Monday, November 9, 2009

African American Double Bassist Rick Robinson of Detroit Symphony Leads CutTime Players

The Grammy-winning conductor John McLaughlin Williams told AfriClassical of double bassist Rick Robinson of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. We arranged an interview with him for November 4, 2009.

I am very happy that John McLaughlin Williams put us in touch!
Yes, me too.
Would you like to start by telling us when you became interested in music?
Well I grew up in a musical family. It went back several generations on my Mother's side actually.
When did you start playing?
I started playing recorders in - I think it was Second or Third Grade. They had Choir and didn't have real instruments until I got in Middle School, but I wanted to be part of that! I took cornet and then tuba. Those didn't work out very well! I switched to cello in Fifth Grade and then bass in Eighth Grade.
Have you stuck with that as your primary instrument since then?
Yes, double bass. I was lucky enough to go to Interlochen Arts Academy for my last three years of high school, then finished a Bachelor's at Cleveland Institute of Music and started grad work at New England Conservatory in Boston.
I seem to be running into a lot of people lately who've been to the Cleveland Institute of Music, including Eliesha Nelson and John McLaughlin Williams as well as yourself!
Sure! Well, it's a great school closely and allied with the Cleveland Orchestra! So, it's hard to beat, one of the best orchestras in the world!
Yes, and Eliesha is a member of it now, too.
Yes, fantastic!
Well, getting back to your career, after you had your college degree, you did some graduate work?
Yes, one year at NEC. I dropped out. I had lots of work, and my teacher at NEC was willing to teach me at home. I didn't have a good affinity for the school there at NEC; very crammed and crowded and they weren't very liberal for letting people do gigs outside. As opposed to CIM; they were very encouraging of us to do gigs outside.
Once you left the school formally, did you find that you were making progress?
Oh, yes! Technically and musically, sure!
That's what I mean.
I was doing recitals on my own every year. I won a concerto competition while I was working in Boston and the amount of free lance work was very, very good, as John Williams could also attest.
Is that the period during which you and he met?
That's right! We were both playing in the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra together.
What is the Esplanade Orchestra?
It's the Number Two Boston Pops Orchestra, made up of free lancers, whereas the orginal Boston Pops Orchestra is made up of Boston Symphony Orchestra members.
I see.
Yes, so while the Orchestra reforms back at Tanglewood in the Summer, the Esplanade Orchestra goes on tour and plays at the Esplanade for the famous Fourth of July set of concerts.
So it has a specific role to play every year?
Well, it is a little diminished right now, the Boston Symphony organization being subject to the recession just like everyone else!
It was more active when you were involved?
It was very active, yes! Not only did we tour every Summer, but there were occasional run-outs to anywhere from Long Island, to Saratoga; we took a trip to Japan one year. I think it was in the Fall.
Is that right?
Yes, yes, it was great!
Sounds like you enjoyed your time with them!
Oh yes, very much!
What did you do after that?
Well, then I won a position with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1989, so I never played there again!
I think I read that you were hired without an audition; is that right?
Yes, that's right!
It's pretty unusual, isn't it?
Extremely unusual, and a very interesting confluence of events. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra was on tour in Europe at the time, and I had been subbing with the orchestra for probably about a year at that point, and they asked me to go on that tour, during which two Black State legislators who sat on a committee that appropriated State money to the DSO were willing to withold their votes unless the orchestra addressed hiring another Black player.
How many Black players did they have at that time, Rick?
Black members? There was one - Joe Strickland.
So that was pretty minimal compared to the population of Detroit and the area!
Yes, but people don't realize that you probably can't expect to have 22% of an orchestra being Black. I mean there's just not those numbers reflected in the schools of Music that I attended anyway!
You just never get anywhere close!
Perhaps some of the changes that have taken place since you were in school have increased the number at least a bit with operations like the Sphinx Competition?
They seem to have added at least a few people?
Yes, I agree with that.
You started out when they were on tour, or that was when the decision was made?
Well, the whole political holdup happened while the orchestra was on tour and the President at the time, Deborah Borda, suggested that the musicians consider adding one of the Black players that was on tour with the orchestra at the time. There were three subs, Black subs. I was one of them, and the players had a meeting and they chose to admit me into the orchestra as a full member.
So that's how it started!
Yes, yes. I still have articles from that year.
And then you joined them while they were on tour?
I joined them as a full-time member the following Fall. But they had agreed to hire me and we signed the contract within a couple of months of us returning to the United States.
That was still 1989?
How were your first few years?
Great! I was fully accepted. People seemed to accept my abilities. There were of course numerous interviews and articles written about the situation; what was right about it, what was wrong about it. I did an interview for NBC Nightly News where I got to play on national TV!
Is that right?
Yes, yes. I said I wouldn't do the interview unless they let me play!
Well that was quite a condition; it sounds as though it probably was a good idea!
Yes, I think it helped prove that I was capable of doing the job.
You must have been playing when Neeme Järvi recorded the two Chandos CDs in 1993?
Yes, that's right.
Those are particularly important to me, I have to say as an aside, because those were the first Black classical CDs I ever found!
Oh, really!
It was not until 1995! What was your first introduction to the fact that these works of William Grant Still, Duke Ellington and William Levi Dawson were going to be recorded?
We knew as soon as the project was announced what the repertoire would be, and I think in Neeme's first year, which was well before that, we were doing several of those pieces. Because he was very interested in Black composers and under-recorded composers...
They would qualify!
Yes, they would qualify on both counts, so this was one of Neeme's fortes.
Any comments that you'd like to make about those two recordings or the works on them?
I think the Detroit Symphony is uniquely positioned. We have several jazzers in the Winds - trumpets, and one of our bassoon players particularly, know how to improvise and really make things swing! So I think we've got a particularly good swing band!
I see!
For the Ellington that worked really well! Of course on screech trumpet we have my old Interlochen colleague, Walter White, who just blows the top off of that trumpet! I don't know why it doesn't explode! Somehow he keeps it together. And the Dawson I thought was extremely interesting! Lots of innovative rhythms and harmonies for the day! I thought it was a very intriguing piece. It's very difficult to put together, and keep together in some instances, but by the recording time we had it down. I was glad I could be a part of that! Even further, I was able to arrange one of the movements, the Martin Luther King Movement, and one of the Still movements from that First Symphony, for my band, the CutTime Players, for a Martin Luther King Tribute that we did in Ann Arbor actually, in 2003.
Why don't you explain about the concept of your band?
Okay. Well, I performed "The Soldier's Tale" by Igor Stravinsky, back at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
And it occurred to me back then that if you added flute, you could probably pull off "Peter and the Wolf"!
As a transcription, because it is kind of a miniature orchestra.
So it wasn't until computers came along and I got music notation software that I was able to put together a band and do "The Soldier's Tale" and arrange "Peter and the Wolf." It was so successful that we were immediately asked to do a Family Concert Series. The next year I added the entire "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks," "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," by Dukas, and "The Comedian Suite" by Kabalevsky. I just found so many pieces that work really well for the ensemble and enabled us to do a lot of outreach for the orchestra, and educational services too.
What kind of venues did you have?
That first performance was in a synagogue actually, Temple Beth El in Birmingham.
We could do orchestral music in smaller venues. That was a really big plus!
So that gave you flexibility?
A lot of flexibility! We could play in smaller theaters, high school auditoriums, so it worked really well in churches, community centers, outdoor festivals...
How did people learn of you? Did you get good press?
Not so much by the press. I hit the phones pretty hard, and established a website pretty early on, and I was able to post some music files there.
You must have gotten some attention, if people were inviting you to so many local events!
Yes, yes our reputation seemed to grow pretty fast! I mean obviously we had the entire DSO community becoming aware of us and that led to many recommendations to perform at these small venues.
I see. Are there 8 members, is that right?
There are 8 of us, yes!
Has it been the same people or has there been personnel turnover?
We pretty much have the same people, but I have a regular list of substitutes for when some individuals have conflicts.
You have made a recording that's for sale on, called "Live in Dearborn"?
That's right! Boy, you should have heard our players complain about the name, but we're working our way up to Vienna!
Oh, that's a good rationale!
You gotta start somewhere!
It was good enough for Henry Ford?
It was very good for Henry Ford, yes! In fact, we play at the Henry Ford Estate on a semi-regular basis. We were doing very well until the recession started in Michigan, about 2002, and now we're down to we're lucky to have two gigs a year! So recently I've brought on board a professional grant writer and have found a way to borrow non-profit status through the New York Foundation for the Arts Fiscal Sponsorship Program.
Our first application through that is to get back into the schools.
Wow, I think everyone realizes that's important, to recover some of the ground that's been lost from school Music!
Yes, yes that's right. It seems to be up to the art institutes to try and make up for the shortcomings and the cutbacks in Music Education.
Someone has to step in!
Yes! I'm all about trying to go the extra mile, even if I have to volunteer, to make a difference and show people the incredible value that Classical Music has to offer!
If I could just go back to the William Grant Still symphonies, you're probably aware that his 4th and 5th Symphonies were released just a month ago on Naxos. It seems to bring out a different side of him than the pieces that you recorded. You recorded the "Afro-American" and the "Song of a New Race," but the 4th is entitled "Western Hemisphere" and the 5th is about the United States as a whole.
Yes, we've played the “Autochthonous” but we didn't record it.
I see. So you have some familiarity with it?
Yes, I sure do!
You're able to make comparisons and think about it in relation to the others?
Yes, that's true. There's a bit of repetition with the later symphonies that doesn't happen with the earlier ones. I'm not sure it's a better work but it's certainly interesting to perform!
Well, it took long enough for that part of his repertoire to hit the record stores!
Yes! Well, there are a lot of underappreciated composers out there but Still was great and I heard one of his operas, the one set on Haiti...
"Troubled Island."
Yes, "Troubled Island." Celeste Headlee loaned me a copy of that. I thought it was brilliant! I'd love to hear it performed in Detroit someday!
That would be quite an event! I have the book that William Grant Still Music compiled of documents related to "Troubled Island." It has quite a story of brief success and then the lack of recognition. After its initial highly successful performance, it wasn't repeated!
Well, I can't say that I am surprised!
I can understand that you would not be surprised, given the times in which it occurred!
What else would you like to tell me?
Perhaps because I've been transcribing these pieces for my group CutTime Players, I accidentally fell into composing, or trying to compose, and it's working out pretty well, I think!
What have you been working on?
Well it started with a dream I had back in 1999, where I heard some music when I was waking up, and I got it down in the computer. Two and a half years later I had this full symphonic piece, rather simple as it was, it was very well orchestrated and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, basically because of former Resident Conductor Tom Wilkins, wanted to read the piece at the former African American Composers Forum, and then chose to premiere it for our annualClassical Roots Concert...
Was that "Essay No. 1"?
Yes, that's the piece I called "Essay No. 1."
Could you explain the subtitle "After Sibelius"?
Well, while working on the piece, I realized that one of my favorite pieces of Sibelius, the 3rd Symphony, the First Movement, has a coda which always struck me as more of a beginning, and it's very hopeful but also questioning type of music. I realized it worked perfectly as an Introduction, so I added it to the beginning of the piece when I was about halfway through finishing the piece.
And then it made a wonderful theme to return to, and really made the piece. So I have to credit Sibelius, and I have to acknowledge that my music starts "After Sibelius." He's about as good a composer as you can find! Some people take the title to mean that I was trying to write it in the style of Sibelius, and I did borrow some of his aesthetic in a couple of points, but it's really a simpler title than that!
I'm glad to understand then what you had in mind; there had to be a start to it!
What else would you like to tell us about, Rick?
Well, the composing I have been doing since is for a string sextet, which I'm calling "Simfonica," simply because it's easier to write to give performances for small groups rather than for orchestra. So in 2007 I wrote a full-length grand sonata form work for string sextet called "Mighty Love," which is a programmatic work, and I like to relate music to stories. I took what started out as an autobiographical experience and I expanded that into a wonderful love fantasy. I'm a deeply romantic person! Some of the things I've been writing this year have incorporated urban influences from Latin and Soul and R&B, and Jazz and Rockabilly, Islander - and it's been a lot of fun to make Classical blend with these other forms of music.
Have you been able to hear some of them performed?
Only by my synthesizer! I actually have a reading scheduled for later this month, and I get a chance to get some feedback and see if they really work as well as I think they will!
Well, you must be looking forward to that!
Yes, very much!
Let me ask if you expect that you'll be making recordings when the economy improves, to follow up on the "Live in Dearborn" CD?
For CutTimePlayers? Eventually, yes. The push now is to apply for grants for schools and then touring, and then of course recordings. There's probably about ten or a dozen CDs that CutTime Players could make.
Is that right!
Yes, we have so much repertoire, and we're not getting any younger!
You've put a lot of music on your downloads, I see!
Yes, that's true!
People can download free samples?
Yes, things that we've recorded, live, just with out minidisc recorder, actually!
Is that right!
Yes, not of commercial quality.
Well, it sounded pretty good to me when I listened to Enescu's "Rhapsody No. 1."
Yes, that's one of my favorites, but there are small mistakes in just about everything that's up on the web.
I thought you came up with a clever name, the "CLAM Club"!
"C-L-A-M", yes! Well, I thought Classical Music really needs to step into the 21st Century, perhaps by imagining what it will be like in the 22nd Century! Certainly some of that I think will be abandoning some of the traditional names, or at least trying to make Classical Music more hip. Some people will call it dumbing down, popularizing, but I am a populist. I'm trying to make our art as relevant as possible to people today.
Naming is essential to attracting interest!
You also have some YouTube videos, I see?
Yes, they are a start! They were taken while we were down in Florida recently, by our flute-player's son.
I see!
And the M.I.T. Robotics video is a lot of fun! They asked for my permission to use "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" to back up the stop-animation of computer parts which defeat this monster robot is a lot of fun and they've gotten a lot of hits and I think we'll get some crossover to our website from that.
I want to thank you vey much for giving us this introduction! I'm sure a lot of our readers will be finding out about it for the first time, and I'm sure there will be some interest in exploring it.
Well, I really appreciate that! I'll put a link from your website to our website.
We'll, I appreciate that and we'll return the favor!

Comment by email
Bill, that was a great interview. I learned a lot. Excellent! John McLaughlin Williams

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