When you ask Robert Charles Howard for his greatest triumphs during his 21 seasons with the Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra, he doesn’t hesitate a second.
“Beethoven’s Ninth,” he replies instantly. “Need I say more?”
No, not really. It’s one of those monumental works of classical music usually reserved for professional groups: a long, difficult, demanding piece requiring a skilled orchestra and chorale. But in 2007, Howard wasn’t going to be scared off his quest to bring the entire Beethoven symphony cycle to what he hoped would be a thrilling climax.
It turned out to be more triumphant than he ever imagined.
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To understand this heartwarming story, you have to turn the clock back some 50 years when Howard was still learning how to conduct as a music student at Michigan State University. When his mom, an organist and entertainer herself, asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he suggested some musical scores so he could study them.
One of the scores she gave him was Beethoven’s Ninth. Howard still remembers opening the package.
“Mom, really! What did you get me this for? This is beyond!” he remembered saying, figuring he’d never be in a position to conduct the piece in his life.
For years, the manuscript gathered dust on a shelf. Now, fast forward 40 years. As Howard was preparing to conduct the piece with the Belleville Philharmonic nine years ago, he was having problems. The scores he had found just weren’t going to work without a lot of doctoring. Then he remembered the gift his mother had given him so long before.
“It matched perfectly,” he said.
After the final strains of Schiller’s emotional "Ode to Joy" faded from St. Paul Church’s sanctuary and the audience gave Howard and the musicians and singers a rousing ovation, Howard finally was able to truly thank his thoughtful parent.
“At the end of the performance, one of the things I did – which is sometimes done by conductors as a tribute to a piece — was I held up the score,” he said. “It was a tribute to Beethoven, but it was a double tribute to my mother as well.”
Help the Philharmonic
If you'd like to pay a lasting tribute to Robert Howard’s 21 years of work with the Belleville Philharmonic Society, he has an ideal suggestion: Contribute to a GoFundMe account to buy new percussion for the orchestra.
"Some of our percussion equipment, it seems, has been with the orchestra for almost as long as it has existed," said orchestra percussionist Eric Kohn, who set up the account.
He's exaggerating a little, considering the orchestra played its first concert on Jan. 26, 1867. But you get the idea.
"Our 32-inch timpani has seen much better days — most likely during the Nixon administration. Our suspended cymbal and crash cymbals are dented. Our concert snare drum is a beginner model, far from ideal for concert use. Any donation, no matter how big or small, will help the orchestra carry on a nearly 150-year tradition of beautiful classical music."
Kohn is working to raise $5,000, which also would be used for upkeep on other timpani and purchase a new tam-tam/gong. Since September, 12 people have donated $750. To contribute, go to www.gofundme.com and search for Belleville Philharmonic. Or just send a check to the society, 116 N. Jackson St., Belleville, IL 62220.