ighland Park native Rick Robinson is on a mission to transform classical music. As a bassist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for 22 years, Robinson is rooted in the storied classical tradition.
But the animated original compositions and inventive arrangements of classical and jazz masterpieces that he creates for his own ensembles, the nine-piece CutTime Players and his string sextet, CutTime Simfonica, inject vim and vigor into the sometimes-staid classical form.
Now with the performance series Classical Revolution Detroit, the 2010 Kresge Arts Fellow aims to remove the physical barriers between classical musicians and their audiences by offering intimate presentations in restaurants, cafes, bars and other non-traditional venues around the city.
Robinson founded Classical Revolution Detroit to take classical music to the people–to pubs, bistros and coffee shops, where people are comfortable drinking, eating and talking.
He believes classical music’s association with elitist high society often prevents the genre from gaining new listeners.
So people are pleasantly surprised when they walk into the Cadieux Café in Detroit or Caribou Coffee in Royal Oak and discover violinists, trombonists and bassists clad in jeans and T-shirts while performing Beethoven’s Symphony No 5.
“If classical music is to go on and attract a new audience, we need to warm it up with personality and relaxed rules, and just offer more choices,” Robinson says. “By taking classical music off of the pedestal, we remove some of that snobbery that’s associated with it. I like to say that you don’t have to be a millionaire to enjoy classical music, but it will make you feel like one.”
Robinson believes his efforts demonstrate how relevant the music can be in people’s lives.
“Ninety-five percent of Americans pretty much ignore classical music even though when they hear it in a commercial or a movie or around Christmas time, they seem to enjoy it. But they don’t take that experience into coming to the concert hall or buying a ticket,” he explains.
“I think we need to reintroduce classical music to a public that is curious about all kinds of music, a public that enjoys an eclectic mix. We need to offer classical music as an alternative to the pop that we already listen to.”
When Rick Robinson became the second African-American member of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1989, his selection marked a tremendous personal accomplishment.
He credits violinist Joseph Striplin, the DSO’s first black member, as one of his earliest role models, and part of the reason he fell in love with classical music and began performing it.
Striplin joined the DSO in 1972, and began directing a chamber orchestra in Highland Park because there were so many Black students playing string instruments, Robinson recalls. His older brother and sister were among them. The experience inspired him to pick up a cello in fifth grade; he switched to double bass in the eighth grade.
Robinson went to high school at the famous Interlochen Arts Academy. He earned his undergraduate degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music, and went on to graduate studies at the New England Conservatory.
After stints with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, symphonies in Akron and Canton, Ohio, and Portland, Maine, Robinson was offered a permanent position at the DSO without audition.
“I have risen to the top of the standard for classical music, and I can relate what it is about this music that people enjoy most,” Robinson says. “It’s really the beauty [of classical music] that speaks to people more than anything else, but it’s also the drama, and the adventure.”
J. Nadir Omowale is a musician and freelance writer based in Detroit.