Jon H. Robertson
Jon Robertson, Dean of the Lynn University Conservatory of Music in Boca Raton, Florida, and conductor of the Redlands Symphony in California, has enjoyed a remarkable career. A native of Jamaica and the son of a minister who was a pianist and organist, Jon came to America at age four when his father required medical care available only in California. He quickly gained a reputation as a child prodigy in piano, debuting by age ten as a concert pianist in Town Hall, New York.
During study with Ethel Leginska in Los Angeles, where he would often have lessons every day, Robertson played numerous recitals that established his reputation as a brilliant pianist and led to a full scholarship to attend the Juilliard School of Music, beginning his studies there at age seventeen. He completed B.M., M.S., and D.M.A. degrees in piano there, studying under full scholarship for six consecutive years with Beveridge Webster. He completed his doctorate as a Ford Foundation Scholar.
During his study at Juilliard, he became interested in and began study in choral conducting with Abraham Kaplan. He pursued additional study in conducting at the New England Conservatory of Music with Richard Pittman and eventually traveled to Europe where he studied orchestral conducting with Maestro Herbert Blomstedt.
Robertson and Blomstedt developed a close personal and professional relationship that has continued for many years. Most notable was their work at Loma Linda University where Robertson served as Blomstedt's associate in the International Orchestral Conducting Institute from 1976-1984.
In 1967 Robertson became chair of the music department at Oakwood College, now University. In his second year, he assumed direction of the choral program. His musicianship, high ideals, standards in performance, and vision of what he wanted to do transformed both the department and its choral groups.
He later wrote about the day he held his first auditions for the choir:
I vividly recall the first day of school when auditions were held. One glorious voice after another entered my studio, leaving me overwhelmed by the wealth of musical talent which the Lord had blessed Oakwood. After selecting the best of the best, we had 110 voices consisting of forty basses, ten of which could sing low C’s; thirty tenors; twenty sopranos; and twenty altos. At rehearsal the sound was magnificent. When I recall those voices - that sound - chills still overtake me.
At his last concert of his first year with the choir, they presented a performance of the Verdi Requiem, assisted by the Huntsville Symphony. The unqualified success of that concert led to a critically acclaimed repeat performance on Easter Sunday of the following year at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. A few weeks later, the choir presented Beethoven’s Choral Fantasia, Opus 80, and Rossini's Stabat Mater in their closing concert.
Impressed with the depth of talent and quality of voices in the students at OC, he arranged for several of them to gain admission to Juilliard. The campus was deeply disappointed when he accepted chairmanship of the music department at Atlantic Union College at the end of his third year as he was finishing his doctorate at Juilliard.
Although at that time he was offered a piano position at Oberlin College, Atlantic Union College also approached him. By this time Robertson increasingly wanted to pursue a career as a conductor and the opportunity to have an orchestra as well as develop a sophisticated multi-faceted program at AUC led to a decision to go there.
As part of his agreement to go to AUC, he was given the historic Thayer Mansion in which to house this expanded program. Although his arrival on campus was delayed until 1972 because of graduate study at Juilliard, he immediately established a comprehensive conservatory-style program at AUC that included an extensive preparatory program in addition to the college program. He then staffed the program with highly qualified musicians residing in that culturally rich area.
In the fall of 1974, Robertson presented the Thayer Conservatory Orchestra, a large symphony orchestra, staffed by qualified students and outstanding musicians from the area, in an inaugural concert that stunned and excited the campus and community. Under his leadership, the music program was transformed into a vibrant interactive force in the community. When the opportunity for study with Herbert Blomstedt developed in 1976 and Robertson moved to Europe, there was more than the usual concern about the future of the AUC music program and conservatory orchestra.
This unusual opportunity for study came about after Robertson, at the urging of his wife, Florence Bellande, attended a conducting workshop under Blomstedt. The conductor encouraged him to pursue a career in that area and invited him to bring his family to Sweden to study privately with him, a first for Blomstedt. In the fall of 1976, Robertson and his wife and three children traveled to Norway, where he studied with the conductor for the next three years. In 1979, after guest conducting the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra in Norway, he was immediately hired as its permanent conductor and music director, serving there until 1987.
He assumed direction of the Redlands Symphony Orchestra in 1982, a post he still retains. Under his leadership, the RSO has earned an "Exemplary" rating, highest ranking possible, from the California Arts Council for several years and top ranking from the National Endowment for the Arts.
His 25th year as conductor at RSO, which coincided with the university's centennial year, was celebrated in the 2006-2007 season. Its opening concert featured him both as conductor and as a piano soloist. His 30th year as conductor was celebrated during the 2012-2013 season with ten concerts, one of which featured him as the pianist in the Mendelssohn Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor.
Robertson has guest conducted extensively in the U.S. and internationally. In addition to conducting the San Francisco Symphony at Stern Grove and in Davies Hall, he has led the Beijing Central Philharmonic, the American Symphony Orchestra in New York, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra on a regular basis, Long Beach Symphony, Gavele Symphony Orchestra in Gavele, Sweden, and many others. He was Principal Guest Conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra from 1995 to 1998. More recently, he was guest conductor in Cape Town, South Africa, and at the University of Stellenbosch International Festival.
Those who have played under him are inspired by his command of the music, his conducting clarity, and a sense of direction that creates an inspired musical experience in both rehearsals and concerts. Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times has observed that “Robertson is a conductor who inspires confidence in a listener – his beat is utterly secure; his feeling for structure, unfailing; his overall manner, no-nonsense elegance.”
Robertson participates in an ongoing basis in the Pianofest Austria, a festival specializing in the performance of Beethoven and Mozart concertos. In this annual event, he coaches pianists who have been chosen through international auditions in the art of soloing with an orchestra.
He joined the University of California at Los Angeles music faculty in 1992 as professor of music and conductor of the UCLA Philharmonia Orchestra. The following year he became chair of the music department, a position he held until 2004. The department under his leadership gained national and international recognition and became known for its esteemed faculty and gifted students. He was honored for his work in in raising more than two million dollars for scholarships and in expanding the opera department and music theater programs.
During his tenure, he initiated numerous outreach programs using UCLA music students to provide experiences for African-American and Latino students who would not normally have access to lessons and concerts in inner city schools. A grant from the Toyota Foundation enabled these same students to be tutored in math and reading with the result that 98% of these students pursued additional study at colleges and universities. He received the university's Fair and Open Environment Award in 1998 for this work and the President’s Award for Outreach Programs.
Robertson became an emeritus professor at UCLA in 2005 when he retired as conductor of the UCLA orchestra. He later was the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Loma Linda University for his cultural development in the Greater Inland Empire of San Bernardino, California. Most recently he was awarded the lifetime achievement award from the National Society of Arts and Letters.
Under his leadership as Dean of the Lynn University Conservatory of Music, formerly Harid Conservatory, it has become recognized as one of the leading schools of music nationally and internationally. He has developed a world-renowned faculty of performers and scholars and, through high standards for acceptance, created a student body of about one hundred talented students who, unlike students at larger schools, have unlimited opportunities to perform in chamber music and ensembles.
Sources: Wendy Soderburg, “Music Takes Him from Piano to Podium,” UCLA Today, 1998; Roy E. Malcolm, Editor, The Aeolians, Directors Recall Precious Moments, Jon Robertson, D.M.A., “The Best of Times . . .” 1999, 35-43; Adventist Heritage, Joan Francis, “Yet With a Steady Beat: Blacks at AUC,” 1994, 31, 32; Biography in “A Memorial Celebration of the Life of Dr. Martin Luther King,” at Walla Walla College, now University, where Robertson was featured speaker, 15 January, 2001; Biographies at the Redlands Symphony website (2006 and 2013); Professional Profile at Lynn University website, Boca Raton, Florida (2013); Greg Stepanich, “Jon Robertson makes a difference at Lynn,” Palm Beach ArtsPaper, an interview, September 2009; personal knowledge.