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In Memoriam: McNeil Robinson (1943-2015)

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The following article appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of the Newsletter of the New York City Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, of which I was the editor at the time.

McNeil Robinson died on Saturday, May 9, 2015 after a lengthy illness. A memorial service to be held in New York is being planned for the fall at a time and location to be announced.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, McNeil Robinson quickly developed a prodigious technique and repertoire as a pianist, studying at the Birmingham Conservatory. In his teenaged years he played with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (now the Alabama Symphony Orchestra) on several occasions. Neil attended Birmingham Southern College as a scholarship student, and in 1962 came to New York City to study at the Mannes College of Music with Leonard Shure as a full scholarship student. He also studied piano privately with Rosina Lhevine and Beveridge Webster. In 1965 he entered Juilliard where he studied organ with Vernon de Tar and Anthony Newman, and composition with Vincent Persichetti.

In his DMA dissertation on the life and work of McNeil Robinson, our colleague Tony Thurman makes the following salient observation: “From early childhood, Robinson displayed an inexhaustible appetite for knowledge and learning. Even after graduation from The Juilliard School, he continued to study. Continuing education has always been a major focus in his life, even after having achieved international acclaim as a soloist, Robinson continued to seek out and interact with the major teachers and performing artists throughout the world.”

In this vein McNeil continued his organ studies with George Faxon, the noted teacher in Boston, and Clarence Watters, the leading disciple of Marcel Dupré in this country at that time. He also continued his composition studies with Yehudi Wyner and Jacob Druckman in New York, and later Allen Forte at Yale. Even in his mature years he continued to coach with Russell Saunders and Catharine Crozier in this country, and Guy Bovet and Monserrat Torrent in Europe. He was a fixture at AGO conventions and NYC Chapter workshops, anywhere he thought he might gain a new insight into a performance practice, something of historical interest or pedagogical advice. And in looking over those in attendance at such events he could be fairly disdainful of those who were not present who, in his estimation, could have used the information imparted—students and colleagues alike. He was not shy in expressing himself in his opinions, and needed not in the least any assertiveness training!

While still a student Neil gained two positions in New York that thrust his name into the front ranks of the profession: organist of Park Avenue Synagogue and organist of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The music lists of each of these noted houses of worship indicate the early use of his compositions and there is much commentary about his prowess as an improviser. His 1970 recording of Dupré’s Vêpres du Commun at St. Mary’s earned him a letter of congratulations from the composer.

Neil came to the Park Avenue Synagogue in 1965 at the invitation of the famous Cantor David Putterman to whom he had been recommended by Leonard Bernstein and Jack Gottleib, and he remained at Park Avenue Synagogue until he retired in 2012. He came to St. Mary’s also in 1965 first as the assistant to James Palsgrove, assuming the directorship of the music program in 1974. He continued in that capacity until 1982. Prior to this time he served at Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, even sharing duties there during his early years at St. Mary’s.

As his renown as a performer and improviser increased, prospective students began to seek out McNeil Robinson, and his teaching career began to increase, especially after he left the rigorous liturgical schedule at St. Mary the Virgin. As his private studio increased, he also assumed a faculty position at Mannes. In 1984 at the invitation of John Walker, he joined the faculty of Manhattan School of Music, later becoming chair of the organ department after John moved to Pittsburgh in 1991, a position which Neil held at the time of his death. During this era he taught a succession of students who have gone on to significant careers of their own, and who have won numerous competitions and prizes. A tribute on the web site of the American Guild of Organists notes that he taught more winners of the AGO Improvisation Competition than anyone else.

As a composer his work continued to be performed in venues throughout the world, including several national conventions of the AGO, where his organ concerto was first performed at the National Convention in San Francisco in 1984. His liturgical compositions regularly find their place in the music lists of Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant houses of worship throughout the country. After St. Mary the Virgin, Neil’s church career trajectory took him to a lengthy tenure at Park Avenue Christian Church, and later Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, from which he retired only last fall.

Throughout the history of music there have been notable exceptional masters of the musical art who were equally gifted and proficient in the complimentary disciplines of performance, improvisation, composition, and pedagogy. Clearly McNeil Robinson was one such master musician whose life and work happily intersected with our own here in the New York City Chapter.

May his memory be for a blessing. Rest in peace, maestro.

Neal Campbell

With Peter Stolzfus Berton and me at the Hancocks' Farewell, Saint Thomas Church, New York, May 2004.

With Peter Stolzfus Berton and me at the Hancocks’ Farewell, Saint Thomas Church, New York, May 2004.

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