The chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra doubles as a charismatic musical evangelist.

So what was it got you into conducting? 

Actually I started conducting very early. I think it was a wish to play all the instruments and realising that I wasn’t going to be able to do that. And so conducting is participation with the largest number of them. By the time I was 16, I was assistant conductor of the Santa Monica Youth Orchestra but I was also writing music for theatre plays and the school, and arranging various things for dance companies. It wasn’t until I was at the Royal Academy of Music in London and pursing a triple major of horn, conducting and composition all at the same time that I realised there are only 24 hours in a day and I only have a certain amount of talent. 

So must a conductor have studied an instrument at a professional level? 

Conductors need a thorough understanding of what each musician is dealing with – you have to stay outside with a sense of the global. But I personally can’t understand how you would be able to conduct instruments without having worked to a high level of ability on one yourself. I look at my job as trying to be the expert on the score, but the experts you are working with know the violin better than you do. I have a background in horn but I wouldn’t begin to tell Ben Jacks how to play because he’s at a level that I did not reach. Although I think I was good, he demonstrates every day how much better a horn player he is. 

Your recent Beethoven seemed ‘period’ informed. What’s your approach to ‘Classical’ works? 

We call it HIP – Historically Informed Performance – which makes it sound much cooler [laughs]. But if you’re playing to 2,700 seats, there’s already a major compromise. When your in the places that this music was originally conceived for there are so many differences that change your thinking. How far back are the woodwind going to be? When the flute plays the melody with the first violins, theoretically they should be sitting next to each other. But what happens when the clarinet plays the melody – do you tell the flute player to move out of the chair so the clarinet can come sit? There’s a famous case where Sir Georg Solti did the Schoenberg Variations Op 31 and he wanted to set the orchestra up differently for every variation. I’ve done Beethoven Seven in lots of configurations but I always aim for a setup which allows Beethoven’s ideas to come through as clearly as possible, because for me this is what it’s about. You have a window and you’re able to reveal these incredible landscapes and images. And the cleaner the glass is, the less you think about the window and the more you experience the vista. 

You’ve lectured and talked about music all through your career. Does that come from an evangelical part of you? 

A lot of people have said that. Alex Ross of The New Yorker did an article on what we were doing in St Louis and titled it ‘The Evangelist’. I like sharing things and I like opening up people’s imaginations. The real trick is trying to be informative but not in a way that limits what people feel they can add of themselves. At times I’ll talk before a piece. Sometimes it’s a little talk. Sometimes I introduce a couple of musical examples, particularly if I have a hunch that people might be a little scared – like a person going to a restaurant where all the food looks a little different to what mum cooks at home. If the chef brings in a little borsht to taste and you go, “wow, that’s really good”, then you’ll gain an enthusiasm right from that tiny little taste. 

You obviously have a close relationship with John Adams. How did that start? 

It began with a phone call in 1986. I wanted to perform one of his works. I remember he was saying ,“Yeah, at the moment I’m working on an opera about Richard Nixon” and I thought, “woah! That’s a weird idea!” I have a huge admiration for him and what he has done and can do in music. One of his pieces that I’ve performed was Naïve and Sentimental Music, which was a co-commission with the SSO. This was how I first really became aware of the orchestra. I had the score and I saw “also co-commissioned by…” and I thought, “Well that’s cool. That’s an enterprising orchestra”. 

You were the first American Music Director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain in France. How did you get that gig? 

That was wild. I think they were desperate! Seriously, they were at a place where they thought a number of people might be a good fit but were simply not available. I was doing the Parisian premiere of the revised version of a piece by Phillipe Manourey called Aleph. It’s a large orchestra divided into four groups, with four vocal soloists and some light electronics. And it’s about 70 minutes long without a break. There’s one place in it where in order to conduct it properly you have to put the baton down and do the whole Boulez pli selon pli thing of ‘follow the different I thought, “this is fun!” What I did not know was that Phillipe had said to Boulez, “you really have to come and see my piece” so he was there! A week later I spoke to my agent who said, “Well, he must have liked you”. And I said “why?” He said, “the Ensemble Intercontemporain has asked for six more dates”. Six months later Pierre just said, “I’d like you to be music director”. hands’. So I did my little Boulez imitation and 

Contemporary classical music is crucial to the future of the genre, and yet it’s often the elephant in the room that audiences struggle with. How can you help? 

We’re at an interesting juncture. I think there are people who are open to some of the things that a piece by John Adams might do, but would have more trouble with Mozart – there’s not as much colour, the orchestra isn’t as varied so they feel it’s a little boring. And you want to say, “Boring? Mozart? What?” But if somebody is listening to a lot of popular music with the kind of ear candy that is put into a five-minute song today, all of a sudden, asking them to listen to a ten-minute symphonic movement, which is relatively restrained in terms of aural fireworks, might be difficult. When there’s new music in a program, I try to find a way to create something like a sanctuary, where you can come in and explore the music and its relationship to you – and your relationship to it – in a way that brings the most positive result for everybody – for the music, for the audience and so for the art form as a whole. 

David Robertson returns to Sydney to conduct Beethoven's Piano Concertos, June 12-21