Coming Home: Austin native featured in Sunday ASO concert

Published 6:14 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2023

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By Amanda Lillie

Lifelong violinist Richard Roberts, an Austin native, is returning to his roots this Sunday for “A Richard Roberts Celebration” with the Austin Symphony Orchestra at the Knowlton Auditorium.

“I graduated from high school in Austin, so it’s exciting for me to go back,” Roberts said. “Every time I go back, I’m really psyched and happy to visit friends.”

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Growing up in Austin, Roberts — who now lives in Montreal, Canada — first picked up violin around 10 years old. At first, he just wanted an excuse to spend time with a girl he had a crush on. Little did he know, this instrument would become both his career and his life’s passion.

“There was a girl in our class who played violin. I wanted to be with her, so I signed up,” he said. “After sixth grade, she went to another school and I was stuck with the violin, so I started to get serious about it.”

By age 14, Roberts knew he wanted to be a violinist as an adult. But he didn’t know it was a viable career path until he started going to orchestra concerts in the Twin Cities and realized those musicians were playing music full-time for a living.

When he decided he wanted to attend Indiana University to study violin, his mother expressed concern.

“My mother was worried,” Roberts said. “She asked, ‘Can you get a job doing this?’ and I said, ‘I don’t care, mom. I want to do it.’”

Roberts laughed recalling a similar conversation years later with his own son, who expressed interest in being a jazz guitarist.

“When it’s your own son it’s different. I took off the musical hat and put on the dad hat and asked if he can get a job doing it, and he said the same thing I said many years before. So he went into jazz.”

Roberts has had many successes in his decades long career. He retired in September after 40 years as concertmaster of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Prior to that, he spent eight years as the assistant concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra.

He first made his debut as a soloist at age 17 with what was then known as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Throughout his career, he has appeared in solo and chamber music recitals across the globe, including South America, Australia, Mexico, Europe and North America. He even spent time studying in Switzerland with the celebrated master of the violin, Henryk Szeryng.

“There are places I still go to like Tokyo, Japan. I’ve been there 25 times,” he said. “European concerts are always interesting – hard, but interesting. You see practically a different city every day.”

Roberts has also had the honor of serving as guest concertmaster and leader of orchestras in Pittsburgh, Dallas, Australia, Norway, Canada and Brazil. He has played in concerts ranging from classical and traditional to contemporary, including the music from the movie “Casino Royale” and the video game “Final Fantasy.”

Sunday’s concert with the Austin Symphony Orchestra will have a traditional format with an overture, concerto and symphony. There will be three soloists – a pianist, cellist and Roberts on violin.

“The guys I’m playing with, the cellist is the principal cellist of the Minnesota Orchestra, Anthony Ross. He’s a first rate musician. And Roberto Plano is the pianist. I’m lucky to play with such distinguished musicians,” Roberts said. “It’s going to be nice to go back to Austin for a few days.”