The musician who was Principal Keyboards with the San Francisco Symphony for 46 years has died. The Symphony announced that Robin Sutherland “passed away peacefully the morning of December 18 after a brief illness.” A beloved figure in the orchestra’s family, he retired from the Symphony in 2018, saying it had been the only job he’d ever had. Not exactly true, but he was appointed to the position while he was still an undergraduate student, by Seiji Ozawa, who created the position for Sutherland in 1974.
Michael Tilson Thomas said of him: “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. It was amazing to see him in Hawaii; his complete ease with the culture and his long blond ponytail, hanging down over his Juilliard warmup jacket, made him just as much of a standout on Kauai’s bluffs as in Davies Symphony Hall. 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.”
Sutherland first played with the San Francisco Symphony when he stepped in for an ill soloist in November of 1972, as a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He’d already studied at Juilliard in New York City. His love of chamber music and talents as a recitalist enabled audiences to see how accomplished he was in all aspects of playing the piano. He premiered many works, including John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music, and was co-director of the Telluride Chamber Music Festival for 30 years. Robin Sutherland was survived by his husband, Carlos Ortega, sister Jean Huffman, and brother-in-law Steve Bojanowski.
“In his many decades as a member of the San Francisco Symphony,” SFS CEO Mark Hanson said, “Robin was a preeminent musician, a compassionate friend, and a generous and witty spirit. We are heartened to know that Robin’s legacy will carry on through his numerous performances and recordings, and through the lives of his many students.”