By Jack Kintner
Oboist Joe Robinson, a key figure in the Whatcom County music scene and part-time resident of Blaine, wrote “Long Winded, An Oboist’s Incredible Journey to the New York Philharmonic,” a wonderfully entertaining and informative memoir.
It’s a fascinating, and often quite funny look at how this small town North Carolina native went from playing in his high school band to the top of the music world – nearly three decades as principal oboist with one of the best and most renowned orchestras in the world.
Asked what brought him to Whatcom County, he said it was to visit his long-time friend Michael Palmer, artistic director of the Bellingham Festival of Music. The two began their careers together with the Atlanta Symphony 52 years ago. Palmer had been pestering Robinson to visit for some time, “And I finally did in 1989,” Robinson said. “It was love at first sight, it’s like a little Shangri-La, a wonderfully scenic place and great golf, too.”
Not long afterward, he and his wife Mary Kay bought a house here and began a nearly two-decade residence shared between Blaine and Robinson’s native North Carolina.
Robinson’s book spends almost no time at all detailing his time playing with what he calls the country’s oldest and most prestigious orchestra. He devotes the book’s last few pages to his “second chance” audition with conductor Zubin Mehta, who had previously passed over Robinson, finding his tone “too strong.”
Robinson disagreed. So, in a show of tenacity that runs through the entire book, he wrote to the orchestra’s former principal horn player and New York Philharmonic personnel manager Jimmy Chambers. Closing with “You will not be making a mistake by choosing [one of the other candidates], but you might by excluding me if tone is the issue.”
Mehta’s response was immediate and decisive: Chambers called Robinson to report that Mehta said, “If you believe in yourself that much, he will hear you again!” And like winning the lottery, as he once said, he’d done it! “What an unbelievable honor and opportunity to perform with the finest classical musicians in the world,” Robinson wrote.
At the age of 36, he’d lost a few auditions and had begun to wonder why much younger colleagues were apparently passing him by.
Robinson closes the book with one more wry aside; he explains how, when he came home, pretending to be dejected again, his daughter jumped into his lap to greet him. He then hollered at Mary Kay, “Darling, how would you like to move to New York City?” In the kitchen “a pan lid crashed to the floor like a cymbal!”
So how does a high school sax player who’s as interested in girls as he is in music, get to such heights? Not easily. An early piece of advice from his father had been “Son, this music business is like religion. Just don’t go off the deep end.”
His early years in North Carolina had their tragic moments. He had an older brother who was severely hearing impaired, and a first cousin who’d fallen victim to polio and spent 17 years in an iron lung. His parents, both trained as English teachers, persuaded him to make that his major as well in college, which led to his first real connection with the world of classical music.
While in Europe as a Fulbright scholar he met famed oboist Marcel Tabuteau, principal oboe for the Philadelphia Orchestra under famed conductor Leopold Stokowski. “[He] was the greatest player and teacher of the first half of the 20th century,” Robinson said.
It turned out that Robinson was his last student. Robinson called him his “yoda” – the man who taught him just what an oboe in the right hands can do. Robinson described Tabuteau’s tone as being like Crater Lake, “Infinitely deep but sparkling on top. Unbelievable.”
Many players came to France hoping to become students of Tabateau but most were rejected. Robinson credits his English major background as the reason Tabuteau took him on. So for the first time his preparation in the humanities, that is, not being exclusively a music major, paid off.
Robinson talks about this experience as if it were discovering buried treasure. Tabuteau taught him that it’s the note itself, rather than a succession of notes, that’s the basis of good playing. “Like gemstones, they should be pure and free of blemish,” Tabuteau said, “They all reflect light from the center, [they] may change color like a chameleon. And it is this color potential that enables the oboe to sound like a flute one moment and a french horn the next.”
Robinson said there were two times in his career that his ability to write opened doors for him. The first was meeting and working with Tabuteau; the second was when he wrote his letter to Chambers, the key in getting a second and successful chance to audition for the New York Philharmonic.
I’d add a third: this wonderful, insightful and often very funny book of his. Public performance is essentially a process of self-disclosure, and Robinson leaves nothing out, showing his truly human side as well as those of others. Success is a combination of coincidence and the unusual ability to be well-prepared for the next step before it’s obvious what that may be. And in his book Robinson shows you the inside of what a journey like this is all about and how he made it work.
Robinson and his wife, concert violinist Mary Kay Robinson, will return for another season of the Bellingham Festival of music, June 28 though July 20. More information can be found at bellinghamfestival.org.