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Orchestra's founder gives musical direction to diversity

By From the Boston Globe

By Catherine Foster, Globe Staff  

If the killing fields of Cambodia ultimately gave rise to the creation of "Where Elephants Weep," the opera's arrival in Lowell can be traced back to the segregated South.

As a child, Kay George Roberts was not allowed to study violin at her all-black Nashville school. While she has gone on to have a full career in music, that early discrimination left her determined to conduct music by diverse composers and to bring music to underserved children and adults.

Now the founder and music director of New England Orchestra and professor at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, she pushed to have the opera performed in the city.

Roberts grew up in Nashville in the 1950s and '60s on the campus of Fisk University, where her father started the psychology department. She studied violin with Robert Lee Holmes Jr. , a teacher in the Nashville schools. When he wanted to start a music program in the schools for black children, he was rebuffed; the music superintendent of the schools said black children couldn't learn to play classical stringed instruments.

George says Holmes told him, " 'Give me the instruments and I'll try anyway.' "

Roberts went on to rise through the ranks of Nashville orchestras at a young age. She studied with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood and became the first woman to earn a doctor of musical arts in conducting from Yale University School of Music. She's conducted major orchestras throughout the United States, including Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, and the National Symphony Orchestra.

As a USIA Cultural Specialist in Thailand she was the first woman to conduct the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. She led the Black Music Repertory Ensemble in the first performance at Alice Tully Hall by an all-black orchestra. She's been on the faculty of UMass since 1978.

In 2001, Roberts founded the UML String Project, a program that fosters diversity in classical music for public school students, and three years later she founded New England Orchestra, a professional chamber orchestra, both in Lowell.

That interest in performing music that has direct relevance to the residents of Lowell led her to get involved with "Where Elephants Weep," pulling together community organizations, the city, and donors to bring the opera there. Roberts also went to Phnom Penh in November to get a sense of the culture and to meet the musicians. During the trip, she injured her back. The aftereffects of those injuries will prevent her from conducting.

"It breaks my heart to give up a project that I have been working on for over two years," she wrote in an explanatory e-mail. "I would have loved to conduct the previews. However, I do think that I have the responsibility to protect my health, especially because I do not want this to affect my teaching and conducting in the long run."

Roberts says that even though she's stepping down from the podium, she will continue to work on the larger mission of the opera -- to provide an opportunity for cross-cultural exchanges for students of UMass-Lowell and the Lowell community.