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SF Symphony Pianist Robin Sutherland Dies at 69

December 21, 2020

First word came Friday morning in a Facebook post by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik:

“More than sad today at word that longtime San Francisco Symphony pianist Robin Sutherland has died. The first time I heard him perform I was enchanted; the first time I saw him on stage, I was dazzled. He was a gleaming golden presence — a gay man who loved women — and getting to know him over the years was one of life’s gifts.”

An outpouring of grief and love responded to the note. Sutherland, whose “one-line resume” was 46 years as SF Symphony’s principal keyboardist, was a constant, cherished presence in Davies Hall on and offstage — always mixing with the audience before and after performances, in the intermission, for no other reason than sharing his enthusiasms and wicked good humor. Single-handed, Sutherland made the Davies lobby the place where he represented the orchestra by knowing everyone’s name, making you feel at home.

He was 69 years old when he died, SF Symphony says “after a brief illness.” The Chronicle quotes Sutherland’s husband, Carlos Ortega, that he died of a brain tumor. Other survivors are sister Jean Huffman, and brother-in-law Steve Bojanowski. Twice in recent years, Sutherland fought and overcame cancer and resumed work.

His career began as a prodigy: A student of Rosina Lhevinne at the Juilliard School, Sutherland at 17 was the only American participant at the International Bach Festival, held at Lincoln Center. Later, he was a finalist in the International Bach Competition in Washington, D.C., and through his career has performed all of J.S. Bach’s keyboard works.

Juilliard was not to his liking. He moved to San Francisco, and while still an undergraduate at the SF Conservatory of Music, studying with Paul Hersh, he appeared as a soloist with the SF Symphony as a last-minute substitute in 1972 under the baton of Leon Fleischer. He so impressed then-music director Seiji Ozawa that in 1974 Ozawa appointed him to a position that did not exist before. Sutherland remained the orchestra’s principal keyboardist until he retired in 2018 from what is now known as the SF Symphony Principal Keyboards Jean & Bill Lane Chair.

Sutherland remained a favorite of audiences, his fellow musicians, and the music directors he served under. The last one, Michael Tilson Thomas, had this to say when learning of his death:

Robin Sutherland was an explorer of life and music. Decades of Symphony goers heard his magnificent piano performances. But there was lots more to him.

He effortlessly combined elegant virtuosity, championship of new music, ideal chamber music performances, and inspiring teaching. He was a master of the French and Hawaiian languages.

“He was a great wit and storyteller, a treasure trove of esoteric knowledge, amusing anecdotes and outrageous jokes. He was an original and pioneering gay man who was a constant friend and artistic role model for generations. We will all miss him greatly.”

Former SFS Executive Director Brent Assink said, “Every orchestra is a collection of highly talented individuals who imprint their own personalities on the institution. For the San Francisco Symphony, few were more distinctive than Robin Sutherland. His dignified onstage presence captured the eyes and ears of San Francisco audiences for decades. Offstage, he had a broader persona — delightfully funny, engaged with all members of the SFS family, and in love with his adopted city. Robin’s imprint will live on in the personality of the SFS for years to come. He was a gift to us all.”

“Robin Sutherland was the best orchestra pianist I ever encountered, and a totally unique personality,” said former SFS Executive Director Peter Pastreich. “He was incredibly gifted and could perform anything in the orchestral repertoire with ease. He was also a supremely able accompanist and recitalist. Robin was a beloved orchestra member, supportive of his colleagues, and someone I never heard say a cross word. He was already greatly missed when he retired from the San Francisco Symphony; his luminous presence in this world will be missed even more.”In a Facebook post, Larry Rothe, author of Music for a City, Music for the World, wrote:

Robin Sutherland bookended my years at the San Francisco Symphony. He was among the first to welcome me when I joined the staff in 1984—he always had a kind word for staff members—and he was there at my retirement party in 2013, playing William Bolcom’s “The Graceful Ghost,” a dreamy, wistful piece that meant a lot to him, so aptly did it reflect who he was, a person who understood adversity but remained hopeful. Like so many others, I’ll miss Robin’s joyful determination to live an expansive life and share his delight in the world. Robin brightened any day with his easy genius and with verbal acrobatics in at least three languages. A fan of P.G. Wodehouse, he possessed a Wodehousian worldview, skewed, as improbable as it was accurate, and devastatingly funny. When Robin told an off-color joke—and he seemed always ready with one—he managed to deliver it with a refined inevitability, making you believe you could share it with your grandmother. Those jokes were an odd counterpoint to an elegant artistry infused with heart and feeling. Dave Krehbiel, for many years the San Francisco Symphony’s principal horn, once summed up Robin’s playing: “I’ve never heard him perform anything that wasn’t driven by emotion.” This anguished year can’t erase the goodness and love Robin showered on us. For all its shortcomings, the world he left is better than the one he entered.”

Sutherland’s SF Symphony world premiere performances included John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music in 1982, and Bruce Bielawa’s trio Photo Session with clarinetist Sheryl Renk and cellist Nora Pirquet, in 1988. His U.S. premieres included chamber works by Jan Van Vlijmen and Tristan Murail. Notable SF Symphony premieres featuring Sutherland as soloist included Francis Poulenc’s Aubade, Concerto for Piano and 18 Instruments; Bohuslav Martinů’s Sinfonietta La Jolla; Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in D Major.

A remastered, limited edition release of Sutherland’s 1996 recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations was recently reissued on SFS violinist Sarn Oliver’s SarnWorks label. In addition to his activities with the San Francisco Symphony, Robin Sutherland was for 30 seasons co-director of the Telluride Chamber Music Festival in Colorado.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].