This post is dedicated to the memory of Gil* and Mary Robbins, and in honor of their children, Adele, Gabrielle, Tim, and David.
While living in New York, I was the accompanist for the Occasional Singers, a chorus conducted by Gil Robbins that performed avante-garde music. Gil’s wife, Mary, sang second alto, and daughters Adele and Gabrielle (“Gabby”) sang when they could. They all had the most gorgeous voices!
Professional soloists would be engaged from time to time, depending on the repertoire for a particular concert.
When a chorus member came down with laryngitis or strep throat just before a performance, a “ringer” (substitute) would be hired. Ringers typically sang the dress rehearsal and the concert.
One such situation involved an all-Spanish program. But this wasn’t just any Spanish program ~ this one included pieces in 6 dialects!
When one of the baritones had to drop out just before the concert, I wondered how a ringer could handle all that with only one rehearsal.
Bruce, the ringer, was someone I knew. He sang with the choir of St. John the Divine, also conducting that group for a time. In addition, if I remember correctly, he sang with Musica Sacra. And I’m sure there were other groups. He was always busy.
There was no question that he could sight-read the pitches and that he had good languages.
In the dress rehearsal, he was amazingly unflustered. He would sit back in his chair, leaning forward from time to time to add a phonetic (pronunciation) symbol to his music.
We performed the concert the following evening. He sang flawlessly.
The Small Group
One work we sang was composed for chorus and a smaller solo group. The Western Wind, to everyone’s delight, was engaged to sing with us.
This wonderful group bowled me over during the dress rehearsal. There was never a visible cue. Not one. No hand movements, no nod of the head, not even an eye cue.
Yes, the group sings together very often. But how do they ensure the perfect ensemble that they attain in every performance?
A Very Special Drummer
Another concert included a piece with a bongo part! Our drummer was a member of the Paul Winter Consort.
The chorus had rehearsed the piece for weeks. Their first entrance came only ½ beat after the first sound from the drum.
There we were, on stage for the dress rehearsal. (The “stage” was the platform at the front of St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village.) The drummer was stage left.
When it came time to rehearse this piece, Gil gave a preparatory beat or two, and the drummer played his first sound.
And then, everyone’s head snapped sharply to the left. They forgot to sing!
The first sound from the bongo was so sharp and so impressive, if the doors to St. Joseph’s had been open, you could have heard it in Riverdale. I think everyone was beyond startled. We were in shock! Too funny.
*Gil Robbins joined The Highwaymen in 1962. Here they are, singing “Cotton Fields.”
Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.
- Gil Robbins obituary (guardian.co.uk)
- Gil Robbins obituary (nytimes.com)
- Mary Robbins obituary (nytimes.com)
- Gil Robbins of The Highwaymen (1931-2011)(The-Reaction.blogspot.com)