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'Oboe Joe' Robinson: Doing Good by Doing Well

Joe Robinson performs at the 1993 Charlotte kickoff for the Quiet Resolve campaign
Joe Robinson '62 performs at the 1993 Charlotte kickoff for the Quiet Resolve campaign.

As a Davidson student, young Joe Robinson '62 was so unsure of his future direction in life that he now calls his younger self the "president of the undecideds."

But he was already an accomplished oboist even then, and his love of music stayed front and center of his mind and heart. One day, that musical passion took shape in a very specific thought: "I just knew that if I were lucky enough to get into work like that, I would still have work late in life."

And that is what has happened.

Since retiring as longtime principal oboe with the New York Philharmonic in 2005–after more than 4,000 concerts–"Oboe Joe" has remained busily engaged in the world of classical music. For instance, he was artist-in-residence first at Duke University and now at Lynn University's Conservatory of Music in Boca Raton, Fla. He has co-produced an award-winning documentary based on a concert he gave in New York City's Riverside Church, and participated numerous summer seasons in the Bellingham (Wash.) Festival of Music.

Much has changed in Robinson's long career, but his love for the music remains steady. He's glad that's true for his young students, too.

"It still amazes me that Western classical music is still so compelling and irresistible around the world," said Robinson, who works at Lynn with students from Macedonia and Uzbekistan, from South America and across Asia. "Young players continue to be as captivated, smitten and completely involved in playing this music. They still want to play Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and Brahms."

Robinson traces his own young love of instrumental music to a junior high infatuation.

"I wandered over to get in the band program because I was smitten by a little girl who played the oboe," he said.

As it turns out, the Lenoir (N.C.) High School Band was one of the top programs in the country at the time. It was the longstanding result of a post-World War I donation of instruments for veterans and the professional directorship of one Capt. James Harper, a Davidson alumnus and trustee.

That example of the relationship between philanthropy and art would circle back later in Robinson's life, as well as in the musical life of Davidson College.

Lifelong Gift

The musical life of Davidson College in 1958 was not all that it is now, Robinson remembers. That fall, with a freshman's $50 music scholarship and a borrowed relic of an instrument, young Joe stepped into Shearer Hall for his first rehearsal.

Folding chairs were lined up in place of chapel pews already removed in anticipation of the building's pending demolition.

The rehearsal was rough.

Oboe Joe Robinson '62
"Oboe Joe" Robinson '62.

"It sounded so awful I wondered if I had sacrificed my love of music on the altar of a liberal education!" Robinson said.

In retrospect, Robinson can see clearly that his liberal education has been a lifelong gift in its own right, one in perfect complement to his gift for music.

Also in the rearview, he can clearly see his younger self getting his academic behind kicked.

"I wrote home, 'It's killing me, but I love it,'" he recalled.

At the time, in addition to his studies, Robinson was traveling within a 100-mile radius of the college to perform gigs. "I don't think I have ever worked more... efficiently than I did my junior year at Davidson," he noted.

The support he felt at that time from the campus community solidified for him what he has come to understand now as one true and lasting value of a liberal arts education: the kind of real-time, real-space, personal connection to faculty, staff and fellow students that can't help but cultivate a growing personal connection to the broader world and the people in it.

"It seemed to me at that time that the college existed to help me solve my own problems," he said. "Davidson fulfilled the mission of incubating my life... That's what makes fundraising possible for colleges and universities, right?"

As a senior, Robinson had a revelation. His roommate David Jordan '62 had bet him he could make a better grade than Robinson had in music history class, which he proceeded to do. But when the pair later stepped across the hall to listen to the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on a hallmate's hi-fi, another thing became immediately clear.

"'Lord, he's tone deaf!' I thought," Robinson said. The realization gave him a deep, lifelong understanding of the difference between sensory experience of music and verbal descriptions of it.

In oboe, the sensory experience extends back, too, from the sound coming out of the instrument to musicians making their own reeds. That is a pursuit unto itself, said Robinson, a perpetual and oftentimes guarded quest for the grail of a perfect reed, on top of the exigencies of rehearsal and performance.

Well and Good

Forks in the road of Robinson's career, often navigated with guidance from Davidson classmates and others, have taken him around the world, from Germany, Alabama and Atlanta to Washington, D.C., the N.C. School of the Arts, and finally to Manhattan.

He attributes his success not only to musicianship, but, in the absence of conservatory training, to the solid grounding of his Davidson liberal arts education as an English major.

And Robinson's career has been punctuated from the start by colorful highlights: a post-graduate Fulbright Fellowship to Germany; oboe (and French cooking!) lessons as one of the last students of legendary oboist Marcel Tabuteau in Nice, France, in exchange for a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label; the time he lost track of his passport and tails and almost didn't make it to Brazil in time for a concert; the Japanese groupie who mistook him for a predecessor oboist, but then went on to become a Robinson student and is today Boston Symphony Orchestra principal oboist Keisuke Wakao.

And there was the time in Salzburg that Robinson's oboe music was nowhere to be found in his concert folder on stage, and so he played the entire Mahler symphony using the conductor's miniature working score. The conductor was Zubin Mehta.

Mehta played an important role in a crowning achievement for Robinson at Davidson, too. On Jan. 24, 1983, Mehta conducted the Donald B. Plott Memorial Concert at Davidson, an all-Bach program featuring Robinson on oboe and classmate William Workman '62, baritone.

The concert celebrated and raised money for the Plott Scholarship, just then established. Today, the Music Department annually awards the Plott Scholarship and others, up to $15,000 renewable, to up to three students of exceptional performance ability, irrespective of major.

Doing good by way of doing well is important to him, Robinson said, in the world of classical music and beyond.

"I've tried to bring forward in my own life the good citizenship and good values that were held valuable by my parents, and that were institutionalized in me at Davidson," he said.

And a final thought from the musician's musician: "A good musical phrase is worth a thousand words about it."

More Info (and Music!)

"Biscuits and Bach" radio interview, WDAV, 2012

"Classical Profiles: Joseph Robinson" WDAV, 2014