He may often wear a tuxedo in public, but make no mistake: Geoff Robson works with his hands.
Those hands are perhaps best known for conducting the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, the organization he serves as artistic director. When he plays with the orchestra or its chamber groups, they are the hands of a master violinist whose fingers dance in their intricate ballet of bow and strings. Robson's a musical shapeshifter, too; his hands make instruments sing whether playing Stravinsky suites that soar to the rafters of Robinson Center Performance Hall or jamming on fiddle at the White Water Tavern.
And as his friends are eager to tell you, in his off hours Robson's likely to be found with his hands deep in the rich soil of the garden he has cultivated downtown, or preparing meals for them using organic food he has nurtured from seed.
Running through all of Robson's handiwork is his trademark blend of leadership and collaboration, and what friends describe as an ever-present kindness and generosity and an endless enthusiasm for fresh ideas to strengthen the arts in Arkansas.
"I try to be a voice for our organization, an advocate for the players who make the music and a leader who pushes us to get better," Robson says. "I try to dream up ways that we can be more inclusive and have a greater impact across a broader swath of the community. I love to meet people and work together."
Following the departure of music director Phillip Mann in 2019, Robson was promoted from associate conductor to interim artistic director, a position that is no longer interim. Less than a year into his new role, the pandemic hit. Robson led the symphony and its chamber and youth ensembles through a year and a half of pandemic shutdowns, troubleshooting massive changes to their plans with ASO's board and staff and reimagining how ASO could continue via virtual or outdoor venues.
Their efforts have worked. Robson says although ASO missed having audiences in a concert hall for much of 2020, "by May, we put on a Beethoven symphony, and there were 400 people in the hall. And it was magical."
ASO is bringing in several guest conductors this season, but as artistic director, Robson is the staff conductor and curates all the music the orchestra and its ensembles perform. He coordinates the "where and what and when and with whom" of the concerts, as he puts it, reaching out to his network of often internationally acclaimed musicians to perform with the symphony and be artists-in-residence for the youth ensembles.
Robson represents the symphony at events and interacts with leaders across the community, forming collaborations to extend ASO's outreach wherever possible. Organizations such as Ballet Arkansas, the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Opera in the Rock and the Chamber Society of Little Rock are close artistic allies with ASO.
"Geoff is just an amazing person," says LaSheena Gordon, a classically trained vocalist who has performed with ASO and worked closely with Robson through Opera in the Rock. A former music educator in the Little Rock School District, Gordon says Robson's innate kindness and love of music are apparent to everyone who meets him, especially her students.
"He has the best heart," she says. "I think it reflects out of him; you immediately connect with him, and because he's approachable, he has made the world of symphony orchestra approachable, something that everybody feels invited to.
"Every time I've attended a performance that made me go, 'Wow! That was amazing!' it was something Geoff put together."
THE PATH TO CONDUCTING
Robson grew up near Utica, N.Y., and loves Arkansas, but he considers Michigan home. He attended Michigan State University, and his parents, Ione and Andrew Robson, now live in northern Michigan. His mother is a native Michigander he describes as an "enormously capable jack-of-all-trades," always busy with hands-on projects. His father is British and a retired professor of English.
Neither was musical, but they prioritized a musical education for Robson and his sister, Laura, starting them on piano lessons when they were 4 or 5. A few years later, Laura, who was a year and a half older than Geoff, started on violin. He recalls begging to take violin lessons like his big sister, soon revealing a talent for the instrument.
Robson has a bachelor's degree from Michigan State, and a master's from Yale University, both in violin studies. He'd taken some undergraduate and graduate conducting classes, but says he hadn't seriously considered it as a career until he got involved conducting the Chelsea Symphony, newly formed by a group of recent music school graduates. Spurred by the experience, Robson enrolled in the Mannes School of Music at the New School in New York to pursue a second master's in conducting.
Robson was part way through that degree when Jo and Will Preece, close friends who played in ASO, encouraged him to apply to the symphony; ASO was searching for an associate conductor who also played violin. David Itkin was exiting as music director but hired Robson before leaving. "I took a leave of absence from school, thinking this would be a one-year gig," Robson says, smiling. "That was 2008, and I'm still here, happily."
It's rare for a conductor to spend his entire career in one place, but Robson kept finding reasons to stay. "Every upcoming season presented unique, exciting opportunities I wanted to pursue," he says. "It's hard to put into words how much I've learned in the 14 years I've been here, and the opportunities I've had."
Others in the industry agree. In 2017 Robson won the Respighi Award for Conducting, an international honor awarded by the Chamber Orchestra of New York to the most promising conductor under 40.
The symphony has been happy to have him. ASO Chief Executive Officer Christina Littlejohn calls Robson "an amazing person I'm so lucky to work with," citing his extensive community involvement, musical versatility, talent and commitment to young people.
Since 2017 Robson has also directed the Faulkner Chamber Music Festival, a weeklong workshop for junior and senior high musicians, founded by the Preeces in 2008. The festival in 2016 moved under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Little Rock, an organization Robson currently serves as president.
Besides the festival, Robson works intensively with Arkansas schools and until this year directed ASO's three youth ensembles for students ranging from fourth to 12th grades (he remains an adviser with oversight of the program).
Cynthia Ross, a Little Rock radiation oncologist, is a patron of ASO and the chamber society, but got to know Robson first as a parent; her daughter, Miriam Hauer-Jensen, played violin for years with the Faulkner Chamber Music Festival and the Arkansas Symphony Youth Orchestra. "Geoff is wonderful at pulling performances out of the kids that they didn't realize they had in them," she says. "The kids love him, and their experiences build confidence. He helps them reach their potential, not just in playing their instruments, but in the way that focus affects their other endeavors."
Music outreach to youth is at the core of ASO's work. "Part of being a professional musician is to be a teacher," Robson says. "It's a craft that is passed down to younger generations, and that's important to us to be able to do."
Music education is also the reason for one of Little Rock's most beloved annual galas, ASO's Opus Ball, scheduled for Nov. 13 at the Capital Hotel. "It's our biggest fundraiser," Robson says, "a wonderful black-tie affair with people across the community, and we raise money for our music education outreach. It's always a glorious production, thanks to the volunteers who put in an enormous amount of work to make it exceptional."
This year's Opus Ball chairpeople are Rick and Maureen Atkins. And this 37th gala is dedicated to the life and music of Little Rock native Florence Price, a composer Robson is glad to promote.
Price in the 1930s became the first Black female composer to have a piece premiered by a major American symphony. Robson points out she's also the only Arkansan to earn that distinction. He explains her music was influential in the first half of the 20th century, but became ignored by larger orchestras. Almost 300 newly rediscovered works by Price recently piqued international interest. "We're learning she has a place in American music history," Robson says. "Once people become familiar with her music, I believe she'll be ranked alongside Gershwin, Copland and Barber."
But Robson's life is not just balls and tuxedos and Mozart arias. For all his pursuit of ethereal classical music, Robson grounds himself by jamming with popular recording artists like Bonnie Montgomery and Isaac Alexander. Ross says he also plays a mean Irish fiddle.
His instrument is a gorgeous violin made by English luthier John Betts in 1791 while George Washington was president, a fact that still gives Robson a thrill. He found it at Little Rock Violin Shop, owned by Joe Joiner, a friend who plays viola in ASO. Robson says he'd tried countless violins, but knew immediately this was his. "It was one of those things -- I picked it up and said, 'Oh, this is the one. Search over!'"
Robson and partner Kristen O'Connell, chief resident in emergency medicine at Unity Health-White County Medical Center in Searcy, have been together for eight years. "We both work a lot, especially Kristen during this pandemic," Robson says. "But we try to support each other and spend as much time together as we can."
And he grounds himself in the ground itself. Joiner says Robson is the master gardener of the community garden on the lot next to his shop, thoughtfully orchestrating the planning of beds and growing of vegetables. "I don't know that I've ever had another conductor who was as passionate about gardening as Geoff," laughs Joiner, adding that the symphony players have much respect for Robson as their conductor and fellow musician.
O'Connell and Robson share an interest in homesteading skills like urban gardening, raising chickens and pursuing sustainable living. "We love to entertain, and love good food and drinks and going to concerts and events," Robson says, "but there could absolutely be more farming in my future. My job and my life is my music," he continues. "That's what I do. But growing food is also a way of life I deeply believe in."
Robson is excited to see Little Rock continue to grow more metropolitan while keeping its small-town intimacy. "Part of the reason I've stayed, even though my family isn't here, is the feeling of being part of a community and creating community here. That's something that's really important to me in terms of happiness. I think it helps me do a better job at my job."
Musicians want a demanding conductor, but Robson believes in being respectful about it and listening for what others have to offer. "Players play best when they're being heard. That's my philosophy."
He says, "When I'm on the podium waving my hands around, obviously it's not a democracy. But it's a complicated organism. We've got 75 really talented, well-educated, opinionated and highly trained professional musicians from all over the world in our orchestra. My job is to turn that back into one cohesive thing. It's a great responsibility but also a lot of fun."
Robson is hopeful ASO's 2021-22 season will flourish as covid-19 declines. And he hopes audiences -- who have stayed loyal and engaged even when ASO was operating remotely or in all-outdoor venues -- will come flooding back to Robinson Center Performance Hall for the safe and familiar joy of being immersed in orchestral music, played beautifully.
Geoffrey Eric John Robson
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: Sept. 22, 1981, Northport, Mich.
MY PET IS: An entitled but very affectionate Siamese cat named Naji that I inherited.
MY HAPPY PLACE IS: With my friends and loved ones.
MY CURRENT EARWORM IS: I just now finished a performance of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” so it’s hard not to go with that.
THE INSTRUMENTS I PLAY: Depending how one defines ‘play,’ I’d say violin, viola, piano and a touch of guitar or saxophone. I can maybe play a scale on a brass instrument.
MY FAVORITE COMPOSER OF THE GREAT MASTERS: I really like the music of Felix Mendelssohn, among many others.
MY FAVORITE CONTEMPORARY OR LESSER KNOWN COMPOSER: Check out Thomas Ades and also Gabriela Lena Frank.
IF I WASN’T A CONDUCTOR, I WOULD BE: Maybe farmer or a chef, or another type of musician. I love being around players born from completely different musical traditions; there are so many amazing ways to make music. I think it’s too late for me to become any kind of scientist!
MY DRINK OF CHOICE: Shout out to Little Rock municipal water — also I really like a locally brewed, tart but not too strong IPA.
THE BEST THING I’VE GROWN IN MY GARDEN: It definitely varies, but there is an incredible crop of different types of hot peppers this year. We’ve made more hot sauce than we can give away.
PEOPLE MIGHT BE SURPRISED TO LEARN: People know I love all sorts of music, but it might surprise some that I have an affinity for electronic dance music.
THE ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Alive.