Obituaries: Stewart Robertson, conductor who performed with renowned opera companies in the US and Europe

For all his glittering success on the international stage, as a schoolboy Stewart Robertson suffered from a distinct lack of application in the music department.

The youngster refused to do his piano practice and, after his mother threatened to stop his lessons, he simply dropped out. Ironically, he had found the instrument easy to master so never really needed to practise.

Subsequently his interest was piqued in secondary school though not through any particular desire – only because he wanted to play with a friend who was in the school orchestra. When he successfully auditioned the music teacher declared he had to have piano lessons. So, he was back to square one but that’s just when things began to get serious.

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He also began playing the flute and started performing, often at local music societies’ Gilbert and Sullivan productions. But he embraced the modern too, frequently walking to from his home in Glasgow’s Cardonald to Partick to buy LPs at a local music store.

Stewart Robertson helped develop the careers of many successful young opera singersStewart Robertson helped develop the careers of many successful young opera singers
Stewart Robertson helped develop the careers of many successful young opera singers

His interest in music fully awakened, it fuelled a desire to become a composer and with that aim he attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music (RSAM). His mother Mildred, a Welsh nurse, was never fully convinced about his decision but he excelled there, going on to forge a career as a globally-renowned conductor based in the United States, though he retained a home here and a place in his heart for Scotland.

Robertson, whose father Jack was a clerk and accomplished pianist playing solely by ear, attended Glasgow’s Penilee High School before going to the RSAM in 1965. There, in order to hear his compositions played, he formed orchestras of fellow students and performed in the Atheneum with the sound of the subway rumbling below.

In his final year he won a prize to study piano anywhere he wished but his mother insisted he get a teaching qualification in case his music career didn’t pan out. He went to Newton Park College in Bath but felt he was wasting precious time and skipped classes, taking a gig conducting a production of Oliver, narrowly avoiding being expelled for his actions. He then moved to London, studying piano with Denis Matthews, conducting a women’s guild choir in Wandsworth and forming an orchestra with a friend.

He had already met his future wife Meryl when she sang in the Bearsden Burgh Choir which he conducted. They married in 1972 and were soon off to Germany for him to take up the role of music director of contemporary dance company Tanz Forum.

Their two children were born in Cologne where they spent three years before moving to Zurich where Robertson was music director of the Swiss National Ballet. But he really wanted to conduct and the family returned to Scotland where he started Scottish Opera’s touring company Opera Go Round and worked with Scottish Ballet.

Each year in summer he attended a conducting course and entered competitions, building his contacts and leading to a ten-week tour of the United States with the American Youth Orchestra in 1979.

That year he secured the post of music director of the Hidden Valley Chamber Orchestra in Carmel Valley, California, and his conducting career began to take off. Posts followed with the Santa Fe and San Bernardino Symphony Orchestras. He also performed internationally with many renowned opera companies in America and Europe and became music director of Florida Grand Opera and Opera Omaha.

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He spent almost 20 years as the music director of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in New York State, an annual summer opera company which produces new works each season and where he introduced a Young Artists Program, developing the careers of many successful young opera singers. He also championed new works, premiering many, and was a broadcaster lecturer with the BBC, America’s National Public Radio and Swiss-Italian Radio and Television.

Career highlight was resurrecting Richard Rodney Bennett’s Mines of Sulphar at Glimmerglass but when he was nominated for a Grammy for his recording of the piece, he was blissfully unaware of the awards. He called his son saying "Do you know anything about Grammys? I have never heard of them.” He also recorded with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the St Louis Symphony and the Ukraine State Philharmonic Orchestra.

It was during a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Opera Ireland in Dublin that he noticed a problem with his wrist. It took two years for a diagnosis of Parkinson’s but he managed to continue conducting for five years, retiring in 2015 from the Atlantic Classical Orchestra. He then divided his time between Carmel Valley and Scotland where, in 1992, he bought Dunmore Castle, its cottages and 120 acres, in Argyll. Run as a self-catering business, it had been a lifelong dream to own a historic property. As a student he had tried and failed to persuade his friends to help him buy Argyll’s Knockderry Castle and turn it into a music centre. Latterly he and Meryl had a property in Helensburgh but he never quite got over letting go of Dunmore.

Parkinson’s robbed him of many treasured activities – playing the piano for one – but he never complained and it didn’t affect his faith which informed how he led his life. He was an active member of the Christadelphian Church and studied the Bible daily. Knowledgeable in many fields, he had an impressive library and was often heard during a discussion saying “Wait a minute, I have a book on that.”

Robertson, who is survived by his wife, children Keren and Niel and five grandchildren, was given a suitably Scottish farewell in California in dreich weather with a piper lamenting.


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