Super Conductor

04/26/2009
By From the Lowell Sun

By Nancye Tuttle

LOWELL - Dr. Kay George Roberts has a bird's-eye view of the Merrimack River from her office in Durgin Hall. With its wrap-around windows, it's the perfect place for a woman who's made musical history to retreat, recharge and meet with students in her orchestra and conducting classes.

There, the longtime UMass Lowell music professor and internationally known conductor surrounds herself with objects that tell her story: shelves of symphony scores, clippings about the UML String Project, which she founded in 2001 for Lowell public school children, her violin, a poster honoring Harlem Renaissance icons, a cherished photo of her and Leonard Bernstein dancing together at Tanglewood.

"It's small, but I love the view," Roberts said.

The office may be small, but her career isn't.

Because of all she has accomplished, Girls Incorporated of Greater Lowell will honor Roberts as its 2009 Woman of the Year at the Celebration of Today's Woman Awards gala at the Courtyard Marriott in Andover Thursday, May 21.

"I am honored to be part of such a great group of women," said Roberts, who joins the ranks of former honorees, including

Middlesex Community College President Carole Cowan, Congresswoman Niki Tsongas and philanthropist Nancy Donahue.
Roberts has been a guest conductor for orchestras ranging from Cleveland, Chicago, Dallas and Detroit to Europe, Africa and Asia. She champions new and overlooked music by diverse, rarely performed Hispanic, African, American and Asian classical composers.

She advocates music education, including the String Project. And, at home, she directs UML's University Orchestra, the New England Orchestra, which she founded, and is now at work creating the Lowell Youth Orchestra.

Roberts recalls an "idyllic childhood." She grew up in the '50s and '60s on campus at historic Fisk University in segregated Nashville, Tenn., the youngest of three daughters of Dr. S. Oliver Roberts, founder of Fisk's psychology department, and Marion Pearl Roberts, a librarian and professor at Tennessee State.

"Fisk, a black university founded after the Civil War to educate freed slaves, was an intellectual and cultural oasis in segregated Nashville," she said. "Leaders of the Harlem Renaissance of the '20s and '30s were on the faculty and our neighbors. The great poet Robert Hayden would be writing his poems on the porch next door."

Off-campus was a different story.

Robert Holmes, an elementary music teacher, wanted his black students to study strings. The music program supervisor nixed the idea, telling him blacks couldn't learn to play strings.

"Holmes dared to contradict him," Roberts said. "He placed a violin in my hands when I was a child and formed an all-black youth ensemble with the wonderfully ambitious name The Cremona Strings, after the Italian town where Stradivarius, the great violin maker, was from."

Once she started playing, Roberts knew music-making would fill her life.

She joined the Nashville Youth Symphony when the city was desegregated in 1964. She was soon the youngest member of the Nashville Symphony -- and still only in high school.

Roberts played tennis, too.

"I loved it and was ranked eighth in the state. I had a great backhand," she said.

After graduating from high school in 1968, she enrolled at Fisk, majoring in math, with a minor in psych, "to keep up my end of conversation around the dinner table."

But music won out when she spent a summer at Tanglewood and worked with Bernstein.

"It was inspiring, his love of music and how he talked about it. He made it fun," she said. "It's hard to describe the impact he had on the lives of so many. I changed from math to music, much to my father's consternation."

Through the Nashville Symphony, she was invited to play in the World Symphony Orchestra, organized to celebrate the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971 and conducted by Arthur Fiedler.

"We played at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and in front of the castle at Disney World. My stand partner was from Russia -- it was quite an experience for a young musician. Fiedler was crusty, but efficient," she recalled, noting that two UML colleagues, Everett Beale and Fred Buda, were also in the orchestra, which they discovered when Roberts joined the faculty in 1976.

She went to Yale on a scholarship after finishing Fisk. Her plans for violin performance changed when she took a conducting class.

Her teacher, Otto Werner-Mueller recognized her talent when she conducted a symphonic movement from memory, and invited her to assist him in rehearsals when he conducted the Atlanta and Nashville symphonies.

"I was the only woman, but he took me in and I held my own," she said.

That led to her professional conducting debut with Nashville --- in a concert in Centennial Park, where as a child she'd been banned from playing.

"It was an important occasion, and my parents were there," she said.

Roberts earned her master's degree in orchestral conducting and violin performance from Yale in 1976 and her doctorate in conducting, also from Yale, in 1986, the first woman and second African-American to do so.

Her gig at UML has lasted more than 30 years. She still loves it.

"It's an encouraging environment that has stimulated by creativity and challenged my abilities," she said. "My students still inspire me in how they approach life and learning."