Conductor  Kay  George  Roberts

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Kay George Roberts was born September 16, 1950 in Nashville, Tennessee. She began playing the violin in the fourth grade for the Cermona Strings Youth ensemble. In 1964, she successfully auditioned for the Nashville Youth Symphony, which at the time was under the direction of Thor Johnson. At the age of 17, she was moved to the parent Nashville Symphony ensemble, where in 1971, she became the first violinist to represent the Nashville Symphony in the World Symphony Orchestra, which was directed by Arthur Fiedler.

In 1972, Roberts graduated from Fisk University with her Bachelor of Arts in Music. She later attended Yale University School of Music, where she graduated with her Masters in Music in Conducting and Violin Performance in 1975, then her Masters in Musical Arts in Conducting in 1976. Later in 1986, she became the first woman and second black person to receive a doctoral degree in orchestral conducting from Yale University.

During her time at Fisk University, Roberts was a fellow at Tanglewood, where she worked with Leonard Bernstein, serving as a violinist in his orchestra. During her time at Yale, she was under the tutelage of Otto-Werner Muller, who later arranged for her to conduct lead performances at the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, which was her debut as a conductor, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. She has also conducted workshops, master classes, and seminars with Denis de Coteau, Seiji Ozawa, André Previn, and John Eliot Gardnier. Roberts is one of the very few female African American conductors in the world.

In 1982, Roberts became the lead director of New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra. She also has guest conducted for orchestras across the world, including the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana in Switzerland, the Cleveland Symphony, the Detroit Symphony, and Bangkok Symphony in Thailand. In 1978, she joined the faculty at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She is the founder and musical director of the New England Orchestra, and the principal conductor for Opera North, Inc. in Philadelphia. She also founded the UMass Lowell String project, which helps K-12 students receive musical education.

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Kay George Roberts is the founder and music director of the Lowell-based New England Orchestra (NEO) with the mission of linking cultures through music. Her guest conducting engagements have included the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit and Nashville Symphony orchestras as well as the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana. She has served as a cover conductor for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra and Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Ms. Roberts is the principal conductor for Opera North, Inc. in Philadelphia.

Prof. Roberts studied at Tanglewood with Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Gustav Meier and at the Bachakademie Stuttgart with John Eliot Gardiner. An accomplished violinist, she is the first woman to earn a doctor of musical arts degree in conducting from Yale University where she studied with Otto-Werner Mueller.

A champion of music education, she is the founder and director of the UMass Lowell String Project, an after-school string training program for Lowell public school children and the newly formed Lowell Youth Orchestra (LYO).

The recipient of many honors, Roberts was awarded a "Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition" from the U.S. House of Representatives for her "outstanding and invaluable service to the community"; the University of Michigan "Presidential Professor" - "one of the highest honors bestowed on visiting artists and scholars" - for her work with the Sphinx Symphony; and the 2007 University of Massachusetts "President’s Public Service Award" in recognition of exemplary public service to the Commonwealth.

In 2009, Roberts was selected as "Today's Woman" by Girls Incorporated of Greater Lowell and appointed the first holder of the Nancy Donahue Endowed Professorship in the Arts at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

==  Biography from the UMASS website and other sources  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In February of 1991, Kay George Roberts was in Chicago to conduct the Black Music Repertory Ensemble in a concert at Orchestra Hall, the home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It was a very busy time for all of the artists, but she graciously agreed to sit down with me for a conversation.  A portion was used on WNIB, Classical 97 the next day to promote the event, and now I am pleased to be able to share the entire chat.

Bruce Duffie
:   You are a conductor and also a teacher.  How do you divide your time between those two very taxing occupations?

Kay George Roberts:   My teaching is also conducting!  [Laughs]  I am a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.  I teach conducting on the undergraduate level, and graduate students in the master’s program in conducting.  I also conduct the chamber orchestra at the University, so actually it’s an extension of what I always do anyway as a conductor.  That way it’s not such a division.

BD:   Do you find that the students who are enrolled in classes in conducting are really ready to become conductors?

KGR:   No, it takes a long time.  [Laughs]  For students who are interested in going on to become teachers or music educators, they have an experience with conducting.  Usually, this introductory course is just that.  It’s familiarizing them with conducting, and then they go on for additional courses to get a master’s degree, and all the doctoral programs are in other places too.
BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Does it surprise them to find out that conducting is more than just waving a stick?

KGR:   [Laughs]  Unfortunately, yes.  At the beginning, I always give them the cartoon where there’s a gentleman standing on a podium with a piece of paper on the desk in front of him that says, “Wave your arm until the music stops, then turn around and take a bow!”  [Both laugh]  [That famous cartoon is shown at left.]  I tell them quite frankly that’s not all there is to conducting.  Many things go into it until you finally get to that last physical side of conducting.

BD:   That should be their entrance exam... if they laugh at the joke, they’re accepted, and if they don’t laugh, they’re out.

KGR:   Right.  I must try that next time.

BD:   Let me take this one step farther.  Should the public that is behind you on any given night know all of the rigors that go into being a conductor?

KGR:   It might be informative for them.  Of course, they can’t be expected to know exactly all the technical sides of it, but it’s interesting for an audience to know that quite a bit of work goes into it before that final concert happens.

BD:   Does it ever become too much work?

KGR:   No, it
s never too much work.

BD:   From the huge array of literature to select from, how do you decide which pieces you are going to put on any particular program?

KGR:   Which program in particular?

BD:   Any program.  How do you go about the selection process?

KGR:   It depends.  I am not involved with the University orchestras, but I’ve had my own community orchestras in the New England area.  I’ve conducted professionally the Detroit Symphony, and the Nashville Symphony, and I’ve conducted a youth orchestra.  Soon I’m heading to Texas to conduct the All-State Philharmonic Orchestra, which is a high school group made up of the best from Texas.  I’m looking forward to that.  So the selection of works depends on the particular ensemble that I’m working with at the time, and the repertoire that I’m trying to choose for that particular ensemble.

BD:   You must select works that you feel they can play well?

KGR:   Yes, absolutely.  For example, I wouldn’t choose something for a high school orchestra that I would do with the Detroit Symphony.  But sometimes I want works which are very challenging.  For my All-State Orchestra, we are doing ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Mars’ from The Planets of Holst.  So it depends on the level.

BD:   When you get a professional orchestra, where presumably they could play anything that is put in front of them, you must have some ideas about what you want to play.  How do you arrive at that choice?

KGR:   That’s complicated.  It depends on the program, and it depends whether they have a soloist for that concert.  If I’m working as a guest conductor, usually there is one piece that I want to really do and perform, and then you build the program around that.  Also, when you’re dealing with a major orchestra, it depends on whether the work has already been performed within the season, or in the past seasons, and whether they wish to repeat it.  But I usually try to choose one piece I really want to do.

BD:   [Gently pressing the point]  What is it about that piece which really grabs you?

KGR:   It can be a variety of things.  It could be a work that may not be known to the audience that I have particularly wanted to perform.  It can be a symphony that I’ve been wanting to do with a major orchestra, and I have an opportunity to do where the instrumentation is available.  This is a big factor in dealing with different orchestras, including community orchestras.  There might be two harps available, or something like that.  Maybe if you’re lucky to have winds you can do The Rite of Spring!  [Both laugh]  So, there are many issues that go into it, but usually it
s a piece that I feel very involved with, committed to, and that I feel that I have an interpretation that I wish to present to an audience.

BD:   Are you always discovering new pieces that then go onto your Wish List?

KGR:   Yes!  I keep digging, and there’s quite a bit to dig.

BD:   You’re of African-American heritage.  Do you make sure that you include works by African-American composers whenever you can?

KGR:   Yes, I have been doing that more.  I’ve also been involved with ensembles in New York where I’ve done pieces by black composers such as William Grant Still.  I’ve also presented works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and I’ve performed with artists such as Max Roach in pieces by black composers, including one by Noel Da Costa.  
I have a concert coming up in May, and we’re going to be doing a piece by Frederick Tillis.  So, when I’ve had an opportunity, I have tried to perform these works.

da costa Noel Da Costa was born on 24 December 1929 Lagos, Nigeria to parents from Kingston, Jamaica, who were Salvation Army missionaries. After returning to Jamaica while Da Costa was young, they emigrated to New York City, living in Harlem. It was here that he started violin lessons with Barnabas Istok at the age of 11. While in High School, he was inspired by one of his teachers to work in an artistic field.

Da Costa completed his Bachelor's at Queens College in 1952 and his Master's in theory and composition at Columbia University in 1956, studying with Otto Luening and Jack Beeson. He studied with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence, Italy under a Fulbright Fellowship, and shortly thereafter in 1961 took positions teaching at Hampton University and the City University of New York. In 1970 he accepted a position at Rutgers University, where he taught until 2001. He died the following year at the age of 72.

Da Costa was also a co-founder of the Society of Black Composers. He was an accomplished violinist, playing his own works as well as both classical and jazz music. He played on albums by Les McCann, Roland Kirk, Bernard Purdie, Roberta Flack, McCoy Tyner, Donny Hathaway, Felix Cavaliere, Willis Jackson, Eddie Kendricks, and others. His first music set to poetry being Tambourines by Langston Hughes. He also worked with choral groups, becoming the director of the Triad Choral in 1974, and played with both Symphony of the New World and several orchestras on Broadway theatre productions.

Da Costa's works are marked by an infusion of elements of jazz, Caribbean music, and African music into the framework of Western classical music. The New York Times has described his music as "conservatively chromatic." As well as exploring Caribbean musical traditions and black American spirituals Da Costa also explored freely atonal music and serialism. 

Born in Galveston, Texas on January 5, 1930, Frederick Tillis was raised by his mother, Zelma Bernice Gardner, née Tillis (1913–2004), his stepfather, General Gardner, and his maternal grandparents, Willie Tillis and Jessie Tillis-Hubbard (1893–1979).

tillis His first musical experiences were courtesy of his mother, who played piano and sang to him as a child. Later, at George Washington Carver Elementary School, Tillis decided to join the school's drum and bugle corps. As he became more proficient on trumpet, Tillis found his first professional job as a musician in jazz bands when he was twelve years old, earning him the nickname "Baby Tillis".

In 1946, Tillis was accepted at Wiley College on a music scholarship, and thus became the first person in his family to receive a college education. He graduated from Wiley in 1949 with a B.A. in music, accepting the position of college band director there almost immediately. He married fellow Wiley music major Edna Louise Dillon at this time. They moved from Texas in 1951 so that Tillis could attend the University of Iowa for graduate music studies. At this time, he also decided to volunteer in the United States Air Force at the outbreak of the Korean War, and became director of the 356th Air Force Band. He later went back to get his PhD under the GI Bill at University of North Texas College of Music, but then returned to the University of Iowa to finish his doctoral studies.

Completing his PhD in 1963, Tillis then held a succession of academic positions at Wiley College, Grambling College, and Kentucky State University. In 1970, Randolph Bromery recruited Tillis to the faculty of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and he and his family moved to Massachusetts. Joining the faculty as an associate professor of music, Tillis eventually held many faculty and administrative positions during his tenure. He retired in 1997 with the title of Professor Emeritus in the Department of Music and Dance. Tillis served as Director Emeritus of the University Fine Arts Center and Director of the Jazz in July Workshops in Improvisation. He died on May 3, 2020.

Tillis wrote music which was influenced by Schoenberg, Bach, Prokofiev, Mussorgsky, African-American composers, and world music.

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about the concert that is coming up tomorrow night at Orchestra Hall.  What music will be presented, and how did that coalesce into a cohesive program?

KGR:   The ensemble is the brainchild of the Director of the Center for Black Music Research, Samuel Floyd Jr.  A lot of the work and the research has been done through the Center, and the programming has been done in conjunction with it.  This will be my second time with this ensemble.  I had a wonderful opportunity to conduct them last September at Alice Tully Hall for their New York debut.  [More about this concert is at the end of the interview.]  The thrust of the concert is to present an historical overview, and historical context of works by black composers, starting with earlier works, then interspersed with solo interludes that are also historical in time, and coming forth to the present.

BD:   As to the present, you’ve even included a world premiere by Olly Wilson.  Is it special to present a work for the first time and launch it on the world?

KGR:   I’m excited!  I’m thrilled!  I met Dr. Wilson many years ago, and also when he was in Boston where he had been commissioned to write a work for the Boston Symphony Orchestra for their 100th anniversary.  He was one of several composers for that celebration.  [Others included Leonard Bernstein, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, John Corigliano, Roger Sessions, Andrzej Panufnik, Sándor Balassa, Peter Lieberson, John Harbison, Sir Michael Tippett, Leon Kirchner, and Donald Martino.]  I always wanted to do something, and to have the opportunity to work with the composer there, and to find out exactly what he had in mind and what his intentions were in the score.  It’s very exciting to bring this to life for the first time.

BD:   Do you look forward to having comments from the composer who is present, or would you rather that the composer stay out of the way, at least until the last rehearsal?

KGR:   No, it’s helpful along the way because some of those questions can be answered right in the beginning.  At some point the piece does take on a life, and it has to go by itself, but I welcome the comments.

BD:   Even when the composer is not present, do you feel that he or she is there on your shoulder looking over things?

KGR:   Always!  [Both laugh]  Even Beethoven!  The composer is there, and it’s nice to have the composer there because I try to be very true to the intentions of what the composer put on paper and has written.  Sometimes that can be unclear, and at this point you have a chance to ask right then and there what he wants, and what kind of sound exactly it is that he’s looking for.  Now we can have this exchange, and it’s very exciting.  I have that opportunity in Germany where I have an ensemble that I founded to perform contemporary American music.  It’s a professional ensemble, and we have composers there, and we work together.  This is a very rewarding experience for everyone involved.

BD:   These are American composers who are working in Germany?

KGR:   Not only American composers who are working in Germany, but also just to present contemporary American composers to the German public.

BD:   If this new piece by Olly Wilson goes very well, perhaps you will take it over to Germany?

KGR:   I would love to.  It will be very good because a lot of times all the contemporary American music that is performed there is Philip Glass.  Many of the avant-garde minimalists are also known there, but other works are not known, and works by black composers are very much not known there.  So I have my Ensemble American, as it’s called, to present those kinds of works.

BD:   How many concerts do you give over there a year?

KGR:   We’re in our second season, so we’re actually just getting off the ground.  We’re doing two concerts a year, and receive funding from the Cultural Department from the City of Stuttgart.

BD:   Dennis Russell Davies was there.

KGR:   Yes!

BD:   It sounds very exciting to be able to take something that is part of you and part of your heritage, and bring it to other parts of the world.

KGR:   Yes, and it’s very interesting with the works of the black composer, particularly Of Visions and Truth from this concert, because the elements of black heritage are in it.  There are Spirituals and Blues, and you hear the elements all come together.  One of the movements has the very familiar tune Shortnin
Bread in it.  Those tunes are very much part of the heritage.  I grew up on the Fisk University campus, and the Jubilee Singers went out to sing Spirituals in the world.  It becomes part of one’s heritage, and its very much a part of the language of the contemporary black composers.  [To see a list of the black musicians (composers, conductors, performers) whom I have interviewed, click HERE.]

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BD:   When you’re working with an ensemble, either here in the States or in Germany, is all of your work done in rehearsal, or do you leave something for that spark at performance?

KGR:   I try not to leave anything.  Of course, at the concert there’s an excitement, an adrenaline that happens, but I don’t pull any surprises.  [Both laugh]  What happens at a concert is that the chemistry connects with the excitement of the moment, and everybody works very hard.  That feeling may be saved for the performance itself.
BD:   Can I assume you don’t want each performance to be an exact duplicate of the previous performance?

KGR:   No, and I don’t think there ever will be.

BD:   What makes each one different?

KGR:   Many elements.  The new works become more familiar, and you find something new to bring into the reading.  Each one becomes more of a part of you.  It becomes more natural, and you can grow with it and then go with it.  Many conductors come back to works time and time again.  Bernstein was always exploring and working with them.  You always find something new that you hadn’t seen before, and so each performance is very much different.

BD:   It’s a constant process?

KGR:   It’s an endless process.

BD:   Is there ever a time in your life when you are not conscious of the music that you are about to do?

KGR:   Occasionally, but those are rare moments.

BD:   I just wondered if you get away from it all just a little bit to refresh.

KGR:   Occasionally, but it’s very much there, even when I’m not always thinking about one specific thing or another.

BD:   Do you go to lots of performances to hear other interpretations?

KGR:   Yes, I do go and listen.  I had a sabbatical leave for a year, and was in Germany, and heard many, many performances and conductors.

BD:   Do you learn what to do, and also what not to do?

KGR:   Usually.  [Both laugh]  It’s very enlightening and always wonderful to see others work with organizations, and watch how they interact.  If I can get to a rehearsal, that is more interesting.

BD:   What advice do you have for composers who want to write for the symphony orchestra?

KGR:   Do it!  Then, talk with the conductor to try to work out some of these things they may want to do.  It’s very difficult because you have to have an orchestra to perform your work.  That’s one thing with Ensemble American... it’s a small chamber orchestra, so it makes it a little more accessible for a composer to have performances done.  Accessibility to an ensemble also makes it a much more practical situation.

BD:   What advice do you have for players who would like to be orchestral musicians?

KGR:   [Sighs]  It’s also a long process.  I’m a violinist, and went to Yale University as a violin performance major.  [See her yearbook photo below-left.]  You have to practice, and be familiar with the orchestral works, but know them almost like a conductor.  You have to be able to know how the parts fit into the total, and come to it in a very analytical way.

BD:   Should anyone who is going to play in an orchestra take a class or two in conducting?

KGR:   Yes!  Conducting and orchestration, so that one has an understanding.  Also take a class in Form and Analysis just so that you have an understanding how everything moves together.  It’s very helpful.

BD:   You conduct in different halls all over the world.  Do you change your style of conducting if it’s a large hall or a small hall?

KGR:   It depends on the acoustics of the hall, whether it’s a very lively hall or a dry one, or whether things must be changed accordingly to try to get the sound that works in that particular hall.  This will be my first time at Orchestra Hall, which I’m very much looking forward to.

BD:   I hope the acoustics meet with your approval.

KGR:   I’ve heard concerts there.  I heard part of the rehearsal on Saturday of the Civic Orchestra led by my former teacher, Margaret Hillis.  She was doing the Bruckner Eighth.  It’s a wonderful hall, and it was wonderful to see her, and hear that orchestra.

BD:   I would think that the conductor is really in the worst position to balance the orchestra, since you’re standing in the midst of the strings.

KGR:   In one way there are certain problems, and it’s always nice to have a pair of ears out in the hall to hear things.  But once you get to know a hall, then you know how it works from that standpoint.  Actually, the conductor has almost the best seat because you hear everything.  It’s right there, and everything is perfectly clear.

BD:   Even for balancing?

KGR:   You can do that, yes.  It’s not too problematical.  If you’re not familiar with the hall, there may be some things you need to know exactly.  But once you become familiar with the hall, it becomes like your home.  If you’re working there on a regular basis, then it’s easier.  It’s more difficult if you’re just coming in for the first time, as we will be for this concert, with one rehearsal and then that’s it.

BD:   Is that frustrating at all?  Do you wish you had two or three rehearsals?

KGR:   I wish I had the hall!  [Both burst out laughing]

BD:   In Lowell, where you are on a regular basis, are you comfortable with that acoustic, and do you find that you still need to make adjustments?

KGR:   I know it like the back of my hands, and I can make whatever adjustments that I need.  I know what is working there.

BD:   Do you always try to get the most and the best out of each player?

KGR:   I try to get 150% out of each player!  [Laughs]  I’ve never had the experience where one would not give their best or more than their best.  The players that I’ve worked with always give much more.  They give 150%, just to go beyond what they can do, and that’s a very rewarding experience for me.

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BD:   Let me ask the big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music?

KGR:   [Thinks a moment]  Music brings a meaning to each person, and it is usually a different meaning.  It’s a part of me.  It’s how I express myself.  It reaches one’s soul.  It’s very difficult to define the meaning, but it’s how it touches each individual, and for each individual it’s very different.

BD:   You work with what is called Concert Music.  Is that music for everyone?

KGR:   Concert Music can be for everyone, but it’s not made for everyone.  It’s not presented in a fashion for everyone.  Perhaps if it were made more accessible for everyone... it has a tendency to be more of an elitist situation.  If Concert Music were available more, and not made to be something that you have to dress up and go to a special place to see, then it would be very much more for everyone.

BD:   Should you be taking your orchestra to shopping malls and football stadiums?

KGR:   Orchestras do those kinds of things, and they have had very good success when it’s not this remote kind of animal that it is  so often in a hall.  But you can open up the halls and bring people in, and make it a situation where people do come when they’re interested.

BD:   Is there anything more that can be done to get more people into the existing halls?

KGR:   I don’t know exactly what has been going on with orchestras in terms of the major venues.  They make different kinds of concerts, different programs to bring more audiences in, and to have programs with discussions before concerts to get people there.  They are trying to make it much more of the American culture.  All symphony orchestras are making that effort to get it to be much more part of our own cultural institution, as opposed to something that’s removed.

BD:   Is this something you are trying to instill in young people?

KGR:   Yes, I’m very much involved with youth orchestras and younger players, and then also with my teaching.  When I am doing youth concerts, I talk to young kids and try to make it all a little bit more reachable for them.

BD:   Is this something that you can do just through your orchestra, or is it also through the selection process of music?

KGR:   I do it through concerts, performing, going out, playing, having kids come to concerts, having them on the stage, having them at rehearsals, coming into schools, coming to the rehearsals, having them sit between the players, having them conduct, all kinds of things.  You can get children very excited and interested in music at a very young age.
BD:   I would think that’d be a fascinating thing, to have several youngsters sitting in amongst the orchestra as it’s playing.

KGR:   Yes!  It’s fun and they love it, and then they want to do it themselves.

BD:   Do they then go away being better audiences?

KGR:   Yes, and much more attentive and excited about it the next time they go to a concert.

BD:   When you’re on the podium conducting, are you conscious of the audience that is behind you?

KGR:   Ah, no.  [Laughs]

BD:   [Surprised]  Not at all???

KGR:   I
m aware that there’s an audience behind meat least I hope there’s an audience behind me! [both laugh]but my focus is on the music, and the players, and making the music at that time.  As it says in that cartoon, I don’t turn around until after the music stops!

BD:   Have we finally gotten to the time when it is not surprising to have a woman conductor?

KGR:   No!

BD:   Are we making progress?

KGR:   There’s some progress.  Catherine Comet was recently here in Chicago, and there are a few more women who are now conducting, but it’s still rare.  If you want to say there’s progress, yes, maybe...

BD:   Progress but too slow?

KGR:   It’s a much more complicated issue than just that.  In general, American conductors are not as active on the podium in the United States.  But, you have many more men involved, and then you have women of European background, and then there are American women.

BD:   For a long time, it was just Margaret Hillis here in Chicago, Sarah Caldwell in Boston, Eve Queler with the Opera Orchestra of New York, and that was about it.  Now we’re getting a few more.

KGR:   Yes, you’re starting to see more coming along and now performing, and then there are those in the conservatories.  But they’re still invisible being involved as Music Directors.  In terms of major orchestras, I think Catherine Comet is the only one.  I first got involved in conducting while I was in graduate school.  I went to Yale as a violin major, took a conducting class, and lo and behold, I became a conducting major.  Otto-Werner Muller was the teacher at Yale University.  I was taking his class, and he gave me an opportunity to conduct the orchestra.  As a result of what I did with the orchestra, he very much encouraged my becoming a conducting major.  So I actually became a double major.  One summer we had the Choral Institute programs, which Margaret Hillis organized, and I worked with her there.  I admired her work very much, and she was a role model for me.

BD:   Do you continue with the violin now?

KGR:   Yes.  I can’t get away from it.  I have had too many years of being involved with it, and I certainly wouldn’t want to give it up.  I used to play professionally with the National Symphony Orchestra, so I had orchestral experience.  Now I use my violin for chamber music, and other kinds of things that I’m involved in, such as new works.  The rest of my time is spent conducting.
BD:   You would much rather spend your time conducting orchestras than aspiring, say, to be Concert Mistress of the Chicago Symphony?

KGR:   That’s not a goal for me at the moment.  I still play in an orchestra in the New England area, but my primary focus is on conducting.

BD:   I’m glad to hear that you’re still involved in chamber music.  That seems to be the best way to keep involved in different kinds of things and different scores, rather than just being an orchestral player.

KGR:   Yes, and an orchestral situation takes longer.  You have to go to rehearsals, and usually they want a regular player there.  Most of the time I’m just there in a substitute capacity.

BD:   In chamber music, there’s much more of a give-and-take amongst all of the players.
KGR:   Yes.  It’s great fun to make chamber music.  It’s an exciting process to get together, and you can do it with friends.  You can read many works, and it doesn’t have to be quite a formal structure.

BD:   With chamber music being give-and-take, when you’re conducting an orchestra, is there still a give-and-take, or are you much more dictatorial about what you want to have?

KGR:   No, I’m not dictatorial.  Again, it depends on the situation, but if you have musicians
as in the ensemble that I’m conducting this Wednesday, who are wonderfully trained musiciansthey have creative ideas themselves.  Then, when you give them the freedom to do that, it works.  You can’t necessarily hold a stick over their heads and say it should be a certain way, because they bring their own creativity to it.  When they’re very musical, and they have a good idea, and it works, I have no objection to that, so you really do have this give-and-take.

BD:   That way it’s more collaborative?

KGR:   Absolutely!  It makes for a very healthy atmosphere.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you expected to be as you pass your fortieth birthday?

KGR:   [Thinks a moment]  I’m not sure at what point I expected to be at this point of my life.  I enjoy what I’m doing.  It’s not a particular goal that I’m making music.  I love making it, and right now I’m having a wonderful exchange.  Each musical experience brings something new to my life, and I’m very rich for it.

BD:   Thank you for being a conductor, and for spending some time with me today in the midst of your busy schedule.

KGR:   I just wish we had more time to explore what Chicago has to offer.  It seems very exciting.  They work us hard, but it’s fun.

BD:   Will you be back next year with the same kind of concert?

KGR:   There are two of us who are alternating on a regular basis.  Michael Morgan is now the other conductor, and I’m not sure who’s supposed to be going next.  [Laughs]  It depends on our schedules.

BD:   They’ve issued a recording of him conducting the concert from St. Louis.  [LP cover is shown above-right.  More about this specific item is added below.].

KGR:   Right.  It’s a very worthwhile ensemble, and these works should be recorded because they’re not known.  After our performance in New York, many people were asking where they could hear this music and get more information.  It is invaluable to have this documented.

BD:   We will all encourage the Center to continue its work.  Thank you so much.

KGR:   Thank you.

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[The following is a brief excerpt from my interview with Donnie Ray Albert]

Albert:   As an African-American, I try to stick with the things that we do, as well as the things that I do on a whole as a musician in general, in keeping the public aware of the various things that are happening.  I think that people will be pleased with what they hear from the Center of Black Music Research ensemble, because it’s a good group of performers.

BD:   Where was the recording made?

Albert:   In Sheldon Hall, St. Louis.  There’s a picture of it on the front cover.  It was during the convention at the College Music Society.  They and the Center for Black Music Research were correlating their conventions at the same time.  They were having their meetings, so we had that culminating concert.  It was recorded live in the hall.  [The LP (shown above-right) presents a portion of that concert.  Several of the items on that program were repeated the following September in Alice Tully Hall in New York City.  The review in The New York Times said,
Mr. Albert was heard to good effect in Will Marion Cooks Three Negro Songs (1912), a jazzy set that foreshadows the work Gershwin would do nearly two decades later’.  Also appearing were soprano Hilda Harris, and tenor William Brown.  The conductor for the St. Louis performance (and recording) was Michael Morgan.  The conductor at Tully Hall in New York was Kay George Roberts.]

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© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on February 4, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following day, and again in 1995 and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.