For 21 years, Robert Charles Howard worked tirelessly to bring the cream of classical music to Belleville Philharmonic Orchestra audiences.
Orff’s stirring “Carmina Burana.” Stravinsky’s daunting “Firebird.” Beethoven’s colossal Ninth.
Selecting pieces that many community orchestras wouldn’t even attempt, Howard exhorted his musicians on to masterful performances under his baton. Not just as an orchestra conductor, either. In 2003, he took over the reins of the Philharmonic Chorale as well. If that weren’t enough, Howard, a talented composer, has treated metro-east audiences to several of his own works.
But, say his orchestra members, just as important as his love for music was the love and respect he showed the musicians. Hired in 1995 at a time of turmoil within the society, Howard used his people skills to produce a larger, more cohesive group that is more talented than ever. Maybe that’s why he made it to No. 2 on the list of longest-serving conductors in the society’s history — second only to Gustave Neubert way back in 1885-1910.
“He is one of the kindest people I have ever worked with for conducting,” said oboist Lisa McCoy, who joined the orchestra 10 years ago and is now the orchestra’s personnel manager. “He’s just very warm and genuine. I guess genuine is a very good word because what you see is what you get.”
Then there’s the fun factor.
“He is a great lover of puns, so the orchestra grew accustomed to the occasional humorous exchanges that would result equally in laughs and groans,” said principal cellist and society President Ethan Edwards. “His wit and intelligence are an integral part of his leadership.”
You only have to scan his Facebook page to get a taste of that warmth and wit.
“Thought for Thursday: Why not live your day well enough to qualify as someone’s good example?” he suggested recently.
Sometimes he even drags Robin, both his wife and frequent musical partner, along for the ride.
“Robin and I have been going to the Y. So far it seems to be working out.”
But after two decades of putting smiles on faces, Howard brought sad news to his musicians recently when he announced he is retiring at the end of this season and moving to Colorado. His final concert will be at 7:30 Saturday night at Union United Methodist Church.
He is one of the kindest people I have ever worked with for conducting. He’s just very warm and genuine. I guess genuine is a very good word because what you see is what you get.
Lisa McCoy on Howard’s personality
He will go out in a blaze of glory: His final piece will be his own “Wilderness Reflections,” which he was commissioned to write to commemorate last year’s 100th anniversary of Rocky Mountain National Park. The text of the cantata includes three of his own poems and, among the soloists, will be his wife, an accomplished soprano.
Some thought the maestro would stick around for at least one more year, considering this fall will mark a milestone — the start of the orchestra’s 150th consecutive season. That is believed to be second only to the New York Philharmonic (1842) among orchestras in continuous operation.
“So did I,” Howard said recently while enjoying a cup of coffee in his historic Charles King-designed home on South Missouri in Belleville. “But we just decided now was the time. The clock is running. I’m 72. We want to enjoy the outdoors while we still have the physical energy for it. So that’s part of the reasoning.
“And another is just kind of exhaustion in a way. I’ve been working hot and heavy for really a number of years. It’s just like I’m feeling the wear and tear, you know, a little bit.”
It also will bring his life full circle. As he was growing up, his older brother, Jim, helped spur his lifelong love of classical music. Now, Jim, a former physicist, is 79 and residing in a Boulder, Colo., convalescent center. Howard is his brother’s guardian and wants to share the love and caring that Jim showed him so many years ago.
“It’s been a lot of pleasure working with someone who’s such a fluent composer and very musical,” said concertmaster Philip Tinge, who has been playing with the society since 1978. “So I’m sad, but glad for him. I’m glad that he’s getting to go and spend that quality time with his family that a lot of people just don’t get to do these days. And before they know it, they’ve lost that chance.”
In love with music
While growing up in the Detroit suburb of Allen Park, Howard, whose parents met while they themselves were playing music on a cruise ship, was introduced to many of the major classical pieces through his brother’s record collection. A talented clarinetist, Jim also took him to Detroit Symphony concerts, New York City Opera performances and on visits to a local radio station music critic.
“Then, I started writing music. My brother looked at what I was doing and said, ‘If you’re going to write music, you’ve got to know what it’s all about,’ so he brought me theory books and musical scores. My brother doesn’t suffer fools lightly, but he does encourage. He was a great teacher. I wouldn’t be able to do anything that I do except for the encouragement that he gave me. He legitimized a dream, and he also put bones on the dream, you might say.”
Howard, a budding poet, entered Eastern Michigan University as a literature major before finally switching to music and earning a bachelor of science in music in 1967. He immediately went on to earn a master’s in composition at Michigan State, studying under highly regarded American composer H. Owen Reed. It was Reed who recommended Howard for his first teaching job at Meramec Community College in Kirkwood, Mo.
For the next 31 years, Howard would be a fixture not only in the Meramec music department but around the area as well. He took over the Meramec Orchestra in 1974 and was choir director for Eliot Unitarian Chapel for 10 years, which included a stint leading the Greenleaf Singers. He also conducted the first performances of the Rockwood Symphony.
It was also at Meramec that he met his wife, Robin.
“A dear friend of mine knew I liked to sing, and I hadn’t sung in a choir in a long time,” Robin recalled. “She wanted to sing in the choir but she didn’t want to go by herself. We found out they were having auditions so she dragged me into his office.”
Her heartstrings did not exactly go zing at that first meeting.
At the time he had this horrible goatee and he was wearing a dashiki. And I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’
Robin Howard on meeting Robert
“At the time he had this horrible goatee and he was wearing a dashiki,” she said, breaking up in laughter at the memory. “And I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”
For the next couple of years, the two maintained a standard student-teacher relationship.
“I was a student worker for a long time,” she said. “I didn’t even think about romantic stuff in any way, shape or form. I needed money to go to school. But I guess after a couple of years, we kind of liked each other a lot and one day he was like, ‘Would you like to go get coffee?’ and I went, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’”
Now they’re closing in on their 30th anniversary with their blended family — his son, Seth, and her children, Dawn and William, along with six grandchildren. Robert has traded his goatee for a handsome white mustache and his dashiki for more standard concert garb. It’s a harmony at home (“Most of the time,” Robin said with a laugh) that extends to their frequent performances together.
“Yes, it has,” said Robin when asked if things had worked out the way she thought. “The kids really liked him. That was a big jump right there. He’s a lot of fun. Actually, my ex-husband liked him a lot, too, and we’re all still really good friends. It’s really great.”
In 1995, their lives took a sharp turn when the Belleville Philharmonic directorship opened up for the second time in three years. It was a position Howard was well acquainted with, having guest-lectured at a Belleville violin school in the 1980s. So when friends encouraged him to apply in 1992 when John McEnulty’s contract was not renewed, he did so eagerly.
“I was really attracted to the whole idea,” he said. “Oh, my gosh. They’re doing the Nutcracker! Man, would I love to do that! And I also realized the unique situation that Belleville has the luxury of not being near any other orchestra, so we get the music teachers; we get the people with the strong performance background.”
Howard, however, lost out initially to a metro-east man, Alfred Duckett. Then in 1995, just as he had signed papers to build a new house in Eureka, Mo., Howard was asked to be Duckett’s assistant, since Duckett was now commuting from South Carolina. Days later, Duckett refused to sign a new contract, and Howard became the conductor.
It was a tumultuous time for the orchestra, and some may have wondered if Howard knew what he was walking into. Not only had Duckett left, but the group’s youth orchestra director and two chorale directors quit within a short time as well. Drawing on what he calls his “congenial skill set” that comes from being a player (flute and piano), singer, teacher, director and composer, Howard put the pieces back together, saying his goal was to make music not worry about politics.
“I come from a kind of a heritage,” he said. “My father (who played guitar) was a precision tool maker. My brother is a physicist. So I’m used to working at a high technical standard. That’s what I hoped to bring to the orchestra, combined with the fact that I respect them. They know they’re not going to get yelled at, screamed at. They’re not going to be abused. I will help them.
... When you see people come walk in the door, they could be your dentist, they could be an attorney, they could be nurses — these are all people whose contributions to the community are outstanding. And they’re coming here with their talents. How can I not respect them and value them and be grateful that these are the people I have to work with?
Robert Charles Howard on his orchestra members
“Because when you see people come walk in the door, they could be your dentist, they could be an attorney, they could be nurses — these are all people whose contributions to the community are outstanding. And they’re coming here with their talents. How can I not respect them and value them and be grateful that these are the people I have to work with?”
It has been a formula for success pretty much since day one, Edwards said.
“Some conductors are first and foremost focused on the demands of the music, and that determination can create a rehearsal atmosphere of fear and anxiety,” he said. “Robert never let that happen. I really can’t remember an instance in the years I’ve been playing when Robert made a player feel bad. He really cherishes the fact that we are all volunteers and doing this out of love of music-making together.”
The result, Howard says, has been an orchestra that has grown in numbers and talent while dropping in age, an encouraging sign that under the right new leadership the group will continue long after he leaves.
“We now have a brass section that’s amazing,” he said. “What they can do, it’s like you’re walking into something like the St. Louis Symphony. The woodwind section as well has been strong. But also a lot of string players who are basically 30-something to 40-something and even younger than that. So the average age of the orchestra has dropped probably a decade over the last 10 years. And the Youth Orchestra is in resurgent mode, too.”
The orchestra quickly learned of Howard’s composition talents, too. To help plan the concert season, a music committee asks musicians what they would like to play. Howard said he was overwhelmed to see “anything by Howard” included on the list.
Put it all together, and it made moving to Belleville from Eureka just before Christmas in 2000 an easy choice. Since then, they have made many close friends worshiping, playing and singing at St. George’s Episcopal Church and teaching at McKendree University even as he made sure the orchestra became involved in such community events as Art on the Square and Belleville’s Bicentennial celebration.
Come October, it’s going to feel “weird” not getting ready for what would have been his 63rd performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet with Patti Harrington’s Belleville School of Ballet, Howard said. They’ll miss St. George’s, the arts series at Union United Methodist Church, the many soloists who have played with them and their east end home that they now are spending long hours preparing to sell.
“But I can’t do this forever, and I don’t want to get to the point where I’m being wheeled out in a wheelchair to try to conduct,” said Howard, who also has taught at Webster University and UMSL. “I want to leave before my powers are spent. It’s going to be difficult. It’s painful, but at the same time, it’s right.”
The search for new leaders for both the orchestra and chorale is well under way, Edwards said. Several “really great” candidates have a applied and, next month, a final group of prospects will be invited to conduct various ensembles so the musicians can assess their styles and temperaments. Edwards hopes a final choice will be made by June so work on next season’s programming can begin.
Howard promises to help in the change any way he can. He says he is particularly proud that his last gift to the community he has come to love will be an orderly transition so the society can glide right into another 150 years.
“The orchestra and chorale are both in very good health right now — maybe the best ever — so what better time to turn it over to someone new?” said Howard, who already has been asked to do fill-in conducting chores with the Oratorical Society of Estes Park while the leader (and friend) Kathryn Bowers goes on an around-the-world tour next year.
“Belleville and its Philharmonic Orchestra will always be in our hearts,” he said. “I have so many people to be grateful for, and I could not afford the tuition to go to a school that would teach me as much about conducting as this orchestra has. I know the strength and talents of this wonderful community of musicians will continue on indefinitely. The future is bright.”
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.