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Return of the Native

ASK ANY ORCHESTRAL MANAGER, ANYWHERE IN THE world, and you'll get the same answer: There is no better way to pave a pathway to financial ruin than by playing new music. The real money flows in to the tunes of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky; substitute the abstruse patterns of Boulez and Carter, and the moneyed flow toward the exit doors.

Still, brave souls dot the landscape, and the true nobles in adventureland pull in fair-sized -- if not always well-heeled -- crowds. Our own California EAR Unit draws respectable aggregations to its County Museum concerts; the New York New Music Ensemble holds its torch aloft; in Frankfurt, the Ensemble Modern concerts are hot-ticket; so, in Paris, are the programs of extraordinary range by the courageous, much-traveled Ensemble Intercontemporain (henceforth to be noted as EIC), which pays its third visit to the UCLA campus with a concert at Schoenberg Hall on Sunday afternoon.

Out on the podium that afternoon won't be the formidable Pierre Boulez, the ensemble's president and chief image-maker, and the name most associated with EIC since its founding in 1976. There'll be Boulez on the program -- the pair of pieces collectively known as Dérive, along with music by Philippe Hurel, Elliott Carter and the Korea-born Unsuk Chin, who had a knockout piece at a "Green Umbrella" concert earlier this season -- but the music director will be David Robertson, who has held that post since 1992. And if the name "David Robertson" strikes you as rather un-French for someone leading an ensemble from notoriously xenophobic Paris, that's understandable; he was born -- some 40 years ago -- right here in Santa Monica. If your memory goes back to, say, the mid-1970s, you may remember Robertson as a 17-year-old wonderkid assistant conductor in the days when Santa Monica High School had first begun to attract worldwide attention for the excellence of its young orchestra.

Now, however, David Robertson has earned his own worldwide attention and gives phone interviews from his Paris apartment. He starts by explaining why, after his promising start in Santa Monica, he didn't climb the usual American ladder toward stardom. "Sure, I started on the audition route, and I had a few good chances. But I also got the feeling early on that the American way of breeding top musicians had too much to do with marketing and too little to do with music. Some people take quite readily to all this image-building nonsense. I didn't."

Instead, soon after high school, Robertson enrolled at London's Royal Academy of Music. By 21 he had already begun a substantial career, with a door-opening win at a modest but important Danish conducting competition. In 1984 he began a two-and-a-half-year stint as conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony. By 1987 he was well-established in a circuit of small opera houses, and concert halls just below top level. "The value of Europe for me," he says, "was the way I could easily get to conduct a lot of different things -- concerts, opera, new music, old. Some of this may have been in piddling small towns, but the value for me was far from piddling."

Much of his early European renown came from his work in opera houses, with a particular leaning toward the grandiose virtuosity of the Italian bel canto -- Bellini, Donizetti, early Verdi. "Yes, it's a long way from Norma to Boulez," he admits, "but to me the basis of all music is the vocal line, and the way all music moves along some kind of line. I don't believe in trying to fit a performer's musical tastes into compartments: early-music specialist, new-music specialist, that sort of thing. Every kind of music has to sing. Every piece of music creates its own language.

"I don't think in terms of 'gear-shifting' in moving from one kind of music to another. I'm more aware of the spaces between the notes, and how each kind of music generates its own dynamic for filling in those spaces. If I conduct early Mozart, I don't let myself get hung up on matters of 'authentic' instruments. It's hopeless to try to re-create the way Mozart heard his own music, because an audience today can't listen through Mozart's ears. It's much more important to concentrate on what is in the language of each piece, the incision of its rhythms, the roundness of its triplets -- that sort of thing."

Robertson's career was granted the chance to shift gears almost by accident. "In 1990 I was asked by the French Radio to conduct an opera by Philippe Manoury, an important, upcoming French composer. What I didn't realize at the time was that Manoury was a protégé of Pierre Boulez, and that Boulez was going to be in the studio audience that night. He was, and a few months later there was a call from Boulez's secretary, inviting me to come in for a chat. Well, I figured, perhaps he wanted me to guest-conduct a program sometime. Instead, he asked me to become music director of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, replacing the departing Peter Eötvös, who had held the post since 1979."

The EIC was created by Michel Guy, then France's minister of culture, to fulfill Boulez's vision of an ensemble devoted entirely to performing the music of our own time, the thornier the better. The idea from the start was to create a body of extraordinarily capable soloists who would commit two-thirds of their time to the ensemble without abandoning their solo careers for the other third. (The recent Deutsche Grammophon recording of Luciano Berio's solo Sequenzas, played mostly by EIC members, spectacularly illustrates the group's level of performance.)

Robertson has put his own one-third off-time to good use, including Janácek's Makropoulos Affair for his Metropolitan Opera debut three seasons ago, the world premiere of Berio's stunning new opera Outis at Milan's La Scala in October 1996 and Rigoletto at the San Francisco Opera a year later. The present tour with EIC takes him to six college venues -- UCLA, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Seattle, Buffalo and MIT -- with performances and student workshops at each stop. Robertson himself is due back at the Los Angeles Philharmonic next December, in a "hugely difficult" (his own words) program: Ives, Janácek, Lutoslawski and the contemporary Dutch composer Tristan Keuris. Further plans include Robertson's abandonment of the EIC post in August 2000 to take over what amounts to the musical directorship of the entire city of Lyons -- head of its National Orchestra and of the municipal arts center as well.

EIGHT YEARS WORKING IN THE SHADOW OF PIERRE Boulez, beyond doubt music's most influential shaping figure in the second half of this century: Has that left David Robertson scarred, enriched -- or both? "Not at all scarred," he claims. "From the beginning, my relationship with Pierre took the form of a dialogue. I came to the EIC with my own set of ideas, my own set of styles, different from his and also different from those of Peter Eötvös.

"We have come out of a time when music had formed a more or less homogenous language within well-defined social conventions. Now we have to create new priorities. I like to think back to Jackson Pollock, who never got further into an explanation of his own painting than to say, 'It works.' In music, too, we have to experiment, to take chances . . . and to go with whatever works."

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