Sunday, September 6, 2009

ArtsPaper Interview: Jon Robertson making a difference at Lynn

Jon Robertson.
(Illustration by Pat Crowley)

By Greg Stepanich

It is perhaps not generally realized in the wider world of area classical music that Palm Beach County has a thriving music conservatory, that it is in the middle of building a $15 million concert hall that will be a major addition to the area’s art scene, and that its dean, Jon Robertson, used to run the school of music at UCLA, one of the largest music schools in the country.

But Robertson (whose first name is pronounced “Yon”) is happy to be here, and in the five years since he has been dean of the Lynn University Conservatory of Music, the school’s public presentations have improved significantly. Its Philharmonia, the student orchestra, now rarely uses faculty members to flesh out its ranks, and tackles such literature challenges as the Tenth Symphony of Shostakovich. Its upcoming season is just as ambitious, and includes the Fifth Symphony of Prokofiev and the Five Pieces for Orchestra of Arnold Schoenberg.

Robertson, born in Jamaica in December 1942, was a piano prodigy as a child and moved to California as a toddler when his minister father needed specialized medical care only available in the States. By age 10, he had made his recital debut at Town Hall in New York in a program of music by Schubert (Sonata in E, D. 459), Bach (French Suite No. 4, in E-flat) and Liszt (Polonaise in E, S. 223). [The New York Times reviewer, probably Noel Straus, said that while the pre-teen pianist had not fully grasped all the music he was playing, “there were times, as in the second Scherzo of the Schubert sonata, or the Courante and Air from the Bach suite, when the boy’s work … became laudably smooth and clean, showing promise for the future.”]

He went on to Juilliard, ultimately earning his doctorate there in piano performance. But in the meantime he had tried his hand at conducting and education management, which were to be the chief occupations of his career. He ran music departments at colleges in Alabama and Massachusetts, furthered his conducting career by studying with Herbert Blomstedt, and then took the reins of the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway for eight years.

Robertson became conductor of the Redlands Symphony Orchestra in California in 1982, an ensemble he still conducts, and took over the music department at UCLA in 1992, where he remained for 12 years. He came to Lynn in 2004, and currently lives in Delray Beach with his wife, Florence, who holds a doctorate in French studies. The Robertsons have three children and seven grandchildren.

Palm Beach ArtsPaper’s Greg Stepanich sat down with Robertson last month to talk about his career and the challenges and benefits of running a small conservatory. Here are excerpts from that conversation; questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity:

Stepanich: Before you got this job, had you ever heard of Lynn University?

Robertson: I had not heard of Lynn, but I knew Harid [Conservatory] very well. And the big attraction, of course, for me if I was to come here and do something with the conservatory, was that it was formerly Harid, and that the faculty had come over, the students had come over. And so I saw it more as a name change than it being something new.

This [Lynn] is not a music department. This is a genuine conservatory that was relocated. And there would have been no need to go to a music department and try to build a program. In this day and age, that’s almost impossible, to build something from nothing. So when I wanted to attract world-class faculty here -- and fortunately we had a number of people who stayed that were world-class -- it was less difficult for me to say, “Well, you know, it used to be Harid.”

Our [conservatory] is very strongly focused on chamber music being something that you just don’t get in the big institutions. Chamber music exists, but there are so many students, a lot of it you end up doing yourself. I went to Juilliard, and I had one semester of chamber music. And that was a two-piano thing.

Our size, quality of our faculty, and the level of our students, makes what we have very, very special.

Stepanich: You came from UCLA, which is a much larger institution…

Robertson: It’s a monolith. It’s a monster.

Stepanich: …so did you say to yourself: Here’s a smaller thing where I can make a mark?

Robertson: Exactly. It was a situation at that point where there were students that were concerned about the future, even faculty: What’s going to happen if it’s not Harid anymore? Can the university sustain this level of program?

So the university said they’d make that commitment, and it was just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do it, to do all the things that you’d wished all the major conservatories that you’d been to or knew of had the opportunity to do, but basically because of their size couldn’t always do.

Stepanich: Is chamber music the key thing at Lynn?

Robertson: That is probably what sets us apart. Look, we only take four flutes, four oboes, four clarinets, four bassoons. We only take a certain number, and we have figured it out; we sort of backed into what numbers we need. And we’re at about 94 students now.

So right under 100 gives you enough students to have a first-rate orchestra, and for your various ensembles, keeping these various ensembles at set numbers, allows you to group them into these ensembles in a very real way, not catch as catch can.

There’s something else, I think, about our conservatory that is kind of special. And that is the amount of performing that we do. It is not uncommon for a student to go to a conservatory and the only real performance opportunity they get, basically, is their recital, their junior or senior recital they give. Here, in our forum, every week one is performing in front of their colleagues. Dean’s Showcase, you’re performing for the public.

And because South Florida is the depository of retirees from New York, Chicago, the world, people who attended concerts, people who went to the New York Philharmonic, and [the] Philadelphia Orchestra, we have 1,200 to 1,400 people attending our orchestral concerts.

At UCLA, if we had 300 people come to an orchestral concert, we were overjoyed. Four hundred people: Let’s build a new hall! And the people who were attending these concerts are not people who have nothing to do. They’re coming because this is what they’re used to. There’s a standard, and if a community imposes upon you a standard that you must reach, that’s when you start to grow. If they give you a standing ovation because you showed up, you’re not going to grow.

Stepanich: If you’re going to be an orchestral musician, a violist, say, a lot of your professional life is going to be in chamber music.

Robertson: The beauty of chamber music is that, and this is really true of course for orchestral musicians, but for those who take a solo career very seriously, your way of playing solo is going to change for the better if you play chamber music. You listen to yourself, you listen to the parts that you’re playing yourself in a very different way. Your ear is trained in a very different way, there’s a sensitivity, there’s a sense of phrasing and musical intelligence that comes to light when you play chamber music. This quality enhances your musical growth in a very, very special way.

Something else about our program: We are a genuine conservatory, but the bachelor’s degree you get from this university is an honest-to-goodness bachelor’s degree. I think back to my years at Juilliard: Fortunately for me, opportunities opened for me to enhance my musical background, I came in as a child prodigy, so I’d had a history prior to coming to Juilliard, what happens if a person decides, you know I think I’d like to make some alterations in my musical life? Or, I’d like to go in a slightly different direction within the arts, but not necessarily that of performing?

Well, your bachelor’s degree is not worth the paper it’s written on. You’ve had one course or two in the humanities or something like that, it’s not worth anything. And if you want to make a change along the way, you’ve got to go back to school. Now, the kids that come out of her have an honest-to-goodness bachelor’s degree, yet they’re still studying with world-class faculty, they still are playing at an exceptionally high level.

Stepanich: So where are you from originally?

Robertson: I was born in Jamaica, and came to the United States when I was 4 years old. I had the great opportunity to study with one of the world’s great teachers, Ethel Leginska [1886-1970], starting at 7 years old. By the time I was 10, I made my debut at Town Hall in New York.

By the time I got to Juilliard, the amount of literature that I had covered, and the whole idea of where people go there to get opportunities to perform four, five, six or 10 years later, this is something that had been a part of my life, all of my life, just about.

Stepanich: Do you come from a musical family?

Robertson: My father was a very fine musician, even though that was not his profession. He was a minister, but he played piano and organ exceptionally well. Really amazing. He could play anything in any key.

It’s been in my blood all this time. This is what I’ve been doing with most of my life.

Stepanich: Now Leginska was a student of [Theodore] Leschetizky, who was a student of [Carl] Czerny, who was a student of Beethoven.

Robertson: There you go. There was that lineage. And I had lessons every day. I was supposed to have one a week, and so forth, and she’d call my father and she said, “Someone isn’t coming. Bring him over.” It was a life-consuming way of going about the art form that was really very special.

I was privately tutored until I went to Juilliard. I never went to regular school, because [of] the hours [I spent] touring, playing. Now in that process, too, there was that old-school [idea of] the amount of hours you put in, so when I came to Beveridge Webster [1908-1999], he was really one who got me to start thinking [that] there are a lot of other things that you have to know.

Stepanich: Leginska came from the core repertory, while Webster is famous for his work with Ravel. How did those two teachers work?

Robertson: What Leginska gave me was a fundamental approach to piano playing that was so phenomenal [that] I can go a year and not touch the piano, and within a week get my technique back up to speed. It was so fundamentally based, this playing in a relaxed way. So many kids today are having tension problems and hand problems. There is this, you know, trying to get a bigger sound and so forth, they’re approaching the piano with so much tension, it’s killing them.

When I went to Webster, that was all in place. His idea was, of course, because of his French background, thinking about music in terms of colors. Because you can’t play French music unless you have a color palette in your head somewhere.

Now, with Leginska, you’d go to play, and you’d be about to start, and she would say, “Oh, it’s way too loud.” And she would know. That the angle of what you’re doing, and what you’re about to do, it’s going to be too loud. You can’t get that sound from that distance. And we’d work on a measure, a bar of music, for an hour.

So when I went to Webster, I remember he gave me something to play, and I came in and I started playing, and I kept waiting for him to stop me. You know: what’s going on? And he said, “No, it sounds great, keep playing.” I hardly had much prepared, because I never got past half a bar [with Leginska].

So, the volume of repertoire changed. His premise was: I don’t care how you play. If you want to play with your toes, and it’s beautiful, I couldn’t care less. So that was a completely different approach to making music, the product more so than the process. With her, it was the process and the product. With him, it was the product.

Jon Robertson leads the Lynn Philharmonia.

Stepanich: At some point, you got interested in conducting. How did that happen, and what appealed to you about it?

Robertson: You know, by the time I got to Juilliard, I was concertizing a lot, but way back in the most secret inner sanctum of my soul was this desire to conduct, to be a conductor. And every season with the L.A. Philharmonic, my father would take me. Every week we had a [ticket] for the entire thirty-some, 43 weeks, every Thursday up in the nosebleed section there, listening, and just watching the conductor.

And I remember when I went to Juilliard, I talked to my father about conducting, and he asked me a question which kind of stunned me. He said: “Do you know of any black conductors?” Well, I had not thought of conducting as being whether you’re black, white, red or purple, but he was making a point. The opportunity to get to that podium – I remember when [Seiji] Ozawa became [conductor of the Boston Symphony] – God, an Asian on the podium! What does he do differently? Well, nothing. Absolutely nothing.

So, that kind of caught me in my tracks. And it wasn’t that I shouldn’t do it, but how do you get there? What’s the process?

Well, when I was at Juilliard I decided to study choral conducting because that was a lot easier way to get into it. And I had the opportunity to work with a really fabulous conductor, Abraham Kaplan, who had the Collegiate Chorale in New York and taught at Juilliard.

And when I went back for my doctorate at Juilliard in piano, one day my wife said to me – and this is one of these earth-shattering moments – “There’s something I don’t understand about you. When your manager calls you to do a concert tour for the piano, you say, ‘What are you going to pay?’ If a conducting opportunity comes by, you walk naked in the streets to do it. What do you want to do with the rest of your life?” It was one of those things where you don’t want anybody to ask you that, particularly not your wife.

And I’ll never forget: She asked me that around 10 o’clock one night, and it was not until about 1 o’clock, that I finally, with tears in my eyes, just said: “I want to conduct. I want to conduct an orchestra. That’s what I’ve wanted to do all my life.” And of course, saying that is really treacherous, because if you’re not able to do it, then you’ve failed, you’ve failed at a dream. And she said, “Well, let’s start managing our life in such a way that this might be possible.”

And I’ll never forget, when I finished my doctorate at Juilliard, I was asked to join the faculty at Oberlin [College], in piano. And at the very same time that came up, there was an opportunity for me to go to a small department in Lancaster, Massachusetts, at Thayer Conservatory [Atlantic Union College]. But they had an orchestra, which I would have the opportunity to conduct.

And I’ll never forget talking to the head of the music department at Oberlin, and he’s saying: “I don’t understand. You’re going to do what?”But I made that decision, to go that route. So I had an opportunity to conduct an orchestra, and about a year or two after that, I was still concertizing as a pianist, but a year after that, Herbert Blomstedt was doing a workshop out in California. And my wife says, “Well, why don’t you go? Are you afraid to go?”

Well, the answer was Yes. I was afraid to go out there and have somebody who was really of his stature say: “Why don’t you stick with the piano.” So she literally challenged me, and I went out, and I was selected to be one of the 12 conductors to work with him.

And at the end of which, he said to me: “You know, I really think you’ve got some talent to do this. I’d be willing to have you come live in Sweden, where I live, and work with me personally. You’ll be the first person I’ve ever taken under my wing. I’ll set up housing, I’ll make all the arrangements.” And I remember looking at him and I said, “Do you mind if I call my wife and ask her to fly out here so you can tell her this, face to face?” We had three children, and this meant literally packing up and going off to [Europe]. And he said, “Sure. I’m serious!”And my wife literally got on an airplane and flew out, and he said, “Yes, this is what I will do.”

And that following September I was in Sweden, working with him, traveling with him to Dresden, sitting in rehearsals with the Dresen Staatskapelle, day after day after day.

Stepanich: Sounds fabulous.

Robertson: And it was so serendipitous in a way, that this was supposed to happen. Because this kind of thing just doesn’t happen. You couldn’t plan this, you couldn’t make this happen. You couldn’t pay him enough money to do this. And from that point on, opportunities came, and my whole conducting career just took off.

Stepanich: What was the most important thing about conducting that Blomstedt taught you?

Robertson: Technical discipline. Being able to express your musical ideas with your technique. And when you think of really great conductors who don’t have really good technique, they know how to rehearse, they have great musical ideas. And he used to say that good technique does not make you a fine musician. If you are a fine musician, it helps you express it.

The other thing he did for me was one of those statements that someone makes that just changes your life. We were walking, and we were in Dresden at the time, and one of the things, one of the most exciting moments in my life, is when we’d go walking in the forest. And we’d walk, and we loved to walk, and that’s when we’d talk about music. Or he’d talk about music and I’d listen.

One day we were walking and he said to me, “You know, Jon, you have a lot of passion in your music-making. But there’s something you need to do. You need to sift your passion through your intellect, and what comes out will be just right.” Listen, I can remember the spot [where he told me that].

He always used the term “organic”: “Do an organic ritard here.” Which, in turn, has a lot to do with how you interpret, because you tend to connect things more naturally together than this big ritard. Then something new comes here. And something new comes here.

The bigger picture begins to [come out], which to me is what it’s all about, being able to step back and see, which is not to get rid of detail. Quite the opposite, because those details will make the bigger picture all the more real.

What a wonderful experience in my life!

Stepanich: You’ve been very fortunate.

Robertson: Blessed, blessed. [Blomstedt] said to me, when I went to live with him in Sweden: “Here is my library. It’s at your disposal. And so I would go and take some scores, look to see how he’d – and I remember one day he said to me, “Do you notice anything about my scores?” And I said, “Yeah, there are no markings in it.” He said: Exactly. At the top he would have maybe three or four recordings timed. And I said, “Why are your scores empty?” He said, “Because when you go to study it again, you’ll only see your old markings. You won’t see what’s new. And everytime you go to conduct, you have to start all over again. Because you’re going to see things that you’ve never seen before.” So my scores are clean now.

Jon Robertson began musical life as a piano prodigy.

Stepanich: You’ve conducted all over the world. How did audiences in all those places take to you?

Robertson: In all places, it was a novelty; when I was conducting in China, wherever, there just are so few black conductors in the business. Obviously, in the final analysis, really fine orchestras, within two bars, three bars, they know [whether the conductor is any good]. In fact, Blomstedt used to say, in the old, great orchestras, they knew watching you walk out if they were going to play for you or not.

I remember I did Beethoven’s Ninth in Cape Town, and people literally packed the place and came after and said: “We came because we have never seen a black conductor.” The chorus, working with them, I had people who wrote me letters, who said, “As Afrikaners, to have a black man make music with us at the level we did – it was an experience.” I had people come to me with tears in their eyes, hug me … and it wasn’t just because I was black. It was the artistic level: that’s what made being black special.

Stepanich: In Los Angeles, you were noted for your music outreach programs in the inner city. How did that come about, and do we have something similar going on here?

Robertson: We don’t, and it’s something I want to do.

At UCLA, we chose two high schools, predominantly black schools, and we’re talking the deepest part of the ghetto.

Stepanich: Compton.

Robertson: Exactly. That’s exactly where it was. Where teachers fear to tread. Some floors of the school you don’t go to, because you’re scared to death.

But there was this one school that had a young guy who headed up the music, and that’s why we chose that school, because he was just phenomenal. The guy was like a Moses, the guy was a trailblazer. And we also picked a predominantly Latino school, and a middle school, again predominantly black, and one Latino.

And my students would go into these programs and give free lessons. Because that was the component they couldn’t have. I mean, you take a band program, you learn to play an instrument but you don’t get a private lesson. And I got funding from Toyota, and another foundation that thought this was the best thing since sliced cheese, and we went in and my kids – and I said, God, please, don’t let this program end in a bloodfest in the streets. There’s this white kid from some nice family and so forth that gets killed in Compton doing this program. And I tell you, that part of it scared me almost more than anything else.

But these kids loved it, and the kids they worked with, they were like sponges. They’d leave a lesson drained. Do you know, that after we invented that program – I was there 12 years, we started it in my second or third year, all those years it ran – 98 percent of the students at the black school went to college? And at least four of them got into UCLA. You know what I did? In the 10th grade, I bused them into UCLA to teach them how to take the SAT.

And that was probably among the more exciting things I’ve been part of in my life. I’d like to do something similar here, but what I first have had to do, though, is to consolidate the conservatory and get it where I wanted it to be. And I think our brochure, four years in the making, you will see when you look at the faculty, you look at the programs, that we have come into our own.

Now I would like to start doing some outreach things here that are well thought-through and can make a meaningful contribution.

Stepanich: Technology is a much bigger part of being a musician today, both for classical and pop musicians. Are you taking advantage of that here?

Robertson: Absolutely. There’s a course we teach that goes in depth into this.
We bring in people to counsel [the students]. For example, next year, the next time we teach this, we’re going bring in a tax consultant. There are all kinds of rules and regulations, you’re going out here, you’re self-employed. Do you know what you’re doing?

During our J-term, which happens during January, it’s a month where we do things that we normally couldn’t do, or don’t do, during the regular school year. There are no classes, we bring people in, we’re bringing in an Alexander technique specialist [bodily coordination] to work with the kids who are having tension problems and so forth. And we’re bringing in a woman from San Diego State who has a tremendous program there that I want her to duplicate here, where she goes into depth into the whole business of how to use the computer to do things for you, ways and means that are available to get your career started in the 21st century.

She actually has a program there where she goes to booking conventions, and where they have a talented string quartet, gets them performances in different places, a booking agency. Which I want to have here, with the talent we have here: Oh, my God. The whole running the gamut, when you come out, you are prepared: How to make a brochure, how to craft a fine resume, how to use a blog, how to advertise what you’re doing, specifically, in detail. It’s made a huge difference with our kids.

We are trying to really package something that is practical. You come out of here with some real-world knowledge, real-world experience, and if we haven’t done that, we have ripped you off.

Stepanich: What’s the final bill going to be on the new concert hall?

Robertson: Oh, gosh, it’s going to be almost $15 million.

Stepanich: And how many seats?

Robertson: 750.

Stepanich: And it’s got good acoustic engineering, I imagine.

Robertson: Oh, we’ve been all over it, man. It’s going to be sweet.

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