Robin Sutherland, S.F. Symphony’s longtime piano star, dies at 69

Melissa M. Munoz
San Francisco Symphony pianist Robin Sutherland at dwelling in San Francisco in 2013. Photograph: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle 2013

Robin Sutherland, the longtime San Francisco Symphony pianist renowned for his formidable keyboard skills, vivid personality and trademark ponytail, died on Friday, Dec. 18, at his San Francisco household. He was 69.

Sutherland died of a mind tumor, his husband, Carlos Ortega, verified.

In excess of the class of an amazing 45-calendar year career with the Symphony, Sutherland founded his standing as an artist of class, power and stylistic selection. He was passionate about the audio of Bach and Mozart, deeply committed to the songs of the Romantics and exuberantly fearless in the facial area of knotty modern day scores.

Even when he was not onstage — numerous symphonic will work do not contact for a keyboard players — Sutherland played a crucial musical role guiding the scenes, aiding Tunes Director Michael Tilson Thomas and his predecessors to rehearse with soloists and carry out auditions.

Sutherland was also an enthusiastic and witty conversationalist who relished several factors more than producing own get in touch with with the Symphony’s patrons. Concertgoers could obtain him in the foyer of Davies Symphony Corridor all through intermission, towering earlier mentioned a crowd at 6 toes 5 and swapping erudite musical commentary and joyfully bawdy innuendo.

Audio, while, was his most important delight. He could maintain forth at size on the comparative virtues of old Bach recordings, typically mingling in-depth evaluation with pungent and unfiltered language.

When he took the highlight for a solo efficiency, the success had been usually mesmerizing. One particular of his signature achievements was the dazzlingly difficult piano portion in Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, “The Age of Anxiety” — a piano concerto in all but identify — which Sutherland helped introduce to the orchestra’s repertoire in 1993 and reprised in a masterful functionality six decades later on. out?v=I8YwB_-3tUg


He simply blended classy virtuosity, championship of new tunes, best chamber songs performances, and inspiring educating,” Thomas mentioned in a assertion. “He was a learn of the French and Hawaiian languages. He was a terrific wit and storyteller, a treasure trove of esoteric awareness, amusing anecdotes and outrageous jokes. He was an initial and pioneering homosexual man who was a continuous pal and inventive position product for generations. We will all overlook him enormously.”

Previous Symphony Principal Percussion Jack Van Geem explained, “Robin was a good musician, linguist, and a deeply compassionate and loving and light particular person. He built anybody expending time with him sense distinctive. He motivated you to truly feel funnier and smarter when you have been all over him.”

The Dalai Lama with Robin Sutherland  at a Davies Symphony Hall occasion in February 2014. Picture: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle 2014

Robin Sutherland was born March 5, 1951, in Greeley, Colo. He took to audio early, researching classical piano and taking part in in a higher college rock band. At 17, he remaining for New York Metropolis to study at the Juilliard Faculty with celebrated instructor Rosina Lhévinne.

“Juilliard and I did not get together,” he informed The Chronicle in a 2013 job interview. “I wanted to get as considerably away as I could from New York.”

So in 1972, he came west and enrolled at the San Francisco Conservatory of Tunes, which is in which he transpired to be when the San Francisco Symphony named in determined have to have of a substitute pianist for that night’s live performance. Fortunately for him, Sutherland had researched the piece that was on the system, Hindemith’s “Kammermusik No. 1,” and sent an impressive performance.

A 12 months afterwards, following a historic tour of the Soviet Union, Audio Director Seiji Ozawa developed the principal piano placement expressly for Sutherland. He held the career until his retirement in 2018 — the single line on his resume, as he preferred to quip.

In his later a long time, Sutherland immersed himself in Mozart’s piano concertos, quoting soprano Jessye Norman to say, “That’s where by I reside now, honey.”

In that 2013 interview, he continued, “I consider there is generally place for a Mozart piano concerto. And if there is not, it is a entire world I do not care to be a component of.”

In addition to his partner, Sutherland is survived by his sister, Jean Huffman, of Greeley.

Plans for a memorial assistance are pending.

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