Music News & Reviews

UK musician gets his ‘man card’ taking on daunting clarinet concerto

Michael Robinson won the UK Symphony Orchestra’s symphony’s annual concerto competition with Carl Nielsen’s “Clarinet Concerto” and will perform the work in concert.
Michael Robinson won the UK Symphony Orchestra’s symphony’s annual concerto competition with Carl Nielsen’s “Clarinet Concerto” and will perform the work in concert. rcopley@herald-leader.com

University of Kentucky clarinetist Michael Robinson was looking ahead to graduate school and professional auditions and wanted to give himself a challenge “that would really kick my butt, that would make me practice, make me a better musician, a better technical player,” the junior from Lexington says.

So he asked his clarinet professor, Scott Wright, what would be a good piece to work on.

“He slapped this on my stand and said that in the clarinet world, in order to get my ‘man card,’ I needed to learn to play the Nielsen,” Robinson says. “He literally said, ‘You’re not a man until you can play this thing.’”

So Robinson went to work to navigate the dense, tricky work.

“It has lots of notes, and the notes are not organized in a traditionally logical way,” UK Symphony director John Nardolillo says. “The notes have a sequence that’s hard to follow and hard to organize and hard to play. They seem to be in random order, and they go by fast.”

But, he says, Robinson makes it look easy when he performs, and that’s a big part of how he won the orchestra’s concerto competition, which is open to and often won by graduate students. “I was up against some major, major violin works like Prokofiev and Dvorak and then I had to go out there and play the Nielsen, which was extremely difficult and not as iconic as those other pieces,” Robinson says. “And of course, going up against some older, more experienced players really intimidated me.”

He slapped this on my stand and said that in the clarinet world, in order to get my ‘man card,’ I needed to learn to play the Nielsen.

Michael Robinson, UK clarinet player

Nardolillo says he wasn’t surprised Robinson prevailed in the competition, which was judged by musicians from outside the University of Kentucky and the Lexington area. Robinson will play the piece at Friday night’s UK Symphony concert.

“Our audience will already know from coming to our concerts that he’s a very special player,” Nardolillo says. “He has reached a very high technical level and plays with a beautiful sound and is very sensitive and musical. He’s also someone who is very serious about what he is doing and very well prepared and conscientious about his work.”

He has to be. In addition to the orchestra and his studies, Robinson is in the wind ensemble and is a drum major in the UK Wildcat Marching Band.

“Drum major requires a lot of outside rehearsal work, behind-the-scenes work, studying scores, studying conducting patterns, but mostly about the whole organization and leading and communicating effectively with the student leaders in the group,” says Robinson, who has a double major in music education and clarinet performance.

The myriad responsibilities and performances, from the concert hall to the football field, have made Robinson’s time at UK a tremendous growing experience.

“The big shift I have had since coming to college is the mindset I take whenever I go out on stage, on a football field or just in front of a big group of people,” Robinson says. “I used to be terrified because I thought they’re going to be watching for mistakes and analyzing and listening closely, and if you mess up, it’s the end of the world.

“What I’ve come to realize is when you get up in front of a group of people, they just want you to do well, and they’re there to be entertained, they’re there to be impacted or, with marching band, they’re there to have fun or at least have something to listen to while eating a hot dog. So most people are rooting you on.”

Follow Rich Copley on Facebook and Twitter, @copiousnotes.

If you go

UK Symphony Orchestra

What: John Nardolillo conducts the orchestra in “Symphony No. 1, ‘Titan’ ” by Gustav Mahler, “Clarinet Concerto” by Carl Nielsen, with soloist Michael Robinson, and Logan Blackman conducts his “Prayer of a Broken Heart.”

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17

Where: Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall, 405 Rose St.

Tickets: $9 adults, $4 students

Phone: 859-257-4929

Online: Singletarycenter.com, finearts.uky.edu/music/ukso

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