Robert Howard celebrating 20 years as Philharmonic conductor

Rocky Mountain National Park is one of Robert Howard’s favorite places, so it was a thrill to compose a cantata for its 100th anniversary.

The Oratorio Society of Estes Park (Colo.) commissioned the piece, “Wilderness Reflections,” which will be performed at a celebratory concert in June.

“Robert is a friend, and I know he’s a good composer,” said the society’s conductor, Kathryn Bowers. “The music he writes is very accessible.”

Bowers is a part-time faculty member at Webster University in St. Louis. She met Howard while head of its choral and music education program for 24 years.

Howard, 71, of Belleville, is celebrating an anniversary of his own this summer. He has been conducting the Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra for 20 years.

“One of the biggest changes is that we’ve gotten more and more people with professional training in music,” he said. “About a third of our players have degrees, and many are teachers in area schools.”

Other orchestra members play music as a hobby. Howard is known for getting the best out of those with varied ability levels.

“He doesn’t get frazzled or make people feel bad about themselves, and that’s a gift,” said Concert Master Philip Tinge, 50, who has been playing violin with the orchestra since 1978.

Belleville Philharmonic Chorale will join the orchestra for “Musical Tapestry,” its final concert of the 149th season, at 3 p.m. Sunday at Lindenwood University Auditorium in Belleville.

Howard describes the first piece, “Te Deum,” as a “hymn of praise.” Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn wrote it in 1799 for Empress of Austria Maria Theresa.

“She was a singer,” Howard said. “She sang some of Haydn’s compositions. She loved his music and asked him to write this piece.”

Second on the concert program is “Alles was ihr tut” by Dietrich Buxtehude, a Danish-German organist and composer. It will feature solos by Teresa and Stephen Schmidt, along with two quartets.

Third is Maurice Ravel’s arrangement of “Pictures at an Exhibition.” Russian composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky wrote it in 1874 as a tribute to artist Viktor Hartmann.

“It’s a musical depiction of the exhibit (held after Hartmann’s death),” Howard said. “The individual movements are descriptions of the pieces themselves.”

Howard grew up in a Detroit suburb. His mother was an organist and entertainer, and his father played guitar. They met while performing on a cruise ship.

“(At 15) I found some blank staff paper, and I figured there was something wrong with that, so I put some notes on it,” Howard said.

“My brother Jim, who was a clarinetist, said, ‘If you are going to write music, you need to know something about it.’ He bought me theory books and took me to Detroit Symphony concerts and so forth.”

Howard earned a bachelor’s degree in music, focusing on piano, at Eastern Michigan University and a master’s in music composition at Michigan State University.

He worked 31 years at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, teaching music theory and conducting the Meramec Orchestra. Five years before retiring from that job, he was hired by the Philharmonic Society of Belleville.

“It’s a bigger challenge,” Howard said. “A community orchestra has an ongoing personality and higher skill level. At a college, people are passing through.”

Bowers concludes that Howard was a great college teacher, based on the way former students behave when they see him in public.

“They are so enthusiastic and happy to see him,” she said. “He always had ways of explaining music theory, which can be very hard to understand ... so students actually got it.”

Howard began leading the Belleville Philharmonic Chorale in 2003. His wife, Robin, is a soprano, a frequent soloist and helps with publicity. They have a blended family with three children and six grandchildren.

Beyond conducting, Howard composes music, writes poetry and enjoys traveling. He’s been to Rocky Mountain National Park several times, gaining inspiration for “Wilderness Reflections.”

“It uses mostly the text of Wendell Berry, the great poet, naturalist and environmental activist,” Howard said. “He’s also a farmer. He has a farm in Kentucky. I went to see him in February.”

Howard has composed several pieces for the Belleville orchestra and chorale. They include “Journey of Discovery,” a cantata they performed to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The organization has achieved stability under Howard’s leadership, Tinge said. “You don’t have a lot of turmoil. Everyone works as a team with a community goal.”