Joe Robinson, pre-eminent oboist for NY Philharmonic, has NC roots

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 4, 2008

By Sarah Hall
Salisbury Post
The New York Philharmonic is in the news because of the orchestra’s historic trip to China and North Korea. Their name is in the news here, too, because Joseph Robinson, who until recently played principal oboe in that illustrious group, is coming to Salisbury on Saturday.
Robinson will be featured in Bach’s Concerto for Violin, Oboe and Strings in C Minor along with his wife, violinist Mary Kay Robinson.
He made his name at the musical core of the Big Apple. He’s best known for his 27 years of stalwart intonation for the Philharmonic and as head of oboe studies for Manhattan School of Music for 26 years.
But Robinson’s musical beginnings were not far from here, in the western North Carolina community of Lenoir. When Robinson was growing up there, it was still a town of only 8,000.
Robinson says his path from small furniture town to New York isn’t the Cinderella story some imagine. He couldn’t have been in a better place for a beginning musician.
In the 1950s, Lenoir was well-known for two things: its quality furniture and its remarkable award-winning high school band. The band program had been started in the 1920s by a wealthy furniture heir, Captain James C. Harper, who continued to nurture the program for decades.
Lenoir’s band program was unrivaled. They had five full-time band instructors and a three-story band building with 18 practice rooms. They owned a collection of first-rate instruments which the students used free of charge. A fleet of buses and trucks transported students to frequent performing engagements.
The program produced not only professional musicians but a legion of other professionals ó doctors, lawyers, business leaders ó who attribute much of their success to the discipline and training they received in the Lenoir Band.
Salisbury Symphony trumpet player Greg Hall was in one of the last classes to graduate from Lenoir High School, which closed its doors in the ’70s due to consolidation. The ensuing decay of the band building seemed to coincide with the crumbling of music education in this nation.
Robinson wrote the article, “What I Learned in the Lenoir High School Band” for the Wilson Quarterly, and it went on to be reprinted in several publications.
“It came out the same time as ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus,’ ” Robinson says. “I just rode the wave.”
Robinson listened with interest to a description of Salisbury’s current cultural plan and the efforts of the steering committee here.
“With the right commitment to excellence and resources, potential exists everywhere for achievement,” he says. Salisbury has all the potential it needs, if people will invest in it, he adds.
He points out that Lenoir’s Harper was not a musician or teacher but “enabled the people around him to teach.”
Robinson says current trends in education and society are not encouraging for artists, but he is increasing his own advocacy. He came of age during the era of NEA mandates and admits he was “pampered” as a member of the New York Philharmonic, a group that doesn’t have to perpetually worry if it will continue to exist like smaller orchestras do.
“Now that I’m out in the real world, I’m more aware of how musicians and artists have to justify themselves continually,” he says.
Robinson decided not to major in music when he graduated from Lenoir High School and entered Davidson College. He earned degrees in English and economics, then went on to earn a Masters degree in public administration at Princeton.
Interestingly, these degrees led him to his musical path.
He received a Fulbright Award to study government support of the arts in Germany in 1963. From there, he travelled to France to seek out musical legend Marcel Tabuteau, who had been principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra for 39 years and is considered father of the American school of oboe playing.
In 1954, after too many conflicts with music director Eugene Ormandy, Tabuteau returned to France, vowing never to play or teach again.
But he took Robinson on as a student, his first and only in 10 years. This may have been because he was planning to write an oboe method book and knew English major Robinson could be of help.
Robinson’s writing abilities may have also gotten him into the Philharmonic. Robinson was teaching at N.C. School of the Arts when the New York auditions were announced. Instead of listening to him for the usual 10-minute audition, the committee made him play for an hour and 20 minutes. So Robinson felt he had made an impression.
But three days later he was called and told that music director Zubin Mehta had found his tone “too big.” Robinson, not willing to give up, says his “Davidson College muse” drove him to write a letter to the committee, persuading them to invite him to the final audition, and he won the chair he would occupy for the next 27 years, until his retirement in 2005.
Robinson has worked with musical royalty and played with the best. But one of his favorite musical memories is the time he performed alongside Johanna Johnson, a 16-year-old with Hodgkin’s disease. She had told the Make-A-Wish Foundation she would like to “sit in the middle of a great orchestra.” Robinson welcomed her, and she played alongside him in a performance at Avery Fisher Hall.
In 2005, Johanna returned the favor. Free of cancer, she welcomed Robinson, who played by her side for her senior recital at Gustavus-Adolphus College in Minnesota.
Robinson is currently serving as artist-in-residence for Duke University during spring semesters. The rest of the time, he and wife Mary Kay make their home in Washington State.
You can find out more about Robinson’s life and music at
nnnContact Sarah Hall at or 704-797-4271.