On Saturday, February 27, 2016 when I first received news of Robin’s passing, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of sadness that can only come from losing someone who is loved as a longtime friend, mentor, and colleague. My mind has been flooded with memories, and yet it has taken days to be able to express anything in words, suspecting all the while that Robin would likely rather that nothing be said at all.
I’ve shared so many wonderful times with Robin Engelman over the 50-years since I first met him at a Rochester Philharmonic rehearsal, that it would take a sizable volume to relate them all. Without a doubt, Robin was the most memorable personality I will likely ever meet, and in many ways in addition to being a colleague and friend, he was one of my teachers – in and outside of music.
There are, however, two special memories that are near the top of a very long list, one having occurred onstage and the second offstage on the golf links.
In 1984 NEXUS embarked on an amazing four-month-long world tour that took us – along with our 20 trunks of percussion instruments – to China, Japan, Korea, through Canada, to the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Finland and England, including a solo concert at Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms.
In Amsterdam we performed for a very large audience on June 23 at the Carré Theatre, a huge capacity venue. The performance was part of the Holland Festival and the program was Music for Pieces of Wood (Reich), Branches (Cage), Third Construction (Cage), Drumming Part 1 (Reich), African Suite (NEXUS), and Novelty Ragtime Selections (G.H. Green/arr. Becker & Cahn).
The John Cage piece, Branches, was on the subtle side of the dynamic spectrum for such a large space, with its very high ceiling. NEXUS performed the piece freely on various plant-derived instruments, including a 3-feet-tall cactus that was amplified with a contact mic. The resulting sounds, particularly the plucking of the needles on the cactus, could be very engaging and frequently hilarious when heard up close. However, the audience was not up close; in fact, they were separated from the performance area by quite a distance, which made it somewhat difficult for them to hear, let alone appreciate all of the sounds.
After about 2-minutes into the performance of Branches I could sense that many in the audience were becoming restless. Suddenly the general atmosphere of quiet, with the audience straining in order to hear anything, was broken when someone in the audience shouted at the top of his lungs, “BULLS_ _ !!” Without dropping so much as a millisecond Robin shouted at the top of his lungs, “ NO, CACTUS S_ _ _ !!” It was an absolutely brilliant response, and the English speakers in the audience reacted with approval. The review the next day in the newspaper (de Volkskrant, June 25, 1984) made a special effort to highlight that once-in-a-lifetime moment, and the article even included a photo of NEXUS during the Branches performance.
Another great memory with Robin occurred later on that 1984 world tour in August. NEXUS was a featured ensemble at the Liverpool International Garden Festival. On one of our free days off Robin asked me if I’d like to go with him to the Royal Liverpool Golf Club to play a round. The Club is as prestigious as it sounds, though Robin, in his wonderful nonchalant manner, thought nothing of it. I said ‘yes,’ and off we went with Robin driving a rental car, and me nervously reminding him frequently to drive on the left side of the roads.
At the links, Robin removed his golf clubs from the trunk of the car and was immediately approached by one of the caddies, with whom Robin immediately formed a bond. I didn’t realize that this was a links course. From every tee the view was the same in every direction – no trees or other land marks to help with judging distances or finding the relatively small patches of fairway, let alone the pot bunkers. Unless a golfer has played the course many times, it would be virtually impossible to know where to hit the ball. Not being much of a golfer (in fact, not a golfer at all) I bowed out. I realized that the advice of a caddie was absolutely essential to tell the player where and how far away to strike the ball, over many yards of gorse in order to find the patch of fairway.
Robin was at the height of his golf game – a virtual scratch golfer, I believe – and he played the opening few holes well as I tagged along behind him and his caddie. Since he was playing alone, we eventually caught up with a foursome of Club members, who graciously allowed Robin to play through after a brief exchange of introductions. As Robin set up the ball on the tee, I noticed the Club members’ expressions. It seemed to me that they were just waiting for this North American stranger to shank a few balls into the gorse. I really felt nervous for Robin as he waddled. This was potentially as stressful as playing a recital of marimba solos at Carnegie Hall; I can’t imagine being under any more pressure than this situation presented.
Robin raised the club and made his swing . . . “tick” . . . a perfect stroke as the ball shot out straight into the middle of the distant fairway. “Thank you, gentlemen!” was all that Robin said as he handed his driver back to the caddie and left the tee without displaying the slightest hint of bravado. I sighed a very deep breath of relief as I mentally fist-pumped to myself, “YES, YES, YES!” Later, as we talked about Robin’s round on the drive back to our hotel, Robin never even mentioned his fabulous “playing-through” shot; it was just another day on the links.
AND, these were only two of the countless – countless! – inspiring moments with Robin.
(Bill Cahn – March 1, 2016)