If you ask Geoff Robson about his current playlist, he’ll tell you that he spent his summer, in part, discovering new music to incorporate into his work at the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, where he has served as a conductor, among other roles, for the past 11 years. And, with some prodding, he’ll name drop a few standouts — Argentinian Oswaldo Golijov, Little Rock native Florence Price and 20th century composer Lele Boulanche.
Personally leading the youth ensembles, collaborating on festivals and performances, and serving as interim creative director, Robson is a man who fills several vital roles within a growing organization. He was originally hired as a conductor and a violinist in The Sturgis Quartet, then one of the orchestra’s full-time string quartets. He eventually took on the titles of associate conductor and director of youth ensembles.
“From the beginning, I realized that the orchestra is an organization that operates in a way that really values teamwork and the collective production of ideas,” Robson said. “And one of the things I liked from the beginning was being able to work with people and being able to have an impact artistically — sharing ideas and having those ideas be listened to. I think that’s a big part of why I was able to grow in the position.”
Robson may keep his back turned to the audience when he stands conducting, but he is anything but aloof in his approach to his work. He’s known among his peers for seeking collaborative and unconventional performance opportunities. For several years, Robson worked with Philip Mann, former artistic director for the symphony, to create opportunities for the youth to perform professional-level pieces and to showcase them in Central Arkansas. That process, Robson said, led to one of his favorite performances of all time: a shadow play production in which a portion of the ASO youth symphony was invited to play Jessica Drake Mosher’s original score for an adaption of “The Ugly Duckling,” which he said was sold out at nearly every performance.
“It was really neat to see the students — these were upper-level high school students who were very good at their instruments, some of them going on to study music at conservatory [and at] university — just be involved in something that they could tell as new, fresh, exciting and that the audiences were into.”
Robson’s role with the ASO youth is no accident; he considers pedagogy an essential part of honing his craft and musicianship. He credits much of his success to his early experiences in his private lessons, but also to the act of observing his conductors and practicing a range of improvisational styles — jazz, chamber music, rock ’n’ roll. A young Robson was plugged into The Beatles and Count Basie, Outkast and Smashing Pumpkins, and he kept up with classical violinists like David Oistrakh, Jascha Heifetz, Hilary Hahn and Ann Sophie Mutter.
Like many classical musicians, he got his start early on, beginning piano at age 4 in his early childhood home in upstate New York. His mother and father did not study music themselves but were invested in making it a part of their children’s lives. By the time he was 7, Robson and his sister, Laura, were playing both violin and piano, with violin becoming his primary instrument during high school. His sister stuck with piano.
“My sister and I were pretty competitive, and she was better at piano and I was better at violin,” Robson said of his and his sister’s musical fork in the road. “Also, I enjoyed playing in groups, so I realized that pianists spend their lives playing by themselves and violinists get thrown in the orchestra.”
In high school, Robson signed up for everything he could get his ears around — jazz and marching bands, orchestra, musicals, even garage bands with friends — picking up fluency in the saxophone and viola while he dabbled in sousaphone, trumpet, guitar and mandolin along the way. Despite his enthusiasm for music, Robson said it was not until a counselor approached his parents about music scholarships that he seriously considered taking his work further.
Robson decided to attend Michigan State University, a traditional liberal arts university, rather than study in a conservatory. A combination of an early birthday and an early start at beginning school, Robson landed on the student roster at Michigan State when he was 16, with a dual major in music performance and science. “I was young when I got there, and getting to a big-time school when I was 16 and trying to start two degrees. It was crazy,” Robson said. “But violin-playing meant free college, and that was all I knew at that point.”
Through freelance opportunities with the Lansing and Jackson symphonies — and playing keyboard in clubs with local bands — Robson started to see the material possibilities of a music career. After completing his degree, Robson received a master’s degree in violin performance from Yale, and later enrolled in the Mannes College of Music in New York City for a degree in conducting, but when a job offer materialized with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Robson pivoted. For him, the prospect of realizing his craft was a good alternative to more time and money in school.
At that time, the ASO was, like most symphonies, struggling through the recession — and was on the cusp of major changes with the impending arrival of the present CEO, Christina Littlejohn. At that time, Littlejohn’s position had been filled by one permanent and three interim CEOs in a three-year span. In addition to adding stable leadership, Littlejohn and the board coordinated a financial plan for the organization. Through spending cuts, three years of reduced salaries and a nearly 300 percent increase in giving from its board of directors, the ASO regained its footing — all without reducing spending or programming for the youth education programs. “What made our staff turnaround sustainable and what made ours unique and special is that everyone worked together,” Littlejohn said. “It was an all-in, all-play effort.”
Since then, the symphony has reversed its pay cuts, grown its budget by 25 percent and even expanded its community outreach and education programs. This year, the ASO completed its 10th fiscal year in the black — a significant achievement for a nonprofit, especially in the arts.
“I think a great deal of credit is owed to the people who made the hard decisions in the management: the financial team, the board of directors and also to the musicians who through that hard time were really feeling the squeeze,” Robson said. “[Those] who were taking pay cuts, who were accepting the fact that there was going to be less work and who were able to jump on board for the hope of a stronger organization for the future.”
Since the organization’s financial turnaround, Robson has worked tirelessly and creatively to build that future. When the funding wasn’t there to provide a resident artist for the Youth Orchestra each year, Littlejohn said that Robson built a bridge between the ASO and the Chamber Music Society of Little Rock to make it happen. Now, the two organizations split the costs each year to give the Youth Orchestra access to professional mentorship with musicians like cellist Jeremy Crosmer, this year’s artist in residence. According to Littlejohn, this mindset is trademark Geoff, and he doesn’t let it go to his head.
“He’s very humble. He’s really here to serve the music, so he doesn’t really have a big ego by any stretch,” Littlejohn said. “It’s truly about serving the music, serving the community and serving the kids. It’s about everything other than Geoff Robson.”