Taking Classical Off The Pedestal, And Into Black Communities Twenty-two years ago, bassist Rick Robinson became just the second African-American to join the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But at the end of this month, he's stepping away from his post in an effort to reach new audiences.
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Taking Classical Off The Pedestal, Into Black Communities

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Taking Classical Off The Pedestal, Into Black Communities

Taking Classical Off The Pedestal, Into Black Communities

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Time now for music.


RAZ: You're hearing Rick Robinson's arrangement of "Ride of the Valkyries" for an eight-piece ensemble. It's the sort of sound that made him fall in love with classical music as a young man. Twenty-two years ago, Robinson, who plays the bass, became just the second African-American member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in its history. The problem was, as he saw it, the audience wasn't diverse.

So, Robinson began to take classical music into schools and churches, even bars. But still, the crowd at the concert halls stayed largely the same. So, now, Rick Robinson is taking a yearlong leave of absence from the Detroit Symphony. He's going to spend some time trying to figure out ways to prove that classical music shouldn't be intimidating.

RICK ROBINSON: There's something about the large concert hall and the huge number of people on stage separated into a huge number of people in the audience. It's just overwhelming. And the concert experience itself - if no one greets people or explains anything about the music that they're about to hear in a personal or emotional context - they're just left wondering, well, why am I here?

RAZ: Rick, you are the artistic director with a group called The CutTime Players. And there's a statement on the website. It says classical goes guerilla to serve the masses. So, it's this idea to bring this music to bigger audiences.

ROBINSON: That's right. The theme of a revolution seems to play very well with what I'm trying to do, and that is revolutionize the classical music industry essentially. You know, taking it off the pedestal, going underground, blend in with folk and jazz and rock artists in ways that we just haven't done, and I think it's about time that we do.

RAZ: What do you tend to start with? I mean, if you were sort of doing an introduction to classical music for an audience that, you know, may be sort of intimidated by the music, what do you start with? What do you play for them?

ROBINSON: Well, I usually open up with a very lively "Ruslan and Ludmilla: Overture" by Mikhail Glinka. It's in Cut time. Cut time means two beats per bar. And usually indicates a very fast and lively tempo. Since people are curious about what cut time means, I tell them about that and tell them how cut time now means making classical music click with audiences.


ROBINSON: People get the idea that this music is really fun and it's really personal, and it can be that for everyone.

RAZ: Let me ask you about what you plan to do in the coming months and years. My understanding is that your primary goal is to try and bring classical music deeper into African-American communities, right?

ROBINSON: Yes. African-American and younger communities, they're looking for something new. They're very open to everything right now. So, while they're curious, you know, put me in there and let me talk to people and talk about how excited this brother is about being able to play this music, which is the legacy for all of us.

RAZ: When you're talking to, let's say, a group of high school kids, how do you turn them on to classical? I mean, do you - is there sort of a trick that you use?

ROBINSON: Well, whenever I talk about the music, tell them what to listen for, I talk about the principle of tension and release, that the game of the music is to build tension and release in a series of ways that climax near the end of each movement. And this forms a drama to which people apply their imagination. There's no right or wrong answer about what the music means. But since we're all looking for meaning, it's the music of struggle, the music of perseverance and the music of redemption. I could go on and on.

RAZ: My guest is Rick Robinson. He's the bassist and artistic director with the CutTime Players. You are also a composer, and I want to hear a little bit of one of your pieces. This one's called "Gitcha Groove On."



RAZ: When you play this for audiences, I mean, are people surprised? They say, well, that's not what I thought classical music was.

ROBINSON: Well, when I introduced it, I explained that it's a classical musician taking a night out on the town looking for a dance groove to fit his mood. Now, classical musicians are very serious folk, as you might imagine. So, in painting this scenario of going to the different bars, you know, we sample all the music and enjoy it. That was a nine-bar blues in that case. If you go on in the piece, you find that it goes to this Latin bar and this music is just really intense and exactly what this guy is looking for.


RAZ: When you look out at the audience today, the fact of the matter is it's an aging audience, right? And this is a problem that orchestras and symphonies are grappling with across the country: What is it that has to happen? What is it that is not happening in your view?

ROBINSON: I think the concerts just need to be, number one, warmed up; number two, there needs to be alternate ways, choices on the menu for younger and darker listeners to partake in. For example, a club within the building where the music is piped into, you know, with all these video screens. Some people like to listen to music on their feet or to dance. So, I think you can take out some rows in the back of the main floor and sell tickets for the dance floor.

RAZ: It doesn't have to be a seated affair where everybody's politely applauding and silent while the musicians are playing.

ROBINSON: Exactly. I'm anxious to get to the future.

RAZ: That's Rick Robinson. He's leaving his position as a bassist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to bring classical music directly to the people. You can hear a few of Rick's compositions at our website, NPRMusic.org. Rick Robinson, thank you so much. Good luck with the CutTime Players in the new year and happy holidays to you.

ROBINSON: Thanks a lot, Guy. Glad to be on the show.


RAZ: And for Saturday, that's weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. To all of you celebrating tonight, Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah. I'm Guy Raz. We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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