By Becky St. Clair
Before joining the PUC faculty over a decade ago, he spent 20 years as music director of the Napa Valley Symphony. Today, as acting chair, he spends most of his time doing what department chairs do: Paperwork, teaching classes, advising students, paperwork, attending meetings, catching up with students and colleagues, and more paperwork. Somewhere in there, he fits in directing the college’s Symphonic Wind Ensemble and playing trombone in the orchestra. As a brilliant composer and a natural performer, Raboy is a joy to talk with and a hoot to watch onstage.
Today (literally), we caught him between virtual classes and a walk with his dog, and he told us some very entertaining (and true!) stories.
What was the first-ever piece you performed on stage, and how old were you?
You forget that I am very, very old and can’t remember that far back. I started studying piano when I was five, so I certainly played in recitals before grade school. I remember playing in a trio with my brothers on the radio when I was in third grade, but I’ll be darned if I have any idea what the piece was. I conducted a summer festival band when I was in sixth grade (again, no idea of the piece). As for paying work, that came a little later. I was the music director and synth player for Godspell at age seventeen; that was probably the first.
Who would you name as one of your favorite composers, and what draws you to them?
I was literally raised on Beethoven. My parents got me the recording and orchestra score to Beethoven’s seventh symphony when I was in third grade. I still love the music of that madman, but I can’t claim to completely understand it, even after all these years.
It was Puccini’s La Bohème that really reached me. I understood music intellectually and as a set of skills to master, but I really didn’t get the power of music, the emotional punch that it contains until I saw a production of that opera and was surprised to find tears in my eyes and my heart full. I have loved Puccini ever since. He taught me the real meaning of music.
Your career has allowed you to “rub elbows,” as they say, with some famous people. Who are some of those you’ve personally met?
I’ve been very lucky in my performing career that I have gotten to work with some very big names. (This is not because I’m great, it’s simply the job. The Napa Valley Symphony hired well-known artists and it was my job to conduct the orchestra.) In the pops world, I worked with Wynona, Glen Campbell, Mel Torme, Pink Martini (all except Pink Martini are way before your time…). In the classical world, I’ve met Yo-Yo Ma, worked with André Watts, Sir James Galway, and so on. Maybe not household names, but in the music world, these guys are at the top.
But my favorite was Branford Marsalis, the saxophone player who used to conduct the Tonight Show band. He played three concertos with us, and then went out to a club to play jazz with a friend of his father’s. He was kind (although he wanted to put forward a rough edge), gifted, fun, spirited; we spent two days together and those are some of my fondest memories.
Let’s talk composing. How did you become interested in that aspect of creating music?
This is a dumb story, but it is 100 percent true. When I was in junior high school, Masterpiece Theater ran a limited series called “The Strauss Family.” Everybody was so excited because it was a story about musicians. I was a contrarian, so I hated the series. I thought it was just a soap opera, and besides, anyone can write waltzes. To prove it, I went to the piano in my living room and wrote one.
Before I continue, let me just say that Johann Strauss Jr. is a musical genius. Don’t judge me by my adolescence.
Nonetheless, my waltz turned out pretty good. My piano teacher asked for two more pieces so that three of my siblings could play a piece of mine in recital. I wrote for my family, trying to capture their personalities in each piece. It was a fun challenge that I thoroughly enjoyed, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently writing an opera. It is the story of a woman who has power, prestige, pleasure but gets dissatisfied. She looks for something more. The point of the opera is not her conclusions, but her search. It mirrors my own journeys, and it is time for me to write a piece that is truly personal. It is loosely based on some very old stories, but it has been updated. I’m writing both the libretto and the music.
I doubt it will ever be performed. I’m not convinced that many opera companies will survive our time of shelter in place. it’s an expensive art form and needs large groups to congregate to make it successful. Still, I feel I need to write it, and hopefully, some excerpts will bring people pleasure, solace, or at least thoughtfulness in the future.
If someone were to tell you the next instrument you touched would be the only one you could play for the rest of your life (and that you’d instantly become a master at it), which one would you choose, and why?
It would be my own instrument, the piano. I want to be able to play everything: bass, chords, and melody. I want to be able to work alone or with a group. I want to be able to be expressive and shape a phrase like a singer would. I was born for the piano, and I’ll stay with it. I’m loyal like a dog.
When we say “music department” here at PUC, we think classical, church, tradition. Why is it important to remember there are other genres and styles of music out there?
First, let’s look at the music of Europe and the Americas. What we call “classical music” wasn’t always classical music. Opera was a popular art form the way musicals are today. Mozart was a pop composer (although for a pretty wealthy class of people) and the romantics made their money on ticket sales, just as rock musicians do in our time. The whole concept of “classical music” is a fairly modern creation.
The energy in music has always rested in songs written for people, not for academics. This is true of the church music of the thirteenth century or the string quartets of the eighteenth. In our time, Paul McCartney is as good a songwriter (in my opinion) as Schubert. Movies are the new operas, and John Williams may be as important as Verdi. This “non-classical” music is the expression of our time, and we should value it. There is no room for snobbery.
Then, go to Asia (just as one example). There are long musical traditions in China, India, Japan, and so on. There is no reason to assume that these traditions are any less powerful or enduring than our Western music. Think of India. We don’t have to sit cross-legged listening to ragas to enjoy this music. Bollywood is full of it. And it is wonderful.
How are you taking care of your mental health during the COVID-19 crisis?
I am lucky. I have a dog, enough space in my house, food in my fridge, a large family I love, and a reclusive personality. Still, this isolation is a killer. Here’s what I do: I Zoom my family three or four times a week. My wife, daughter, and I cook together even though we are almost 3000 miles apart. I walk the Back 40, the front forty and every other forty with my dog. I exercise, I get up early, and have created a routine. I work, I eat, I listen to music. And I heartily enjoy my conversations with my students and my colleagues. For those of you who are suffering, I am thinking of you. This can be really, really hard.
How has your job/life changed since March 2020?
I feel a little like Rip Van Winkle. I went back East for a family affair. My wife and daughter stayed for a while and I flew home for concerts at PUC and elsewhere. I got the flu (blame it on the airplane. Why not?) and when I got out of bed, my nuclear family was trapped in North Carolina, students had been sent home, and no one was meeting. My hair was already too long, and my hairdresser was closed. My tuxedo was lying dirty on my dresser and my dry cleaner was closed. I gave concerts for a living, now I couldn’t gather to make music, hear music, or go to a movie. My dog needed walking and feeding, and I was his sole caregiver. Wow. But we can get used to anything. At least I have a family who loves me, a safe place to live, and open space. We all have a right to complain, but I am one of the very lucky ones. Yes, it feels like I woke up and I’m still in a dream. But every day I count my blessings. And part of those blessings are all the people who keep us safe, healthy, and supplied. All at personal risk. Thank you all!
Besides music, what are some of your hobbies? What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working or composing or practicing?
I love to cook. I hate to do dishes, so I don’t cook as much as I would like, but I truly love it. I would call golf a hobby, but it is more of an addiction. And I’m really bad at it. (But so is everyone else–don’t believe the stories you hear.) I love chess but find chess puzzles better than chess games (because they are shorter). Still, I’ll play with anyone who wants to! I read and belong to a book club. I hike; in slow motion when my dog is there, a little faster but not by much when I’m alone. And, when there are sports, I follow the San Francisco Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. No wonder I don’t practice as much as I should.
Okay, we have to ask about the dog, because it seems like he’s an important part of your life. Introduce us!
Bowie, named for David Bowie, is an old guy. My daughter thinks he’s 14, but I’m convinced he’s 12 because I choose to. He is two dogs long, half a dog high, with twisted legs that probably come from a basset hound, although perhaps a dachshund. He’s got a normal dog face like a Labrador, a narrow ruff (that shoots up at the sight of huskies) like a Ridgeback, and a loose neck like a Shar-Pei. To me, he is simply a loving dog, a lap dog, a stubborn dog, and truly a boy’s best friend.
If you could swap places with Bowie, would you?
No, I wouldn’t trade places. He’s very happy and well cared for, and nothing troubles him except when he wants to go to the Back 40 and I am meeting with students.
But here’s the thing. I’ve always loved challenges. I can’t get out of bed if there isn’t a mountain to climb or something to conquer. That’s not a good thing, but it’s how I’m built, and it’s the way I’ve been since I was a little kid. Bowie is happy because there is nothing he has to accomplish. I am happy because there is always something that can be accomplished. We each have the life that fits our personality and scrapes along together very well.