Bill Robinson is a well-known figure at chamber music concerts in the Triangle; tall, thin and friendly, his willful hair and chiseled features are hard to miss. For some time now he has been an energetic advocate of his music, even distributing CDs to friends and those connected with performing artists and other musically-influential people. The physicist had piano and violin lessons as a youth, holds a BM in composition, spent a year at Eastman and a decade at UNT, and has been composing music for nearly forty years. He writes, "I started formal music lessons at age three and finally graduated from music school at age 29. I have many more years of training than most historical composers - more years than some lived." Many significant composers in the classical genre had far less or no formal preparation but learned by copying out scores of the masters or other means and then by finding their own voice in the creative process. I do not want to minimize the importance and value of lengthy academic preparation for a career in music - the self-made composer remains the exception to the rule - but consider Mussorgsky, Poulenc, Elgar, even Wagner.
Robinson has, he says, a stack of unpublished and mostly unperformed works, mostly for chamber ensembles, and at least four large orchestral works. A significant handful of some of the Triangle’s most exceptional performing artists have been persuaded that Robinson has something to say or at least something that deserves to be heard. As for Robinson himself, his dream is simply that those who would enjoy his music will have an opportunity to hear it.
This free Nelson Music Room program, performed by artists from throughout the Triangle, was billed “Third Annual Concert of the Music by Bill Robinson” and attemded by about fifty people. The opening selection, Grand Serenade, for clarinet, cello and piano, was written for clarinetist Fred Jacobowitz and his wife, cellist Bonnie Thron. They were joined by pianist Thomas Warburton for this performance. The piece is in four movements: “Overture,” “Romantic Interlude,” “Serious Scherzo” and “Grand Finale with Loose Canons.” In music, a canon is a compositional device in which a single theme is repeated, somewhat similar to a round. Robinson has a penchant for using satirical descriptions for the movements of his works. The tempo markings of the first two movements are straightforward: Allegro and Largo. The third movement is marked "Capo di tutti Capi," which is a bit of a challenge to interpret, and the fourth movement is marked "Allegro con brouhaha," which has a clear meaning, but I am not sure it serves well in the interpretation of the music.
Overall, Grand Serenade treats the instruments well in a variety of combinations and in solo passages, using their full range of pitch and expressiveness. The opening coarse chords get our attention, and out of them, the first theme evolves. There are dramatic contrasts between harsh sections and dolce lyrical sections. The harmonic language varies from clusters to occasional diatonic passages and unisons. The first movement ends with a strong cadence after the clarinet and cello fade out in a reprise of an earlier theme. The second movement, “Romantic Interlude,” has some lyrical moments but does not quite seem to know where it wants to go. Contrasting themes seem unrelated. The third movement is lively, with the instruments contributing, each in their own way, to a creative polyphonic chase. The fourth movement has some jazz overtones though it does not fully ride the genre. The Grand Serenade was technically and expressively well performed with moments of shimmering light and dazzling virtuosity breaking through from time to time.
The second piece, “Ananda” Sonata, was composed for Eric Pritchard, and he was joined by the steady and versatile Warburton at the piano for the performance. A slow downward arpeggio on the piano soon morphs into the opening theme for the violin. In the middle section of the movement, the violin chases the piano through whirling scales. The second movement, "Allah – Adagio alla mantra," develops along the lines of a chorale played on the piano, with the violin spinning an ethereal obbligato over it. The third movement opens with three low chords, repeated three times; this gradually leads to the main theme of the movement. Near the end of the work, Pritchard was called on to play notes at the top of his instrument’s capability. It was a haunting effect.
After intermission, we heard Robinson’s Clarinet Sextet – for clarinet, two violins, viola and two cellos. The four movements are: "A Small Still Voice – Adagio con queso," "Faster Higher, Louder – Paprika," "Curious Interlude – Oregano I and Oregano II," and "A Fearful Earful – Gorgonzola." Here it should be noted that Robinson does assign specific metronome markings, and the assignment of satirical movement titles and tempo markings has no real purpose. Performing the sextet were Jacobowitz, Pritchard, and Thron, joined by Mary Kay Robinson, violin, David Marschall, viola, and Nathan Leyland, cello.
When listening to new music, I try to find the inner cohesiveness that glues the music to its purpose and goal. All music, even abstract music, must communicate something. I may not know and often cannot adequately describe in words what a piece of music is saying, but I know when that coherence is at work. Listening to the sextet, I had the sense that as themes became evident that they had come to life in a natural process, not as some contrived construction. There were a few places where I was jarred out of my revere, but more in this piece than in any of the previous Robinson works I have heard, coherence was evident. It was a worthy performance that whispered promises and possibilities.
Next year perhaps there will be a Fourth Annual Concert of the Music by Bill Robinson. If there is, I will be there. Music like this is indeed worthy of a hearing and perhaps there will be more of those who would enjoy the music of this unique voice in our midst.