If you want to understand Robert Charles Howard in a nutshell, just come to his final concert with the Belleville Philharmonic Society Saturday night at Union United Methodist Church in Belleville.
In just two hours, you’ll see and hear almost everything that makes this 72-year-old conductor and modern Renaissance man tick. His appetite for history. His renewed interest in poetry. His love of family. His passion for nature and travel. And his deep appreciation for all things musical — from his making a rudimentary flute out of a pipe as a youngster to teaching flute lessons in his home to publishing a book on flute technique as a distinguished musician and composer.
“I’m very excited about this concert,” he said as he prepared to wrap up 21 years of conducting the nation’s second-oldest continuously performing philharmonic orchestra. “I think it’s going to be as good as anything I’ve ever done.”
The “American Music Celebration” will open in lively fashion with black American composer William Grant Still’s “Festive Overture.” For nearly a decade, Still’s 1930 Symphony No. 1 (“Afro-American”) was the most performed American work of music, Howard said. Of course, some may remember him best for arranging scores for such movies as “Pennies from Heaven” and “Lost Horizon” and writing music for “Perry Mason” and “Gunsmoke.”
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“His ‘Festive Overture’ is a fascinating piece,” Howard said. “It kind of ties into a whole bunch of traditions. You can hear a little bit of Victor Herbert, a little bit like Copland, a little bit like Gershwin. It has a little bit of a bluesy feeling, a little bit of spiritual background. So it comes together as just a real unique and expressive chapter of Americana.”
Next comes a piece that Still likely came to love after it premiered in 1942: Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” as narrated by Tom Sudholt of the St. Louis Radio Arts Foundation. Even 150 years after Abraham Lincoln’s death and 70 years after it premiered, the work is as fresh and meaningful as ever to Howard.
Finally, the pièce de résistance in which everything comes together: Howard’s own “Wilderness Reflections,” which he was commissioned to write by the Oratorical Society of Estes Park, Colo., for the 100th anniversary of Rocky Mountain National Park. It premiered last June during two gala concerts in Colorado.
The work shows off Howard’s much-in-demand composing skills, which he has been honing ever since he began scribbling notes on a piece of his mom’s blank staff paper that he had found as a youngster. In the years since, his works have been performed by groups ranging from the Kirkwood and Webster symphonies to the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. Local audiences may remember such pieces as “Dr. Einstein Speaks” and “Vision Quest,” which was commissioned to celebrate the Belleville Philharmonic Chorale’s 135th anniversary in 2002.
“Wilderness Reflections” also will show off another side of Howard: his love of words that he learned early before largely putting it aside for his music. Then, while writing his musical piece "Voyage of Discovery" about Lewis and Clark, he rediscovered his own fondness for poetry.
“I kept asking people would you write the text for me,” Howard said. “‘Well, no,’ they kept saying. Well, I guess it’s up to me. So I did. I started writing poetry. That piece left me exhausted, but at the same time I had all this leftover creative energy, so I started writing poetry on its own and haven’t stopped since.”
In “Wilderness Reflections,” he incorporates the work of poet and environmental activist Wendell Berry and three of his own poems into his composition to paint a musical picture of the grandeur of nature through the year.
Howard will be moving to the mountains of Colorado later this year so it’s fitting that his wife, Robin, will be singing one of the solos. The voices of Barbara Compton, Jonathan Cole, Donald Stogner and Stephen and Teresa Schmidt also will be featured.
“I needed something big for the ending,” explained Howard, who said Berry’s poems were too short and lacked the grandeur he needed.
So on Saturday, the curtain will come down on his long Belleville Philharmonic career with his own music, his own words and his love for life: “The whole earth resounds with the exuberant songs of nature’s majestic harmony.”
Concert at a glance
- When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Union United Methodist Church, 721 East Main St. in Belleville
- Advance tickets: $7-$15 at Happy Hop Homebrew, 122 E. Main St., and Fletcher’s, 6101 West Main St., both in Belleville, or through www.bellevillephilharmonic.org (a small convenience fee will be added online)
- Tickets at the door: $10-$18.