Get to know the man on the box: Robert Debbaut

Kat Deas

This Saturday night at 8 marks the first Lawrence Symphony Orchestra concert of the year – and the induction of new orchestra conductor, Professor Robert Debbaut, to the Lawrence community. The program includes works by Wagner, Griffes, Tchaikovsky, and Haydn. Professor John Daniel will perform as guest soloist in the Haydn “Concerto for Trumpet.”Debbaut certainly has a long list of credentials behind him, but below you will find the more personal side of our new orchestra conductor. Here is our Lawrentian Debbaut interview.

Lawrentian: What compelled you to become such an immensely knowledgeable aficionado of history?

Robert Debbaut: I’ve always been curious. When I was a little boy I would check out books out of the library that I couldn’t read – not that I couldn’t read some of the words, but a lot of the words I couldn’t understand – books about history, books about art.

I’d been blessed with a pretty good brain that actually retains things and then has the ability to make juxtapositions between events. It’s understanding and wanting to understand the “all” of history. History is not an isolated event that only one thing affects.

During Beethoven’s lifetime, when he was writing the Eroica Symphony and the Fifth Symphony, he was in Vienna, which was being bombarded by the French. So there were cannon shells falling outside of his house while Beethoven was trying to write music.

In 1942, when Shostakovich wrote the so-called Leningrad Symphony, the city had been surrounded and was being starved-out by the Germans. There were no dogs, cats, or rats left in the streets of Leningrad because people had nothing to eat. And in that climate, Shostakovich writes the devastating second and third movements, the incredible, psychotic fourth movement, and then the finale, which has this grandeur of triumph that very few pieces have in all of music.

So he is emaciated, his friends are sick and dying – just like Beethoven wrote the Fifth Symphony in the face of all these cannon shells, just like Mozart writes in the face of his own death, knowing that he is sick and dying, “The Magic Flute.” If you don’t have these perspectives on history, you’ll never understand all the wherewithal of everything that is happening.”

Lawrentian: How do you define music?

RD: You know, writing about music or talking about music is like dancing about architecture: it’s very hard to describe. You can’t dance and describe architecture. You can’t really describe or define music.

Certainly, there are those who would attempt to do it by its mathematical or scientific principles. Those people are only understanding half of it. It’s like a doctor who knows all the elements of the body but can’t tell you why the heart works.

You can talk all about the rhythm and molecular impulses you want, but the will to live – the hidden thing that doctors cannot see – they cannot treat the will to live. They cannot – I cannot know the “why.”

I do not know why I sit and I listen to the third movement of Bruckner nine and tears invariably stream down my face like I’ve somehow seen the voice of God and the what the entry to paradise might be.

I don’t know why “Contessa, Perdona” at the end of Figaro makes me do up. [Mozart’s] music is of such grace and forgiveness. I don’t know why the end of Shostakovich seven just destroys me. I don’t know why the end of Shostakovich four is so devastating that I don’t want to hear or think about anything for hours after I hear it.

But all those things happen to me. It happens to you, it happens to everyone else. I can’t define music, but I’m glad that I live there.”

Lawrentian: Accompanying every artist is at least some curiosity to meet past masters. If it were possible, who would you like to meet, and under what terms would you like to meet them?

RD: I’d like to have breakfast with Shostakovich. Because morning was his time; he would knock off for late breakfast and he would then want to talk. Not necessarily about music, but about politics, about art, about the weather, about women, about his life.

I would like to have lunch with Puccini because we would have a nice, long, leisurely Italian lunch, with certainly wine and two or three courses. I wouldn’t need dinner after that because of late Italian meals, you know?

Someone asked me if I wouldn’t want to meet Beethoven, but he’s much too tortured a soul. I wouldn’t like to sit down with Beethoven, although I really revere him, and hopefully that will show when I get to do his Ninth Symphony.

I’d like to drink scotch and eat black rye bread and sandwiches with Stravinsky.

I think probably more than anything: party with Mozart and wake up on his couch the next day and have a little chit-chat as we head over for a Viennese coffee with a little “Schlag.” Yeah, that’s probably it.