to imagine what customs business originally took place in that room.

I ascribe my attendance to a fit of masochism because in my experience so far (Marin Alsop; Norman Lebrecht) such lectures are never particularly informative, illuminating or exciting. One way or another, they all seem to dance around the same question, framed by David Robertson as “Is classical music relevant?”

The answer, unsurprisingly, was yes, even if, as Robertson himself admitted, he was preaching to the choir. Some of his arguments are previewed in this article from the SMH as well as Robertson’s own piece (they didn’t even need to employ a journalist for that) in The Australian.

The usual reasons were given: the depth and catholicity of the classical tradition; that tradition is a palimpsest; the uniqueness of a live performance and the primacy of live performances over the recording as commodity (itself increasingly a moot point); that classical music is about increasing the attention span, and that classical music wants us to pay attention because it’s actually saying things; how classical music with the least amount of external paraphernalia creates a story that people can inter into and then pass it on.

Mr Robertson had musical examples, each of which was preceded and succeeded by lengthy silences as he battled with technology to get them to us from his MP3. These were (with my attempt at a summary of the point made):

Mozart, opening of his Requiem (music is about the big issues)
Paul Simon, “Another Galaxy” from his album Surprise (I think intended as an example of studio-produced music)
Black-eyed Peas, “Shuddup” (even studio-produced popular music can incorporate a Baroque passacaglia: “When you keep your eyes open and your notion of classical music is large, you can enjoy all sorts of things.”)
John Adams, Harmonielehre (intertextuality: the thirds are a reference to all other thirds in the canon)
Carter, Clarinet Concerto (mimics the stream of consciousness perfectly)

But at the end we were still getting back to the old chestnuts: what about that modern music that nobody likes much, and how can we get new and younger audiences coming to hear classical music?

There were four questions asked at the end. At least one of the questioners seemed not to have a question at all, but was nevertheless very graciously responded to by Mr Robertson. Questions which weren’t asked included:

How can artisanally produced music be economically sustained?

and

Why was the Tchaikovsky substituted for the Bartok concerto in the program Robertson is conducting for the SSO, and the SSO’s Messiaen/David Robertson festival abridged from three sessions at the Verbrugghen Hall to one presentation at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall?

PS: another account, fuller and more considered and probably better and fairer, here.

3 Responses to “Stuart Challender Memorial Lecture – David Robertson”

  1. Thom Says:

    “Why was the Tchaikovsky substituted for the Bartok concerto in the program Robertson is conducting for the SSO?”

    Although I knew the answer, this line of thinking did occur to me during the lecture: just at the point where Robertson began talking about how each program was like a conversation with the specific audience and how he never does a program more than once. This seemed ironic given that the originally intended “conversation” involved a different concerto. On the other hand, who says a conversation can’t have more than two parties and that interruptions will never occur?

  2. marcellous Says:

    Thom,
    Do you think the answer to this question is likely to be vouchsafed in the pre-concert talk for that program?

  3. Thom Says:

    My experience so far: yes. It’s almost quite mundane really; only one or two have been sufficiently curious to linger for more details after.

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