Hidden from small

Robert Grossman - Behind the Scenes

June 04, 2019

Each month in the Orchestra’s Playbill, we feature one musician in a question-and-answer segment. Below is that feature in its entirety.

Where were you born? In Philadelphia, the area currently known as Cedarbrook, West Oak Lane, and Mt. Airy. I grew up in a row house on a block with 80 homes and a back driveway where we'd play stick ball with broom handles and sliced pinkies or wiffle ball, wire ball on the side street, bottle caps, ride our bikes, and eat water ice and soft pretzels at night on the front step with our friends.

What piece of music could you hear over and over again? Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) in either the Suite or full theatrical version with actors. This creative musical drama was meant to be a quickly thrown together occasional work for a small touring company to assist the financially struggling Stravinsky during his WWI exile in Switzerland. The piece, based upon Russian folklore, tells the story of a soldier who makes a deal with the devil. It is full of amazing instrumental textures, rhythms, and an innovative orchestration that help portray the story. The full theatrical version includes pantomime, dialogue, and narration.

What’s your favorite Philadelphia restaurant? There are so many wonderful restaurants in Philadelphia today. I have travelled all over the world with the Orchestra and love trying all kinds of food. In Philly I like DanDan or Su Xing House for lunch and Sagami in Collingswood for dinner, near where I live.

Do you have any hobbies? I have a large and extensive wild habitat garden with hundreds of flowers, numerous shrubs, and many trees that always need cultivation, weeding, and pruning. I homebrew award-winning beers that emulate traditional Belgian-style beers. I also recreate historic beer styles and mead from 18th- and 19th-century recipes. And I’m a certified beer judge.

Do you speak any other languages? No, although sometimes my family says I sound like I'm speaking a foreign language. 

What is your most treasured possession? The assembly of incredible equipment in my reference stereo, including all tube designed Rogue preamp, amplifier, phono stage with a tube based PrimaLuna cd player, along with over 20,000 LPs and CDs to use with a 50-pound VPI turntable that has two-tone arms mounted with both mono and stereo cartridges to properly play older LPs. My dad was a TV repairman, a music buff, and a sound engineer in a sense. We had the first color TV in the neighborhood in the early 1960s. He built his HiFi, the forerunner to today's stereos. My interest in music came from listening to him play LPs on his equipment. 

If you could ask one composer one question what would it be? I would ask Stravinsky how he overcame the opposition to his most creative and original works, how he persisted despite the criticism, and what drove him to continually compose and develop in so many varied styles and genres. I’d also ask him if he would write a Neoclassical Sinfonia concertante for woodwinds and strings and to make sure to include a bassoon cadenza. 

What piece of music never fails to move you? The Mahler symphonies, because my favorite uncle loved Mahler. I worked in his drugstore and he'd play Mahler and listen to classical radio broadcasts on WFLN all night. It's one of the things that cultivated my interest in music, and it brings back such fond memories.

When did you join the Orchestra? In 1979 I was blessed to be offered a job working in the library during the Ormandy era. My mentor, Sol Schoenbach (principal bassoon, 1937-57), introduced me to the Orchestra leadership, for which I am eternally grateful.

Do you play any instruments? I started on the cornet in elementary school after we had an assembly that featured members of The Philadelphia Orchestra. Afterward they asked if any of us wanted to learn how to play an instrument. I selected the cornet and studied at Settlement Music School until high school, when I switched to the bassoon, which became my main instrument in the All-City Orchestra, college, and as a freelancer in various Philly-area ensembles. I was a founding member of the Renaissance Consort 25 years ago, where I performed on many early double-reed instruments that I commissioned and picked up in Europe while on Orchestra tours. They are dulcians, sordunes, rackets, cornamuse, and kortholts. I also made reeds for all of the different sized double-reed instruments.

What’s your favorite type of food? I am somewhat of a vegetarian gourmet chef. I'm split between Japanese and Chinese with occasional forays into Thai and Malaysian. I have a huge vegetable garden and love to make salads, kraut, and pickled vegetables, and award-winning home-brewed beers and mead. 

What books are on your nightstand? Hard copy or e-reader? Our daughter’s cookbook was published in January so that takes top billing: The Living Kitchen: Healing Recipes to Support Your Body during Cancer Treatment and Recovery by Tamara Green and Sarah Grossman. There are always a variety of books on beer brewing, fermentation of foods, cuisine, music, and stereo equipment. I'm sort of a Renaissance person and still like the look, feel, and smell of hard-copy books.

Do you follow any blogs? I follow the audiophile information, reviews, and posts at www.enjoythemusic.com, where I am a musician-in-residence reviewer.

Do you have a favorite movie? I don't watch it often but never tire of watching the Godfather trilogy because it captures all the great themes of life around family, loyalty, retribution, and redemption.

Is there a piece of music that isn’t in the standard orchestral repertoire that should be? I'd like to hear more British composers. We occasionally perform Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Britten, and music by the great Baroque masters Purcell and Handel but there are so many other composers and compositions that I only know from recordings, which I would love to hear performed live.

What’s the last recording you purchased? CD or download? Do I have to make this confession? The purchases never seem to end but I must include Trifonov, Yannick, and The Philadelphia Orchestra playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos No. 2 and 4—specifically in the LP format. I have just purchased several CD format jazz anthologies from Mosaic Records including the Classic Savoy BeBop Sessions and the exciting Savory Collection of never-before released 70-year-old historical radio transcriptions made by the engineer Bill Savory, which will include live performances of Count Basie, Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, and Coleman Hawkins. I also recently bought the CD box set of Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 and a Blue Note LP of Stanley Turrentine performing arrangements by Oliver Nelson.

What’s on your iPod? Transcriptions of meditation cassette tapes. I really enjoy all forms of mindfulness training as they help me to cultivate the ability to focus on everything I do. 

When was the first time you heard The Philadelphia Orchestra? In elementary school.