Curtain to ring down for FGO’s Stewart Robertson

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stewart Robertson, the conductor who served as Florida Grand Opera’s music director for over a decade, will depart the company after the 2009-2010 season.

“Every artistic organization needs new and fresh artistic stimulation and now is an appropriate time for FGO to make a change,” said Robert M. Heuer, company general director and CEO in a written statement, confirming the company had not renewed Robertson’s contract. “I believe that at this time the Opera will benefit from having guest conductors who bring different musical experiences, which they can share with our artists and the orchestra.”

Robertson is currently in rehearsals for the company’s production of Lakme, which opens Feb. 21. Attempts to reach him Wednesday through a company spokesman were unsuccessful.

The Scottish conductor will be a prominent presence in his final two seasons. He leads three of the company’s four productions in 2009-2010, and in addition to Lakme, Robertson will be on the podium for the company’s two remaining productions, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and  Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, as well as Bryn Terfel’s concert on April 6.

While a genial and witty personality, the Glasgow-born conductor has come under fire from critics and many local operagoers in recent seasons for a lack of polish and vitality in his performances.

More broadly, Robertson as the company’s most prominent musician, has been criticized for weak artistic leadership, as evident in inconsistent casting, the disastrous mounting of the comically bad operetta Szulamit in 2004, and the deteriorating quality of the company’s orchestra, which led to a contractor change at the end of last season.

Robertson made his FGO debut in 1996 with a highly praised production of Werther. In his review of the production, Miami Herald music critic James Roos stated, “From the first few bars in the orchestra, it was clear that conductor Stewart Robertson, making his local debut, completely grasps the marvelous melodious Massenet style. He had the orchestra playing with unforced fluency and flow, so that subtle Wagnerian colorings emerged with perfect pacing and naturalness.”

Robertson’s first appearance as music director was Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann in February, 1999.  By the end of his fifteen-year association with FGO,  Robertson will have conducted 41 productions including Eugene Onegin, Kátya Kabanová, Regina, La Finta Giardiniera, Paul Bunyan, the world premiere of Anna Karenina, and the Aida that opened the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center in 2006.

The conductor led Glimmerglass Opera in upstate New York from 1988-2006, and served as artistic director of Opera Omaha from 2004-2008. In 2007, Robertson was nominated for a Grammy Award for his recording of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s opera The Mines of Sulphur. He currently conducts the Atlantic Classical Orchestra in Fort Pierce.

In his statement, Heuer thanked Robertson for his work as music director and wished him well.  Though the  men had discussed a possible return in future seasons, Heuer said, “We have no commitments [with Robertson] beyond 2010.”

The company general director indicated that no successor would be appointed as music director and that in the near future Florida Grand Opera will rely on guest conductors, saving a large salary at a time of financial crisis.

Heuer also stated that all music and artistic responsibilities would be jointly assumed by himself and Michael Lonergan, director of artistic administration.

[Photos of Bob Heuer and Robertson conducting by Deborah Gray MItchell.]

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10 Responses to “Curtain to ring down for FGO’s Stewart Robertson”

  1. Posted Feb 05, 2009 at 11:27 am by Dave R.

    This sounded good until I got to the last two paragraphs. So, if I get this right, a company that had very little musical direction to begin with now will have none at all. Robertson gone: Good. Heuer still around: Bad.

    On the other hand, FGO is off to a good start this season (notably without Robertson in the pit), so maybe this can work. But I doubt it.

    Are there any other successful companies that have no musical director?

  2. Posted Feb 05, 2009 at 4:38 pm by Jorge 176

    Not soon enough for me.

    There are other companies without a MD, most notably Seattle, but it requires a GM with a profound knowledge of singers, voices and an ability to match the voice to the part. Unlikely that those conditions are currently in place at FGO.

  3. Posted Feb 06, 2009 at 2:41 pm by Eliza Miller

    Was interested to read and interpret, though, that the very unsuccessful production of Szulamit was largely blamed on Robertson. Sources say that that production was a result of poor management on fronts other than the artistic.

  4. Posted Feb 06, 2009 at 4:29 pm by Benjamin

    While Szulamit was programed by the administration and the board in exchange for a very significant contribution by the composer’s daughter, as music director, Robertson should have looked at the score and identified that allowing it to be produced would damage the opera more than help it. Ultimately it does reflect on his tenure. A strong music director with a degree of artistic integrity would not have agreed to participate in this travesty.

  5. Posted Feb 08, 2009 at 12:09 pm by Alwa

    The worst part of the Szulamit debacle is that it caused the cancellation of the originally-scheduled double bill of Bartok’s A Kekszakallu Herceg Vara and Ravel’s
    L’Heure Espagnole. I wouldn’t have cared if Szulamit had been added to the schedule, but to lose the other two works in favor of a dubious vanity project was unforgivable.

    Combined with Heuer’s use of marginal singers and third-rate hack producers, I have not darkened Florida Not-So-Grand’s door ever since – and will not do so as long as he is there, even though I live within easy walking distance of the Broward venue.

  6. Posted Feb 09, 2009 at 2:18 pm by Ricky

    I agree with everyone’s comments regarding the unfortunate “Szulamit” and would also like to add that the decision to shelve two masterpieces of 20th century opera in lieu of a third rate operetta that obscurity had thankfully swallowed whole simply because the composer’s daughter offered to foot the bill for the production was a turning point for the company and a not in a good way. It showed not only complete lack of artistic integrity but financial short sightedness. No doubt the banners stating that the work was banned by the Third Reich generated some interest but when I was unable to find any mention of this work even in the most complete and thorough reference guides, I knew they were in for some serious trouble and they certainly were. The damage that fiasco caused to the company’s reputation cannot be fully measured in dollars. I, for one, have never seen FGO in the same light again and as is evident by the few previous postings, I am not alone. But in my opinion, Heuer was equally to blame as Robertson because if he had not agreed to sell out (to not use the more explicative vernacular) the company in exchange for a contribution, I doubt the score would have ever even crossed Robertson’s desk; however, once he had a chance to review it, and as a musician and the company’s primary artistic voice, he should have refused to have any part of it and/or warned the administration just how detrimental it would ultimately prove to the company’s well-being. But then, I wasn’t there and maybe he did warn them or took other steps to discourage the development of the project, but one fact remains and that is that everyone knew this was a turkey and still they chose to go through with it rather than say thanks but no thanks to Donath’s daughter. Talk about crying over spilt milk.

  7. Posted Feb 14, 2009 at 9:14 pm by Johann Renard

    I am amazed to see comments in print like this about this conductor’s work. Stewart Robertson is an astonishingly gifted conductor, pianist, and all around musician. Orchestras love to play for him, because he makes it so easy …
    He is a conductor of the calibre of James Levine, EASILY. I smell a rat here – there must have been serious sabotage, plotting and conspiring against this wonderful musician.

  8. Posted Feb 16, 2009 at 6:08 pm by Arthur

    “a conductor of the calibre of James Levine,” surely you jest.

  9. Posted Feb 28, 2009 at 4:25 am by G Harris

    In my years attending FGO I’ve heard more than a fair share of crappy “performances” by maestro Robertson, of course the orchestra SUCKS as well, the new one is so much better. They have also had quite a few lackluster guest conductors so that might not be a saving grace either. Oh and one more thing, absolutely not is this Robertson dude on a par with James Levine, thats a bad joke.

  10. Posted Feb 21, 2014 at 2:43 pm by Joe Englert

    I worked with Stewart when he was in California…San Jose symphony to be exact…in the eighties…a great guy…and I thought a good conductor as well

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