Stewart Robertson

Born: May 22, 1948;

Died: February 12, 2024

STEWART Robertson, who has died aged 75, was an internationally renowned conductor who was known for a huge number of orchestral and operatic world premieres. No matter where he worked, however, he remained true to his Scottish Calvinist roots.

Almost exactly 30 years ago, Glasgow-born Robertson was asked by an interviewer if all his orchestra work was done at rehearsal or whether he left some elements specifically for the actual, live performance.

“I don’t know that I can say that I coolly and calculatingly leave something for the performance, except that there is always adrenalin and momentary inspiration, if you will,” Robertson responded. “Things happen a little differently in performance, but honestly you sow the seeds of things that you’re going to do. I think it’s imprudent to suddenly take off at an incredibly new tempo, for instance.”

When the interviewer, Bruce Duffie, asked whether that would not keep the orchestra on their toes, Robertson observed: “Sometimes it does. A lot of it does come out of the moment. I tend to plan things very well because I’m Scots Calvinist and I start bringing it all out.

“I tend to have things fairly much under control in rehearsals, and then when we get to performance I let them run, but within the framework that’s established. I’ll push to the edge a little bit.”

His distinguished career included the position of Music Director at the Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York, from 1988 to his retiral in 2006. Latterly, he was the Music Director Emeritus at Glimmerglass.

In a tribute the festival has said his connection to it was deeply rooted in the sense of creative fulfilment and purpose he had found there. His long tenure, it added, had been characterised by his commitment to artistic excellence and his dedication to fostering creativity and talent within the operatic community.

In addition to working with dozens of orchestras he enjoyed a substantial career as a recording artiste, making records with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the St Louis Symphony and the Ukraine State Philharmonic Orchestra. In the US he was nominated for a Grammy award for his recording of Richard Rodney Bennett’s acclaimed work, Mines of Sulphur. He was also a broadcaster lecturer with NPR, the BBC, and Swiss-Italian Radio and Television.

Stewart Robertson was born in Glasgow in May 1948, to Jack, a clerk who was also an accomplished pianist, and Mildred. As a youngster, he was a talented pianist. At Penilee High School, his interest in the piano was revived when he wanted to play with a friend who happened to be in the school orchestra.

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In 1965 he began studying at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), when it was based at the Athenaeum building in Glasgow city centre.

He studied at Bristol University and honed his skills in piano and conducting under the guidance of such esteemed mentors as Denis Matthews, Otmar Suitner of the Mozarteum Academy, and Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy.

Early in his career, he served as the Music Director of the Zurich Ballet and the Scottish Opera Touring Company before taking up residency in the United States on appointment to the Hidden Valley Music Seminars.

Subsequently, he was also the Music Director of the San Bernardino Symphony and the Santa Fe Symphony, and conductor of the San Jose Symphony Youth Orchestra. He led opera performances at Lyric Opera of Chicago, Norwegian National Opera, Detroit Opera, Opéra de Montréal, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Opera Philadelphia, among many others.

From 1998 to 2009, he served as the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Florida Grand Opera in Miami, further solidifying his reputation as a visionary leader in the opera world. He was conductor for the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, in Florida, from 2005 to 2015, and served as the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of Opera Omaha from 2005 to 2008.

He made guest appearances, too, with orchestras worldwide, from the New Jersey-based virtuoso string ensemble ARCO to Utah Opera. He returned to Scotland occasionally, to work with the RSNO and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; classical music fans with long memories may recall his work with the Glasgow Schools’ Concert Band and the Strathclyde Schools’ Symphony Orchestra.

In 2015 it was announced however that Robertson was bringing an end to his career because of complications associated with Parkinson’s Disease.

He and his wife Meryl, whom he married in 1972, retained an affection for Scotland. In 1992 they bought Dunmore Castle, its cottages and 120 acres, in Argyll. Later they had a property in Helensburgh. He is survived by Meryl, their children Keren and Niel, and five grandchildren.

In that absorbing 1994 interview with Bruce Duffie, Stewart Robertson declared that the “wonderful thing” about music was that it changed continually.

Duffie asked if this evolution was the purpose of music. Robertson pondered his reply before saying: “It opens a door on the infinite in our lives. It shows us, for the want of a better word, a spiritual realm that we seldom pay attention to, and that we disregard at our peril.”