Sunday, November 14, 2010

Veteran Conductor Kay George Roberts: 'I wanted to get more involved in the Lowell community'

[For Kay Roberts, Strings Are the Thing; UMass Lowell Magazine, Spring 2009]

On November 13, 2010 AfriClassical posted the first in a series of excerpts from Bringing Music to the People: Kay George Roberts. Ambassador with a Baton. It was a cover story in the University of Massachusetts Lowell Magazine, Spring 2009, Vol. 12, No. 1. Our post was: “In UMass Lowell Magazine, Kay George Roberts Says: 'You have to fight the isolation black classical musicians face.'” This is the second excerpt from the comprehensive article of Geoffrey Douglas:

“But it all began in 1950s Nashville – though not the same Nashville most other black Tennesseans would remember from that time: 'I grew up on the campus of Fisk University. My father founded the Psychology Department there; my mother was a professor of library science. Next door to us lived poets, writers, painters, musicians. It was an intellectual and cultural oasis.'

"There was music all around, she remembers: in her home, where her mother played the piano, and at the university, where the family often attended local concerts. From the time she began taking violin lessons, with Robert Holmes in elementary school, it was clear she had an extraordinary talent. By junior high school, she had been chosen to play in the city’s just-segregated Youth Symphony; its conductor, Thor Johnson, the internationally known and widely loved former director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, became an early mentor, choosing her to play, as the youngest-ever member, in the Nashville Symphony, then later to tour the U.S. as a member of the World Symphony Orchestra, made up of 140 musicians from around the globe.

"She had a way of attracting world-renowned mentors. Several years later, in the summer between her sophomore and junior years at Fisk, as winner of a violin fellowship at Tanglewood, she worked for a time under Leonard Bernstein, who persuaded her to change her major from mathematics to music. And three years after that, by now a student at the Yale School of Music, she came under the tutelage of master conductor Otto-Werner Mueller, who recognized her talents in conducting— as well as with the violin— and not long after, arranged for her to lead rehearsal performances of both the Nashville and Atlanta Symphony Orchestras. In addition to Bernstein and Mueller, she also worked or studied along the way with international conducting icons – and teachers – Seiji Ozawa, Andre Previn, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Gustav Meier. Her professional debut as a conductor came, fittingly, with her hometown orchestra, the Nashville Symphony, in 1976.

"Since that time she has conducted all over the U.S. and the world: the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago, Dallas, Detroit and Nashville Symphony Orchestras, the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra and the Orchestra Svizzera Italiana. In 2004, she served as co-conductor for the acclaimed Sphinx Inaugural Gala Concert in Carnegie Hall. She is also the principal conductor for Opera North in Philadelphia, an African-American company of musicians who, for more than thirty years, have been bringing opera to the public and parochial schools of inner-city Philadelphia.

"During most of this time — since 1978 — she has been a member of the music faculty at UMass Lowell. And for all her concert and conducting successes, it has been in this role, as a teacher and member of the Lowell community, that she has made her most remarkable, and most enduring, contributions. Through most of her early years at the University, her time was divided between teaching and travel, as the demands of her conducting duties took her to points all over the globe. 'I had been guest-conducting major orchestras, which was extremely rewarding,' she says. 'But I was on the road a lot, and a decision needed to be made. I wanted to get more involved in the Lowell community.'"

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