For 30 years, Dr. Gary Robinson has led one of the finest orchestras of the Southeast—that many of his musicians aren’t old enough to vote is of little concern to this retiring maestro of the Young Artist Orchestra, whose legacy will continue through each movement of his student protégés
Listening to Gary Robinson talk is much like watching a brilliant composer labor over every note, one after another, each one complementing the next to create a cohesive masterpiece. In the quiet presence of this elegant, self-effacing artist-musician, you feel yourself become immersed in a man who, like the creators of the classical works he interprets from his conductors’ podium, crafts his thoughts that then play aloud as seamless melodies.
Take these few bars: “We get ourselves allied with or involved with something that requires our deep resources and is demanding and exhausting, but deeply satisfying for us.”
Long pauses float between his words; well-trained artists understand the power of well-placed silence. He muses this way for nearly an hour during a gorgeous spring morning, reminiscing about his last 30 years as conductor of the top-tier of Greenville County Youth Orchestras’ five ensembles. He steps down as director of the Young Artist Orchestra in May.
“I’ve worked out a formula that seems to work for the orchestra. That formula is not necessarily going to carry it into the next 30 years, so having someone else come in with a fresh concept, and who has a lot of years ahead of him to develop it, is better for the program.”
The program isn’t looking forward to his departure, but you’d never hear such a thing from the mellow maestro himself. He doesn’t beat his own drum, though he is a timpanist and percussionist.
Robinson started playing drums as a teenager in Storrs, a village in rural eastern Connecticut. His first band Street Corner played mostly original songs. “Generally, those are bands not good enough to play covers,” he says. Growing up in the ’70s, he consumed the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Who. Then he found classical music.
At the University of Connecticut, he says, “I transitioned from art major to music, and thereby began studying classical music in earnest, and it became one of my life passions at that point, an overwhelming passion to the point where there are whole decades’ worth of popular music I completely missed.”
It was in college that he found his earliest and most influential mentor. “The conducting professor there, Jerome Laszloffy, took me aside and noticed something in me, and he gave me special training and special opportunities that probably were not available to other students.” Laszloffy speaks with the same affection for a former student who remains “very vivid in my life.”
“He has great enthusiasm, great passion for music, great passion for learning,” says the conductor who began teaching at UConn in 1967. “He’s a very warm personality, very easy to deal with, and his sincerity is genuine. As a young man, he was very easy to work with. We just got along well, and it went beyond a student-teacher relationship because we became good friends and communicated well with each other, and I did what I could for him.”
Laszloffy, now 85 and retired in Mesa, Arizona, served as musical director for 38 seasons at the New Britain Symphony Orchestra. He gave his young protégé a chance to conduct not just the university’s symphony but the NBSO, as well. “I felt he was worthy of that kind of exposure, for that experience. I feel like he needed that. I’ve always been very fond of him.”
So is everyone else you talk with about the 61-year-old maestro.
Owen Caprell now plays trombone in freelance gigs around New York City. The Greenvillian was born a year after Robinson left a job in Mississippi to start at the Fine Arts Center. Today, Caprell gives his former teacher and conductor for four years plenty of credit for his current situation. “He’s definitely a large part of that, a large part of my success. He definitely helped with my professional development in a lot of ways.”
Caprell recently played in a production of The Addams Family musical in New Jersey and plays in regular shows with the Hot Shim Sham Orchestra, a swing band. “Dr. Robinson was one of the driving factors to keep on going,” he says. “He was kind of the tough-love teacher. You have to get the work done, but he’s still supportive. But hard. He’s got his own way about him, really pushing and driving and encouraging all at the same time.”
Caprell sympathizes with his mother Holly, who happens to be GCYO’s executive director and had to choose Robinson’s replacement. “That’s going to be a challenge, I’d say,” he says. “Not knowing who’s down in that area anymore, I don’t have any idea who they have, but they might have to reach far and wide. It’s going to be hard, no matter who you pick. They’re going to have a little bit of growing to do, with some big shoes to fill.” Says Holly: “You know, we have tapped a replacement—you can’t say replacement, because he has no replacement—but we have someone to take over for him.”
The GCYO hasn’t yet named the new director for the flagship orchestra, which is among the ensembles that annually enroll 300 students: the Philharmonic, the intermediate and advanced symphony for middle- through high school-aged musicians; the Sinfonia and Junior Sinfonia, intermediate-level honors ensembles; and Chamber Strings, for the less-experienced set.
Robinson’s impact on the countless students who’ve been under his direction is inestimable, she says. “Oh, my gosh, I don’t know that you can really quantify it. For 30 years, he’s had anywhere from 50 to 100 kids under his baton, exceptional kids.” Two of them were her own, including Owen.
“They went off to music school, and both of them, in talking to them the first couple of years after they went off to college, they said, ‘Wow, the orchestra here (at school) isn’t as good as the youth orchestra.’ He has a lifelong impact on the kids, even those kids who don’t go on to be professional musicians.”
His friendships apparently last forever, too.
“I have known Gary, Dr. Robinson, for 27 years,” says his boss, Roy Fluhrer, the Ph.D. director of the Fine Arts Center, “and have watched him build the kind of youth orchestra that causes many to say, ‘Youth orchestra? They don’t sound like any youth orchestra I’ve heard.’” He sounds themes that many others voice about Robinson’s enduring and widespread impact. “How many musicians has he trained that are playing in other orchestras, who are teaching, who are making cultural contributions to their communities? Don’t know. I do know that he has changed lives, not just students, but mine, too,” he says.
The work involved is enormous and runs year-round. That’s because his charges don’t mess around with amateur pieces—they play the same masterworks world-class orchestras perform. Included in the program for his final bow at the podium on May 14 at the Peace Center’s Gunter Theatre are Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, op. 64, E minor, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, op. 93.
Jon Grier, the Ph.D. composer-in-residence at the Fine Arts Center, and still another admirer with a multi-decade-long relationship with Robinson, wrote the program notes for the evening: “It has been my privilege these last 28 years to call Gary Robinson my colleague, collaborator, and treasured friend. His sophisticated musicianship and tireless devotion to his students have spurred me to strive and be never self-satisfied.”
Grier, whose original compositions the YAO has performed, penned Canonic Fanfares to honor the maestro. The “series of boisterous canons” carefully deploys notes that spell out G-F#-A-C as a nod to the Fine Arts Center and G-A-D for Robinson’s initials; his middle name is Auguste. “The amazingly mature sound you are hearing from these flowering young musicians tonight—and on every GCYO concert in my memory,” Grier’s notes say, “comes about precisely because he has . . . relentlessly put the students first. The music sounds as it does because he regards the players as young musicians, full of enormous potential and capable of playing great music and playing it well. The results speak for themselves.”
While many educators might name favorite students, Robinson doesn’t. “It’s important to note that they did that, they did that,” he says—you can practically hear his vocal chords strike the italics. “And you perhaps gave them an opportunity in which they could enlarge their skills. Those are the best students, the ones who go on, but without naming names, you can say that graduates from the Youth Orchestra have gone on to most of the major conservatories in the United States—Curtis Institute of Music, Cleveland Institute, Julliard, Boston Conservatory.
“Again, without sounding self-congratulatory, we’re happy whenever the kids are able to move on to the next step in their lives and that we’ve been able to play a part in that. And I’m just as happy about kids who go to their local university system and find themselves there, as opposed to going to the big conservatories.” Another pause. “Those kids, the ones who go to Curtis, Cleveland, Julliard, they are the exception, but we don’t work exclusively for kids who are the exception. We have a strong set of students that we are working with, and they are approaching it from their individual life’s perspective. We don’t work just for the kids who are going to be the stars; we coalesce their skills so that when they hit the stage . . . they become one.”
Working with children is a far different kettledrum than directing adults. “The first observable difference is that we take longer to prepare our concerts than professional artists,” he says. “Professional artists will have four to five rehearsals, and we’ll have 10 to 12.” Rehearsals run three hours a night. “The kids are learning not only their instruments, but they’re also learning the traditions and the language of orchestral music. It’s our job to know that to the best of our abilities and therefore to impart that to them. “The reward at the end of the rehearsal process when we’re on the stage is twofold. One, the immediate contact with great art music and, two, the passion, energy, excitement that young people feel in their first experience with great art music.”
Rewarding, yes, but that has got to be exhausting. (Italics are ours, not his.) “I think that the only significant advice I have ever given Gary was ‘go home, get some rest,’” Grier says in his notes to the program that should allow Robinson to do just that. Which isn’t likely, says Robinson’s wife of 35 years, Kathy, who teaches strings at Beck Academy and is assistant principal, second violin at GSO. “Oh, my gosh, I don’t know the exact number of hours a week he works,” she says. Already, he’s accepting guest-conductor invitations, including one to lead the Spartanburg Philharmonic at its holiday symphony presentation. “I think Gary will always find a way to share his talents with the community,” she says. “I don’t think he’s going to be bored. He’s also an avid cyclist, he loves that, he loves to read. He’s a great student, he’s always engaging his mind in some topic.”
And he’s forever a musician.
Of his pending departure from a position that he has loved for so long and for which he is loved so widely, she says: “What I’m hoping is that this will help us free up some time for us personally. In the summer, he couldn’t allow himself to travel as freely because he was always studying the repertoire for the coming season. I think in that respect he’ll enjoy a little free time.” Besides, “I don’t know if musicians ever retire. It’s not just how we make a living, it’s our passion, it’s our soul.”
Robinson’s thoughts about his swan song come out sounding like the very gestures conductors make with their left hands: “It will have all the joy”—he says before a magnificent pause that delivers a classic crescendo—“and nervous anticipation that comes with walking through a big door.”