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Interview with Oboist Joseph Robinson

by Gerald Klickstein

Joseph Robinson was Principal Oboist with the New York Philharmonic from 1978 until his retirement in 2005.

In this interview with Gerald Klickstein for The Musician’s Way Blog, he speaks about music making, artistic development, and various aspects of living the orchestral musician’s life.

Gerald Klickstein: Before your successful audition for the NY Phil, how did you go about refining the skills that enabled you to win that audition?
Joseph Robinson: Before the New York Philharmonic principal oboe audition in December 1977, I went into hard training for an extended period of time (for once), as if preparing for the Olympics. I put a chart up on my studio wall, outlining a practice routine that included systematic drills of long tones, articulated and slurred scales, arpeggios, and trills-all at different metronomic settings, and ending with 50 correct repetitions each day of “Le Tombeau de Couperin” and “La scala di seta”. The training sessions took about 2 hours and 15 minutes to accomplish, and I did not miss a one for 32 straight days. By the time I walked out onto the Avery Fisher Hall stage to audition, I was in the best shape of my life and so ready to get that practice monkey off my back I was not nervous at all!

Gerald Klickstein: What were some of your most memorable experiences performing with the New York Philharmonic?
Joseph Robinson: In 27 seasons with the New York Philharmonic, I probably performed in 4,000 concerts. Among the most memorable were my first concerto appearances (Vivaldi D minor) in December 1979 and my first tours abroad, especially the Asian Tour in 1979 with Leonard Bernstein, when we recorded Shostakovich 5 in Tokyo. Another highlight had to be the 10,000th NYP concert (Mahler 2) with Zubin Mehta and performances in around 1988 of the same Mahler 2 with Leonard Bernstein.

Gerald Klickstein: Can you briefly characterize some of the ways in which you grew as an artist over the course of your 27 years with the NYP?
Joseph Robinson: Learning the repertory took several years, as did developing a sense of projection that was sufficient for an ensemble as powerful as the New York Philharmonic. I think my phrasing, ensemble skills and general level of intonation improved as I went along, but perhaps not in the final years.

Gerald Klickstein: Were there particular people or experiences that catalyzed your growth?
Joseph Robinson: Everyone on stage contributed to my development-colleagues, soloists, and conductors. Hearing weekly broadcasts and engaging in recordings helped refine my perception, phrasing, and projection.

Gerald Klickstein: What were some practice strategies that you employed to master the large amounts of repertoire that you’d perform each year?
Joseph Robinson: I tried not to imitate others’ performances before encountering new works, unlike some of my colleagues who would listen to every recording they could find before rehearsals began. That meant I had less time to digest each new program, but I think I performed more authentically and personally that way, even if it made the job more stressful.

Gerald Klickstein: What sorts of self-care habits did you adopt to thrive amid the pressures of rehearsing, performing, recording, and touring?
Joseph Robinson: “Thrive” might be the wrong word-more often I was just trying to “survive!” The reeds were a continual challenge. Often I would come home after a concert and work until 3:00 a.m. trying to find something better for the next day’s performance.

Gerald Klickstein: Besides the demands of practice, reed making, rehearsal, and performance what, in your opinion, are some especially challenging aspects of working in a top orchestra?
Joseph Robinson: Perhaps I was more susceptible to the “siren’s call” of the extra-musical dimensions of my career than most of my colleagues since my academic degrees and experience included PR work, development, and administration. I was surprised to discover how much pedagogy came with the position (I once had 15 students at the Manhattan School of Music), and how much executive responsibility was part of a principal position in a major orchestra. Commuting ten hours a week from New Jersey across the George Washington Bridge and down the West Side Highway was sometimes the hardest part of the job!

Gerald Klickstein: How did you go about meeting those challenges?
Joseph Robinson: To deal with the morning commute, I left home sooner and sooner each year, and I persuaded the Manhattan School to hire an assistant oboe teacher for my studio. My NYP contract permitted me to take many additional weeks off from the orchestra, although I never did use all of that “recovery” potential.

Gerald Klickstein: What are some of the ways in which the interpersonal dynamics and culture in the Philharmonic changed and remained stable over time?
Joseph Robinson: Like a supertanker fully loaded, the New York Philharmonic requires much effort over a long period of time to have its course changed perceptively. Music directors, executive directors, and board chairpersons have come and gone through the years, and new players have arrived to reconfigure the ensemble every season, but there is something about the mission and personality of the orchestra (like that of the New York Yankees) that has stayed the same through the years.

Gerald Klickstein: What are a few things that you do to attain optimal artistic outcomes when working with diverse conductors?
Joseph Robinson: With a few notable exceptions, and despite the reputation of the orchestra when I arrived in 1978, the New York Philharmonic was receptive and responsive to musical leadership from guest conductors throughout most of my career. Competence was more often evident from the podium than inspiration, however. Many new conductors, like birds before a snake, were frozen with fear in front of the New York Philharmonic; but those possessing confident authority and skill could always educe from us the highest level of musicianship.

Gerald Klickstein: Can you give some examples of particularly memorable musical interactions with conductors?
Joseph Robinson: I have mentioned Bernstein’s Mahler as a high point in my experience. Zubin’s Bruckner 9 was a revelation, as was Damnation of Faust with Sir Colin Davis. Erich Leinsdorf, who often was pedantic and dry, once conducted sublime performances of Schumann’s 2nd and the Beethoven Pastorale Symphony. Masur made Peer Gynt and the Reger Variations seem monumental, and we were inspired by just about everything Ricardo Muti wanted to conduct.

Gerald Klickstein: Do you recall any similarly remarkable musical experiences that took place between you and your fellow players?
Joseph Robinson: One of the most satisfying dimensions of musical performance is the experience of creating a perfect blend. Jeannie Baxtresser, who played principal flute sitting next to me for many years, used to call me her “stage husband!” There is something intensely intimate and satisfying about excellent ensemble.

In the concluding portion of his interview, Joseph Robinson recalls his teacher Marcel Tabuteau, recounts some of the complexities of orchestral work, and offers sage advice to rising musicians.

Gerald Klickstein: Were there some low points in your career? How did you deal with them?
Joseph Robinson: Oboists, like baseball players, have inexplicable slumps when they cannot find a way to make acceptable reeds. These times could stretch into weeks for me, and of course, they were frustrating and depressing, although they were mostly unrecognized by colleagues and conductors. There is a saying in the profession that “You are only as good as your last performance”. It was hard to stay upbeat after a lackluster concert, but I just kept trying different cane and gouges until the reeds improved.

Gerald Klickstein: Did you have musical interests that orchestral playing didn’t fulfill and, if so, how did you pursue those interests?
Joseph Robinson: With regard to outside musical activity, my status in the NYP prompted more invitations for solo appearances, recitals, master classes, and speaking engagements than I could accept. In that respect, it was as if the “rich just got richer”. One problem with my broader education and training is that I sometimes felt too strapped down in the “oboe saddle”. John Mack used to ask me, as Zubin Mehta did a time or two, “Isn’t playing first oboe in the Philharmonic enough for you?” Sometimes it felt like too much of a good thing! Still, despite an encouraging start with management at the New York Philharmonic, when I was entrusted with arranging area committee musicales in the suburbs and often spoke on behalf of the orchestra to prospective patrons, I feel that I failed to demonstrate that a member of the orchestra could be an effective advocate and partner in institution-building and development.

Gerald Klickstein: In what ways did your role in the Philharmonic evolve over the years?
Joseph Robinson: I proposed, planned, and arranging funding for the New York Philharmonic’s first 2-week residency in 147 years when the orchestra performed at the Grand Teton Music Festival to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the State of Wyoming in the summer of 1989. The Wyoming residency was one of the happiest episodes ever for the musicians of the orchestra. It quintupled the budget and enormously increased the prestige of the host organization-the Grand Teton Music Festival-and it generated a “CBS Sunday Morning” feature in addition to an avalanche of other favorable publicity. The consequence of that work on behalf of the orchestra was to be closed out of any future collaboration with management and to be told, “We are paying you just to play the oboe!”

Gerald Klickstein: As a veteran orchestral performer, what are some key things that you know today that you didn’t know during your initial years with the Philharmonic?
Joseph Robinson: It is the quality of one’s affection for performing that sustains a long career in a major orchestra. Stanley Drucker loved to play the clarinet more than any player I have ever known-so much that I used to say about him, “God made a clarinet player and called him Stanley!” Of course good luck and good genes had something to do with his longevity, but Stanley continued to restore his musical and technical “capital” by relentless practice through the years. I’m afraid I stepped into the same quicksand as my famous predecessor, Harold Gomberg, who increasingly sought to rely on a good reed rather than a regimen of regular practice to sustain his career.

Gerald Klickstein: Many young musicians hope to perform in professional orchestras, yet they realize that jobs are scarce. In your view, are there audition or career-preparation strategies that aspiring musicians should keep in mind that sometimes get overlooked?
Joseph Robinson: Aspiring musicians should only occasionally look up for motivation at the career peaks they dream of scaling. Progress toward career success is best achieved indirectly, one beautiful note, one coherent phrase, at a time. If the gap between one’s own level of performance and that of the best players is honestly perceived and patiently narrowed, career achievement will eventually take care of itself. In addition, it is important to remember that many opportunities to serve the art of music are self-generated by resourceful people, and that imaginative entrepreneurship can sometimes be as important as practice.

Gerald Klickstein: You didn’t major in music in college but instead graduated from Davidson College with a degree in English and economics. How did your educational choices affect your musical development?
Joseph Robinson: Marcel Tabuteau, the greatest player and oboe pedagogue of the 20th century, used to urge his students at Curtis to learn from life in all its effusions and not just sit hunkered down at the reed desk. I believe my sense of musical line was informed by hours spent as a young man on the Blue Ridge Parkway; my sense of rhythm and texture by my study of English poetry; my interest in color and form by painting. Educational success at Davidson College resulted in a Fulbright Award that made it possible for me to encounter Marcel Tabuteau in France in March of 1963, and it was my being an English major that prompted him to agree to teach me the following summer. (Unknown to me, he had one piece of unfinished business when I met him, which was to produce a method book for which I might possibly be the author.) The instruction I received from Marcel Tabuteau during five weeks of lessons in Nice more than compensated for the conservatory training I did not receive.

Gerald Klickstein: Do you have any suggestions regarding how orchestras can prosper in the 21st century?
Joseph Robinson: As the result of a concert Dick Woodhams and I produced jointly when the Philadelphia Orchestra was on strike in 1996, in which the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra were showcased sequentially on the same stage with the same conductor, I published an article in Harmony magazine entitled “Raising the Demand Curve for Symphony Orchestras”.

In that article, I proposed with utmost seriousness and total conviction that orchestras could dramatically increase public interest in their activities without dumbing down their repertory if they would stage overtly competitive events “against” each other. Civic competition prompted the creation of many American orchestras in the first place, and comparisons justifying membership in the “Top Five” are a continual fact of orchestral life.

If the New York Philharmonic challenged the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra to a Wagner “shoot-out” in Carnegie Hall, partisans would march on 57th Street! Imagine what fun it would be to see Dallas and Houston go at it for Texas bragging rights, or for Atlanta and St. Louis-two heartland cities with American-born conductors and huge sports traditions-to challenge each other home and away! Competing orchestras would play sky high on the edge of their chairs, and husbands and wives would argue over breakfast the next morning about which one had the better brass section.

Gerald Klickstein: Are there additional points, recollections, or pointers for rising players that you’d like to add?
Joseph Robinson: It is a privilege and a noble calling to pursue Truth in music. Marcel Tabuteau said about his entire career-thousands of concerts and millions of phrases: “There were a few good notes. There were a few good notes . . . and they are still RINGING!”

Discover more about Joseph Robinson at his website OboeJoe.

Copyright 2010 Gerald Klickstein
Originally published February, 2010 on The Musician’s Way Blog

Gerald Klickstein is Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and an active guitarist, author, and arts advocate. His landmark book The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness was published in 2009 by Oxford University Press and includes an extensive, free companion website: