A life devoid of mediocrity
Appreciation: Legacy of Robert Hall Lewis, teacher, music-supporter and great composer,
includes works unmatched in refinement, sophistication, richness of texture and inventiveness.
March 28, 1996|By Gordon C. Cyr, SPECIAL TO THE BALTIMORE SUN
The eminent composer Robert Hall Lewis died last Friday, just before his 70th birthday and barely a year into his retirement from Goucher College and the Peabody Institute. He is survived by his wife, Barbara, and his daughter, Renata. He is survived as well by his beautiful music: more than 70 orchestral works, including four symphonies and innumerable chamber works. Especially noteworthy among the latter are four string quartets, the last two of which are intense, highly concentrated examples of some of the best work in that medium done in our time.
But Bob, as he was known to friends and colleagues alike, was a lot more than a fine composer, although that fact alone would ensure a high place in the music-world's regard. He was also supportive of the cause of new music in the greater Baltimore musical community. Bob was an excellent conductor, and not only of his own music, in which he led assorted London ensembles for two compact digital discs of his works, but of difficult works by other contemporary composers as well.
Bob was an exemplary teacher, as his students would attest. He held his charges to the strictest standards -- standards to which he held himself most of all. His vast knowledge and experience of orchestration alone served his students well; many have achieved prominence in the musical world.
One of Bob's many values to the musical community was as a "gadfly." One might describe him as the "town scold." He deplored mediocrity and compromised standards, and he railed eternally against the temporizing repertory choices of performing and presenting institutions. Still, he was successful in gaining performances of his music in several notable venues, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the American Composers Orchestra.
For many years, Bob was the music director of the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore, a presenter of chamber music with emphasis on the living composer. The distinction of the society's programs owes everything to Bob's stewardship, and it will be a hard task to find someone to fill his now empty shoes. It will be difficult as well to find another "gadfly," and especially one whose criticism was tempered with an abiding love of music and extreme goodwill toward his colleagues and students whose efforts he so generously supported.
It is as a composer, however, that Bob Lewis is simply irreplaceable. There is no other music like his -- in refinement, sophistication, richness of texture and inventiveness. The over-riding description is "beautiful," and beyond that, words are wanting. If it were not for the over-production of composers today, if it were not for the vast publicity machines garnered by them for self-promotion, if it were not that performing institutions by and large refuse to take risks in their selection of new music, if it were not that the music industry in this country is geared to the promotion of "stars," then Bob would be recognized for the great composer that he was.
But Bob was too busy creating music to bother himself with these things. When he was not writing music, he was supporting that of others. For all these things he will be sorely missed -- by his family, his friends, his colleagues and his students. The musical community -- and the music world -- has lost a true friend.
[Gordon C. Cyr is a composer and Professor Emeritus of Music Theory and Composition at Towson State University. He is president of the Chamber Music Society of Baltimore.]
© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 3, 1990. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1996. This transcription was made in 2017, 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.