Robert Page, Grammy-Winning Choral Conductor and Educator

Samuel Barber “We Have Lost,” Carnegie Mellon Concert Choir

My mother was a choir director and music teacher with a life-long love of orchestral choral music. I regret that I didn’t share her love for the genre while she was alive, nor did I seek to gain a better appreciation for it with her help. Perhaps this post is partial atonement, in honor of her memory.

Robert Page (April 27, 1927-August 7, 2016) conducted choruses for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Symphony. His last academic appointment was with Carnegie Mellon University (my mother’s alma mater) from which he retired in 2013. CMU published this tribute in recognition of his many years of service to the university.

Page believed singers should be treated as professionals, not merely as volunteers. He created The Robert Page Singers in part to establish paid positions for vocalists.

He won two Grammy Awards for recordings of choral works by Carl Orff: “Catulli Carmina” with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (1968) and “Carmina Burana” with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Cleveland Orchestra (1976).


Seymour Lipkin, Piano Prodigy and Conductor

Mozart: Piano Sonata, K.V. 576, Mov. 1

Seymour Lipkin considered it a “moral responsibility” to stay true to the intentions of the composer and to not take a piece in a direction of one’s own choosing. He took this to such lengths that he would have actual dialogues with dead composers, as recounted in his New York Times obituary from an interview originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Seymour Lipkin Talks About Piano Music

Lipkin (May 14, 1927-November 16, 2015) came to fame in 1948 when he won first prize in the Rachmaninoff Fund Piano Contest at Carnegie Hall. But he had already received some acclaim three years before, when as a teenager he entertained the Allied troops with violinist Jascha Heifetz.

Chopin: Nocturne in F sharp Major, Op. 15, No. 2

Lipkin turned to conducting after his initial success as a pianist. He served as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic and was conducter of The Long Island Symphony and Joffrey Ballet. He also served on the faculty of the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music.


Sir David Willcocks, Choirmaster of Kings College Cambridge and Rolling Stones

King’s College Cambridge–“The Infant King”

I doubt there are many choirmasters who can list on their resume: performed at a royal wedding, recorded with the Rolling Stones and played piano on the beach during the invasion of Normandy. Those are just three of the remarkable achievements of Sir David Willcocks.

1992 Florida International Boychoir Festival

Long associated with the King’s Choir Cambridge, the Bach Choir and numerous other prestigious choral groups, Willcocks was both a beloved and demanding taskmaster, a director who insisted on discipline and perfection even from seven-year-old choirboys. During rehearsals, choristers were required to raise their hands if they committed an error.

Old Hundredth Psalm Tune, arr. by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Willcocks (December 30, 1919-September 17, 2015) may be best known for “Carols for Choirs,” which he edited with Reginald Jacques. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my mother was an organist and choir director, and I wonder if she used this book in her holiday programs.

Willcocks’ choir performed at the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 and directed the choral singers on the Stones’ 1969 hit “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He was knighted in 1977.

McNeil Robinson, Organist, Composer and Teacher

McNeil Robinson Plays Dupré at St. Mary the Virgin

For many years, my mother was a church organist and choral director, having begun her professional career as a teenager in Pittsburgh. Sometimes after school, I would accompany her to an empty church and watch her practice. For someone who was not particularly coordinated, she had amazing dexterity when it came to navigating three keyboards (manuals), a multitude of stops and foot pedals below. It’s amazing how athletic you have to be to play a pipe organ.

Organists and carillon ringers may be unique in that they cannot bring their instruments home to practice. Practice and performance happen in a particular place, on an instrument usually of someone else’s choosing. The organ often eclipses the organist: on the website for the NPR program “Pipedreams” is a listing and photo gallery of the organs and places that have been featured on the show.

McNeil Robinson (March 16, 1943-May 9, 2015) was familiar with a number of Manhattan organs throughout the course of his distinguished career: at St. Mary the Virgin (1932 Aeoolian-Skinner), Park Avenue Christian Church (1946 Casavante Frères), Holy Trinity Catholic Church (1927 Estey), and for nearly 50 years at the Park Avenue Synagogue (1926 Casavante Frères).

In Memory of McNeil Robinson–Park Avenue Synagogue

Robinson studied at Julliard in New York and at the University of Salamanca in Spain. For nearly two decades, he was the chair of the organ department at the Manhattan School of Music. His students have won more international awards than those of any other teacher.

The Park Avenue Synagogue website cites Robinson’s many commissions, including from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the San Francisco Symphony, and the American Guild of Organists.

McNeil Robinson Improvisation, Part 1

McNeil Robinson Improvisation, Part 2

Victor Salvi, Harpist and Maker of Harps

Victor Salvi on the Museo dell’Arpa Victor Salvi

Quick! How many harpists (string, not harmonica) can you identify by name? Before this post, I sadly could only come up with two–Harpo Marx and the late Derek Bell (of the Chieftains).

Victor Salvi (March 4, 1920-May 10, 2015) came from a family of musicians and musical instrument makers. (His brother, Alberto Salvi, was deemed “the greatest harpist of all time” by celebrated Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta.)

Salvi himself played with numerous distinguished orchestras, including the St. Louis Sinfonietta, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Arturo Toscanini.

Debussy “Le Mer” performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra

In the 1950s, he returned to his ancestral home in Italy and founded his own harp company, Salvi Harps, which has grown to become one of the pre-eminent makers of harps in the world.

“What is harp?”

Rolf Smedvig, Co-Founder of Empire Brass Quintet

In my younger days as a hack trombonist, I often felt like a second-class musician. So much attention was heaped on other instruments–guitars, pianos and violins in particular. By the time I was blowing a horn, brass luminaries like Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller had long left the stage. (OK, Miles Davis was still hittin’ it, but even he had become an opening act for Neil Young and Crazy Horse.) But by the late 1960s, brass began to step into the spotlight again. I was particularly thankful for Blood, Sweat and Tears and, to a lesser extent, Chicago.

And then there were ensembles like the Canadian Brass and Rolf Smedvig’s Empire Brass. They helped bring an enormous amount of respectability to brass players, recording critically-acclaimed albums, many with no reeds, no strings, just brass. The Empire Brass Quintet was the first brass ensemble to win a prestigious Walter W. Naumburg Foundation Prize. In the 51 years leading up to their award in 1976, the winners most often were–you guessed it–violinists, pianists or vocalists.

Smedvig(September 23, 1952-April 27, 2015) was a trumpet prodigy, first appearing with the Seattle Symphony at age 13 (I had barely mastered my spit valve by that age). Before he was 20, Leonard Bernstein had tapped him to be the trumpet soloist for the premiere of his Mass at the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Arts. In the same year, he became the youngest member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Seiji Ozawa.