Founding Father By Jason Roland Smith
Maestro Robert Rÿker
Closing Volume 30 of the ITEA Journal with the summer issue and marking thirty years of T.U.B.A./I.T.E.A. activity is an excellent opportunity to discuss Robert Rÿker, one of our charter members. Between the years of 1967–1973, many people were laying the groundwork and rightly establishing the world’s first organization devoted entirely to our instrument. This culminated in 1973 with the First International Tuba Symposium-Workshop hosted by Harvey Phillips at Indiana University. I pursued an opportunity to visit with Robert Rÿker, whose contributions beginning in 1967 are some of the most important proponents leading to this conference.
On December 27, 2002, I met Robert Rÿker in Franklin, Indiana to spend a day with him, his wife, and mother. He had just presented a lecture entitled Style in Conducting (provided in this issue) at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, Illinois. We discussed many topics other than our organization. I learned that he is something of a renaissance man. He maintains a high degree of interests and is simply destined to be an originator of ideas possessing tools and creativity to simply make things happen. Beginning in 1967, Rÿker diligently committed to organizing a fraternity for tuba and euphonium players. He readily recognizes that the idea was shared between many people and was often a topic of discussion between Bill Bell and friends, often while kicking back at McSorley’s Ale House.
Rÿker diligently prompted the course for collecting, coordinating, establishing, and simply devising many of the ideals that this great organization continues to explore, preserve, and promote. When asked about the beginnings of T.U.B.A., Rÿker’s eyes lit up and he recounted the following:
“Well, please understand that what I did stands on the shoulders of real giants. When I was a student at Indiana I made a trip to New York and arranged a meeting with William Bell of the New York Philharmonic, who received me very, very generously as he always did. Following a concert he invited me to join him at McSorley’s Ale House where he treated me to a wonderful meal. I forgot what we ate that night. I just remember that being with him was such a special treat. I may be inventing, but I have a feeling that this is where the idea was first proposed of having a worldwide fraternity of tuba players. How wonderful it would be to get together and talk tuba, to talk about all kinds of things. In 1960 I began my professional career in the Montreal Symphony, and it was just my assistant and I that began to pursue the idea. Often there were visitors to Montreal. One special instance John Taylor was in town and together with my students we had a social gathering similar to those Bell would have at McSorley’s, and here we all discussed the idea of a tuba fraternity. Then I said to everyone, ‘what would we need to start a tuba fraternity?’
First of all, we would need to know a lot of tuba players, their names and addresses. In my file for the Montreal Brass Quintet, I had such information for about four hundred or so tuba players. Then there was silence followed by a brief conversation of which I don’t really recall, but we did decide we might as well start it because we had the tools and somebody had to do it. So I said – and I do remember this – that I would be secretary and someone should be president. Please remember these were all my students. They eventually pressed for a different set of officers, and I was chosen president and Don Trigg was chosen secretary. Actually, we were only starting small as we simply were trying to make a connection between everyone that we could find to start something.
So, it started with some very simple mechanical steps. We were real dreamers, and we weren’t great organizers as the likes of Harvey [Phillips]. And we weren’t famous like Arnold Jacobs or Bill Bell. All we were doing was organizing, and I didn’t think it was much more than that. We decided we needed to write a letter to everybody for whom I had information, collected via the brass quintet. So following a symphony concert, Don [Trigg], who was also playing second tuba – must have been Strauss or something – and I went to the printing department at McGill University where I was teaching to set up a letter head. We printed this nice letterhead that said Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association across the top and a worldwide fraternity across the bottom. We sent it to everybody with the indication that they were automatically members of T.U.B.A. and included their shield. Don was a great calligrapher, and he hand lettered every single one of the four hundred sent out. We then designated four types of membership – professional, student, honorary, and associate. We sent four honorary memberships, and of course these were for Arnold Jacobs, William Bell, Harvey Phillips, and John Fletcher. And then there was correspondence, all this correspondence just kept flooding in, and I wanted to compile a quarterly newsletter. So, for the first one I wanted to make a general briefing and then provide some extracts from the letters. Soon enough I realized that this was going to be a huge newsletter. It was too long. It only contained people expressing how great it was to have a tuba fraternity!”
Robert Rÿker has led an exciting and innovative life while being an accomplished performer. He studied tuba as a music education major at Indiana University (Bloomington, Indiana) and later put this degree to use teaching public school in Michigan. His only teacher was Thomas Beversdorf (intermittently), however he recalls one session each with Arnold Jacobs and William Bell.
“As a student, I drove to Indiana and played for Mr. Bell. This was after I started with the Montreal Symphony. During the day we spent together, I was really impressed with his students. At the conclusion, he asked if I had a mute, I said no. Then he pushed a mute in my bell and said send me twenty bucks [laughs]. But mainly we just talked about tuba and especially teaching. He mentioned that he was originally apprehensive when IU first approached him because he only had a bachelor’s degree. So, that shows the man’s simplicity.”
Rÿker is otherwise a self-taught tubist, possibly, as he says, one of the last of his generation to be primarily self-taught. He began playing professionally at seventeen as principal tuba in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. He became principal tubist with the Montreal Symphony in 1960, and, as a member of the symphony’s brass quintet, he commissioned many works including Morley Calvert’s Suite from the Monteregian Hills. Rÿker’s career almost took him to the Boston Symphony:
“When I was auditioning for the Boston Symphony in 1966 there was a huge crowd of people auditioning when Chester Schmitz got the job. I went through the four rounds of auditions to the final round, and I ended up as the second choice. Harvey agreed to play for me in Montreal while I was away in Boston auditioning. It was one of the most rewarding moments after this audition knowing that I at least did not disgrace myself. Flying back into this beautiful city in a two-seater plane – a Cherokee that I was flying by the way – it was so heartwarming to come back home. And then, there was Harvey in my living room. He immediately asked how I did, and I said I didn’t get the job. Then we talked through the night into the morning. He then got in his car and drove back to New York City for more recording sessions. He must have left at dawn.”
While in Montreal, Rÿker explored other interests. He completed an acoustical study of the Montreal Symphony’s performance hall. He also studied ballet to learn more about the relationship between the body’s movement and music. One of the most important influences for Rÿker was his work with Maestro Zubin Mehta, then music director of the Montreal Symphony. In 1973 he retired from the MSO and enrolled in the doctoral program at the Peabody Conservatory of Music to begin pursuit of a career in conducting. Coincidentally, the conservatory awarded him Master’s degree equivalency based on his broad experiences as a professional tubist.
Upon completion of the doctorate, he accepted an invitation to serve as Music Director of the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra (India) in 1976. Soon after, he returned to Canada on an invitation of the Canada Arts Council and founded the North Bay Symphony Orchestra. Upon moving to Japan, he founded the Japan Sinfonia in 1984, an ensemble that regularly performed in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall. Rÿker continues to reside in Tokyo while making conducting appearances, which not only include the Japan Philharmonic, New Japan Philharmonic, Tokyo Philharmonic, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony, but also recent appearances in Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Monaco, the Netherlands, Peru, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, Ukraine, and the United States.
Rÿker’s most recent accomplishment is the founding of the National Philharmonic of India, of which he serves as Music Director. His work with this organization is nothing short of profound, not only for the artistic merit but also the orchestra’s role as part of the country’s cultural identity.
Rÿker is a vibrant individual with much to his credit, yet you would never hear him mention it. He is a modest individual who continues to maintain an interest in ITEA and observe the organization’s growth. He is and will always be a tubist at heart. One of his final comments at the end of the day was “when I sleep and dream of music, I dream I’m playing the tuba.”