Remembering Robin Wood

Jan 3, 2012
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Published January 3, 2012

Robin Wood

Robin Wood FRAM, LL.D. | 1924 – 2004

Principal Emeritus, Victoria Conservatory of Music

Although he used to boast, “I’ve never worked a day in my life”, Robin Wood accomplished more professionally and personally than most people ever dream of. A consummate pianist, an inspiring and compassionate teacher, and a globe-trotting adjudicator, he was also a perceptive mentor and the kindest of friends. In his four decades at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, he embodied the best to which the Conservatory aspires: high musical standards, along with a deep commitment to encouraging students to grow as both musicians and as persons.

Robin Wood - 1930

Robin Wood was born in Esquimalt in 1924. He attended Esquimalt High School and Victoria College, and studied piano with Stanley Shale until 1946 when he won an Associated Board Scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England.

At the Academy he studied with Vivian Langrish. He carried off many of the Academy’s awards, including the Queen’s Prize, the 1958 Harriet Cohen Commonwealth Medal for most outstanding Commonwealth pianist of the year, and the Worshipful Company of Musicians’ Medal. He also won the Boise Scholarship, which permitted him to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and later in Switzerland with Edwin Fischer.

Through Edwin Fischer, Robin Wood’s teaching lineage links directly with Beethoven: Edwin Fischer studied with Martin Krause, a pupil of Franz Liszt. Liszt studied with Carl Czerny, who studied with Beethoven.

It was during his trip to London in 1946 that he met Winifred Scott, also a scholarship student en route to the Royal Academy. On board ship they competed to use the same piano for practice. Despite this rocky beginning, they married two years later. They were partners in both life and music, performing frequently as a two-piano team.

Robin also performed as a soloist and chamber music player. He broadcast more than a hundred performances on the BBC and was soloist with many orchestras, including the London Symphony, BBC Birmingham, BBC Welsh and Northern Orchestras. He gave many first performances of works by William Matthias, Gerhard Wuensch, Walter Bucyznski, Arthur Bliss, Peter Racine Fricker and Robert Simpson. He was a member of the St. Cecilia Trio for many years.

Appointed Professor at the Royal Academy in 1954, he was later named a Fellow of the Academy, the highest honour it bestows. FRAMs are awarded by invitation to eminent musicians who have a connection to the Academy. There are currently around 300 holders of the honour; the maximum allowable is 350.

In 1965, Robin and his wife were invited to leave their flourishing careers at the Royal Academy of Music to assist at a new music school in Victoria. Although they were both busy and happy with their performing and teaching careers in London, they agreed to come for a trial period of two years.

Somehow those two years grew into four decades as they performed, taught, and served first as Principal and Vice-Principal of the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and then as Principal Emeritus and Vice-Principal Emerita. Robin also taught at the University of Victoria, where he was Professor Emeritus of Piano. His students from the Conservatory and the University of Victoria are recognized world wide and under his inspired teaching have become fine musicians who pass on his profound understanding of the musical arts and try to reflect his unfailing generosity of spirit and humour.

He performed frequently on CBC Radio and was a founding member of Trio Victoria, with Conservatory colleagues violinist Sydney Humphreys and cellist James Hunter. He adjudicated and examined all over Europe, Asia and North America. For 22 years he hosted Music Victoria, a weekly television music program on Cable 10 and 11 in the Greater Victoria area. The program highlighted many young musicians for Victoria audiences, including May Ling Kwok, Richard Margison, and Walter Prossnitz.

Robin Wood was loved and respected, not only for his immense skill as a musician and his Robin Wood - Cameragifted teaching, but for his irrepressible sense of humour, his ability to play the violin with an orange, his love of cats, hockey, and Beethoven, and above all, his generous spirit.

His pupils marveled at his ability to play any piece of music from memory. They tell affectionate stories of his cats, Boris and Dolce, of his fascination with computers and the latest electronic gadgets, his pride in his “perfect Cantonese,” his outrageous puns, and his devotion to the Vancouver Canucks. If it came to a choice between a student recital and a hockey game, he would bring his walkman to the recital and enjoy both.

To his students he dispensed nicknames, hugs, dinners out, rides home, bad jokes, and always, the music. His teaching tool-kit included scribbled caricatures of cats, hockey analogies, endless patience, laughter, the highest of standards, and the admonishment to always play from the heart.

Many of his students are now professional musicians themselves, performing and passing on his legacy of fine teaching to new generations. Some of his students have made other career choices, with his encouragement and understanding and the realization that music can remain part of their lives even if it is not their livelihood.

In 1995 both Robin and his wife were made Honourary Life Members of the BC Registered Music Teachers’ Association. Both were also named Honourary Citizens of Victoria and Life Members of the Victoria Conservatory of Music.

On February 26, 2004, the Honourable Iona V. Campagnolo, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, bestowed Lifetime Achievement Awards on Robin and Winifred for their immense contribution to the art of music in Canada. The following evening, at the Conservatory’s 40th Anniversary Gala Concert, Her Honour spoke in praise of Dr. and Mrs. Wood.

After a courageous battle with cancer, Robin died at the age of 79 on February 28 with his family at his side. Music was playing at the time: a recording of performances by Conservatory faculty and students at the previous evening’s 40th Anniversary concert. He is survived by his wife Winifred, son Benjamin, grandson Brian, and daughter Laura. To no one’s surprise, he continued to teach until a week before his death.

A concert to celebrate his life took place on March 27, 2004. Pianists May Ling Kwok,Robin & Winifred Wood in Alix Goolden Hall Stephanie Chow, Miranda Wong, Cary Chow, Arne Sahlén, Karen Hsiao, and soprano Susan Young presented a programme of works by Barber, Brahms, Chopin, Granados, Haydn, Liszt, and Richard Strauss. The concert finished with a recording of Robin Wood in a 1983 performance of Chopin’s lyrical Barcarolle in F sharp major, Op. 60. The concert was broadcast on Westcoast Performance on Sunday April 25 at 12:06 pm on CBC Radio Two.