There is an interesting man behind the music.
George Del Gobbo has a wickedly dry sense of humor and can control a conversation in much the same way he conducts the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.
Del Gobbo, a native of Pennsylvania, has made Columbus his home for nearly three decades. At 68, he has no retirement plans.
Recently, Ledger-Enquirer reporter Chuck Williams sat down with Del Gobbo at the symphony's office in the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.
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Del Gobbo was loose and chatty. Here are excerpts of the interview, with some of the questions edited for length and the order of some of the questions rearranged for clarity.
You've got a pretty nice home here in the RiverCenter.
We are incredibly fortunate to have this building. There's no two ways about that.
You've been in Columbus now for 28 years. This isn't where you started, is it?
No. I remember when I came here to interview for the job, they drove me around the town and they drove me past the museum, which was new at the time, and said: "We raised $12 million to build this building and that's never happened before in Columbus and it will never happen again." And I said, "OK, fine." What do you say? And then 10 years later they raised a hundred-and-something million to build this building and to help all of the other arts organizations in town. It was remarkable.
You were involved in the Columbus Challenge, or you were certainly a beneficiary of the Columbus Challenge, right?
When they said they were going to try and raise north of $90 million to support the arts programs in Columbus, what was your initial reaction?
I had really no doubt that it would happen. It seemed as if everybody who would be essential to such an endeavor was on board, and I thought there was a good chance that it would happen. And since all of the arts organizations were willing to suspend any kind of capital campaigns and dedicate their effort to the Challenge, that made everybody in the community focused on that one thing, and I never doubted that it would happen, really.
Why is there such a value in this community on the visual and performing arts?
In terms of this building and the Columbus Challenge, I think there are a number of reasons. I think people see not only the intrinsic value of the arts in the community for what they can do in terms of just improving people's lives. But also, I think a lot of people see the economic value of the arts in the community and the amount of money that it brings in and generates.
In terms of the RiverCenter, I think people with a vision for what uptown Columbus or downtown Columbus should look like recognized the fact that having something like this in this spot was important, and having a good portion of the university downtown would provide a center of gravity to downtown that would be valuable to the whole development of the downtown area. That kind of vision developed over a number of years because when I moved here there was nothing like that being said.
You were in the Three Arts Theatre, right?
We were in the Three Arts Theatre which was OK for what it was. But it was rundown and not maintained very well.
The roof leaked?
Leaking roof, not enough bathrooms, not enough dressing rooms, not enough anything. Acoustically it was actually not bad, but every other way it was not so good. We had a resident population of rats we hoped didn't come out during concerts.
There were issues.
Yeah boy, were there!
And you have been in this building for...?
Our first concert was in May 2002.
As you bring in younger musicians and incorporate them into your symphony, the ones who didn't have the experience of playing in the Three Arts Theatre, do they understand what they have?
A large number of our musicians are freelance players, so they play in a lot of different places. So, they certainly understand that the situation here in Columbus in terms of what we have as a performance venue is something that is special for a city the size of Columbus. The younger people -- you know we employ a fair number of students from the Schwob School of Music -- I don't know that they appreciate it completely because they really haven't had enough of life experience to know if you go to a town of 200,000 you might not find this kind of building. So, I'm not sure that they get it but it doesn't matter.
Do you feel a sense of pride every time you get on that stage?
I do. I often -- when I have to go over to the other side of the building for some reason -- I'll walk across the stage and look up and I still don't believe that it's there. It's just a very attractive building, an attractive hall, and aesthetically pretty good for a multi-purpose hall. There are challenges when you have a multi-purpose hall, but it's not bad. I would say it's good. So, it's remarkable. I still don't believe it.
You've lived in Columbus now for 28 years. Has this become a home for you now?
I think so, yeah.
Where were you raised?
I was raised in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Well, I don't know. I didn't really start studying music until I was 12.
What was the first instrument?
I started on the violin in junior high school. I'm not sure how I got to that. I do remember when I was in the sixth grade our science teacher brought a violin into class and was using the violin to talk about sound and the acoustics of sound. I remember being really fascinated by the violin.
I had an uncle that was a musician and he was always introducing me to things -- like in the '50s -- high fidelity and stereo, all of those audio things. He was really into that and he would drag me to his house and sit me down between two giant speakers and blow my hair back. So, he had some influence, but I don't think I displayed any talent that was so undeniable that my parents said, "We've got to get this kid music lessons."
You enjoyed it, but it wasn't just the thing for you.
I remember as a child having a lot of toy musical instruments around and being fascinated by them, but we never made the connection that I should take lessons or study music.
When did you get serious about it?
Seventh grade. The first day I played the violin.
Did you get a private instructor?
Immediately. As soon as I started to play I knew that's what I wanted to do.
What did private lessons cost when you started?
In those days, it was like $3.50 for half an hour.
What is it today?
It all depends on the teacher. ... You might pay $25 for half an hour. I'm not in that business.
Were you in the marching band or where you violin all the way?
No. Fortunately, violins don't march -- at least not in Pennsylvania.
How did you end up in Rochester?
When it was time to go away to school there were a number of options and my teacher had previous students who went to the Eastman School. So, he encouraged me to apply there and I did. I was fortunate enough to get in.
You are of the age of the Vietnam era so you came out of college and enlisted --or were you drafted?
I was in the first lottery -- if you remember that -- and I had a lottery number that was right on the edge that everybody could be drafted, maybe not. So, I didn't want to take any chances. I auditioned for some of the service bands and I was lucky enough to get into the Army Band.
And it turned out to be a really good thing because it gave me the chance to meet a lot of great people and we were stationed only in Washington. We never traveled. The Army strings were like a separate component of the Army Band, so we played mostly at the White House. I spent three years playing for Richard Nixon and playing dessert music at state dinners and things like that.
What was that like?
I got a chance to go to school while I was there, so it was a good thing for me -- it turned out to be a good thing. I got a chance to save some money so when I got out of the Army I could go to Europe to study for a while. It worked out well. Playing in the White House was crazy. I played Tricia Nixon's wedding. Everybody seems to think that's the high point of my career.
What song did she and her dad dance to?
I do not remember. His favorite song I think was "Fascination." We played that a lot at the state dinners. But we would go there on a bus from Fort Myer and they would put us up in a big men's room -- that was our holding area in the White House big enough to hold 20 people -- and we would sit there for an hour and a half because we always had to be early in case the bus broke down. We could walk there in three minutes.
We were strolling strings so we would walk around and play for all of the people. It was fine, it was fun. Every once in a while you'd look down and see somebody famous you recognized. And then we would walk out, thumb our noses at the Marine Band who had to play there three and a half hours because we had to play for only five minutes.
Sounds like you had a better gig than they did.
Oh yeah. They were sitting out in the lobby; they were just like Muzak for the White House. All these great musicians, it's amazing. And I did that for three years.
That's not a bad way to spend your Army career.
It was better than what the alternatives would have been.
How many years were you in the Army?
When you got through, what did you do?
I went to Rome, Italy, to study with a man named Franco Ferrara who was a great conductor, musician, teacher. I spent about a year and a half with him.
By this time you wanted to be a conductor.
I wanted to be a conductor from about when I was 16, still in high school. My high school orchestra teacher let me conduct the orchestra a lot of the time when I was a senior. That's when I caught the bug.
What about being a conductor was attractive to you?
Gosh, I hate to answer that question. I just thought it was the coolest thing. I have to say I enjoy being in charge of things -- certain things, not everything, but sometimes when I'm involved in something I like to be in charge.
And a conductor to a certain degree certainly is in charge, but I don't know. It was something that was very appealing to me. I think as a violinist I would not have had much of a career. I started too late and I don't think I was technically going to be proficient enough to make a living doing that. So, it wasn't an agonizing decision to switch to conducting, which I did after a year or two in school.
What is the most important lesson you've learned as a conductor?
Well, I don't know that they are lessons I've learned. I think a lot of conductors don't display proper respect for the orchestra that they are conducting. For a lot of conductors it's all about them, and I try not to do that.
It's a kind of profession where you have to have a certain amount of ego to even presume that you're going to stand in front of 85 people who are all as well-educated as you are, who are all as capable musically as you are, and you are going to try to get them to do what you want them to do. You have to have a little bit of ego to do that.
But at the same time, you have to understand that dynamic -- that they are as good as you -- and you have to work to get what you want out of the orchestra in a way that respects their training and their feelings and their beliefs. ...
The hardest part I think of being a conductor is that psychological part of respecting what someone brings to the table, but at the same time if you want to change it or mold it a little bit, how do you do that without insulting them or without making them feel less? Because you are asking them to change what they think, what they do.
When we see you on stage on a Saturday night conducting, how much work has gone into that hour and a half?
The work is endless. Immediately preceding the performance obviously there are rehearsals. ... We have four rehearsals each roughly four and a half hours at length. But prior to that, the musicians have to prepare their music. They come to the first rehearsal knowing their parts.
At 68, do you appreciate music more than you did as a college freshman?
You know, I have the same enthusiasm for it, I think. I have the same love of it. I have a hard time thinking about what my life would be like if music were not in it. I don't think that has diminished at all. You know when I was a college freshman I didn't have any obligations or duties. All I had to do was just practice and play and enjoy music.
I didn't have to support a family. I didn't have to do anything. I didn't have to raise money. I didn't have to get a job. And as you go through life, you have all of these circumstances that you run into -- it changes a little bit the way you feel. It can diminish your enthusiasm, but I think I've got the greatest job in the world. Why wouldn't I be enthusiastic about it?
You are fortunate in that you are doing something past the normal retirement age that you started doing as a seventh grader.
Conductors never retire.
No, they never retire. Why retire? Retire to what?
The golf course?
No, you can still play golf. As long as you can hear, you can do what you're doing. As long as you can move one finger, you can conduct. I've seen conductors who have had strokes that literally can't move half of their body still conduct and still really doing a great job.
It's an intellectual thing, it's a mental thing. It's not so much a physical thing. As long as you still have your hearing, you're good. And the desire to do it.
This symphony is on solid financial footing. It has an endowment. That's not the case with all symphonies across the country right now. 2008 took a toil on them didn't it?
Every time there is a recession or any kind of economic disruption, nonprofits suffer, for sure. And orchestras are nonprofit in the truest sense of the word. So, there's always going to be stress on an organization when the economy goes bad.
So, that's not an unusual thing. And some orchestras are managed better than others, and sometimes bad management is brought to light in the most striking way when the economy goes south, and you can't just sneak by anymore. Unfortunately, when those things happen the musicians are the ones to suffer the most. They're the ones we should be caring about the most. Without the musicians, none of us would have jobs.
When 2008 hit and the economy contracted, was it at that point you realized how important the Columbus Challenge was, that y'all had a security that some other organizations didn't have? And I'm not saying it was perfect.
I don't know how many orchestras our size have the kind of endowment that we have. It certainly is helpful and it certainly does make a difference. But with all endowments, we lost a portion of our endowment -- our endowment went down during that. It's just a fact of life that most orchestras live on the edge; that's just the way it is. We are a per-service orchestra.
You pay musicians ...
As we need them, basically. So, from one season to the next, we can adjust the amount of work that we offer. We have more control over our budget than, say, the Atlanta Symphony does because they are a full-time orchestra, or they used to be -- they're not anymore. But they had obligations for 52 weeks to 95 players, and that was it. They had to play 95 players 52 weeks no matter what they did. So, when you have those kind of contracts, you have much less flexibility. So, consequently for them when it comes time to renegotiate a new contract, they've had problems the last two rounds in negotiations because the economic support just hasn't been there.
So, they have cut back to 42 weeks, they've cut back the number of players, they've had to do all of that. Well, a per-service orchestra has a little more flexibility in dealing with those economic fluctuations without doing so much damage to the orchestra.
How many musicians are in your orchestra?
We have about 75 that we give contracts to.
How many of them come from Columbus?
About a third.
Where are the rest of them from?
Most of them come from Atlanta, but they come from everywhere. If you drew a 200-mile radius -- a circle around Columbus -- that's our area from as far away as Birmingham, Chattanooga, Tallahassee, Auburn, Macon.
What's the most difficult instrument to find in an orchestra?
We don't really have too much trouble finding any particular instrument. I suppose if you forced me to answer that question, oboes. There are fewer oboes available.
How many oboes are in the orchestra?
We use typically two or three -- once in a while, four. And we have people we hire all of the time that we are contracted to. Then we have a substitute list in the event those people aren't available.
When you get up there and you get ready to start a performance, what's going through your mind before the first note?
I'm focused on what we're about to do. We have rehearsed and we have tried to pace the rehearsals so the best performance will be the one that actually counts. We rehearse always on that day, so we have already played that day for three hours.
To somebody who is untrained and uneducated musically, it looks like there's all of this activity. How do you describe it to someone with absolutely no musical inclination?
I had a teacher once who said if you ever get in front of a really good orchestra, like the Philadelphia Orchestra, let's say, all you've got to do is start them and just get out of the way.
What a conductor does is basically provide a reference to the musicians so they can play together, so they can start together, so they can stop together, so they can make the necessary changes if the tempo of the music changes -- just somebody to help them get through so they can all look at the same place and get the same information that they can use to play together.
Most orchestras can play without a conductor easily. So, it's just convenience. Besides that, the job of the conductor is to kind of bring to the table a concept, a conception of what the music should be, of what the composer intended when he wrote that particular piece for that music to sound like. Every conductor is going to have a different idea, but you have to have something to work from.
What happens if you have a bad night?
Well, you can really mess the orchestra up. It's not easy to do but you can do it. I don't know if I've had a really bad night. I make mistakes every once in a while, but I don't know if I've ever made a catastrophic mistake.
There are nights maybe when you feel like you are just a little bit off somehow, but you have to have the power of concentration to be able to put everything out of your mind and concentrate totally on what you're doing. And if you've prepared the orchestra properly and if you've rehearsed well, they almost don't need you. So, sometimes you're just going along for the ride and enjoying the sound.
What's your favorite score?
I can't answer that question; I don't know.
What's the most difficult score you've ever performed?
That's hard to say, too. I think that "The Rite of Spring" by Stravinsky offers some challenges because it has complicated meters -- rhythms you don't run into every day. You can have a score that sounds really, really simple, like a Mozart Symphony, and that can be more difficult to make that sound proper than a piece by a contemporary composer like, let's say, Krzysztof Penderecki, who writes these amazing pieces that are in totally non-traditional notation, which are very difficult to do and to put together.
But somehow those can be easier than the simplest piece by Mozart or Bach. So, it's hard to say that something is most difficult. There are pieces with lots of notes in them and those make demands on the players.
Is music a universal language?
Well, I think it's the only language that you can appreciate without having to speak. If you play a Beethoven symphony for anybody anywhere, they are going to have a reaction to it, and they will have the possibility of understanding it at some level. But if someone came in here and spoke Russian to us, I don't know about you, but I wouldn't have any idea.
But if somebody in Moscow that is a violinist who did not speak English could sit in your orchestra and play.
Oh yeah, sure. Music notation is universal. We're talking about Western music now. Anybody who plays a Western instrument is familiar with that notation.
We have Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and composers that people know but don't know a lot about music. Are those composers still relevant today?
Absolutely. When you're talking about Beethoven, Bach and Mozart and people like that, you're talking about Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Shakespeare -- you're talking about the greatest human beings who ever lived, the greatest intellects, the greatest souls -- and those people have decided to express their perception of the human spirit through music that never goes out of style. There's music that sounds dated, and again, it depends on your level of sophistication, but the great masterpieces of music will be relevant for as long as there's anybody left to hear them because they express something that's so uniquely and universally human that as long as humans are around that music will speak to them.
Do you feel a special care when you do a Mozart, a Bach or a Beethoven?
I was raised, trained -- especially when I was in Italy -- to believe that the composer is like a god, and whatever the composer wants, that's what is right. You would never even say this because you would be severely reprimanded, even if it's a second-rate composer.
My teacher did not recognize second-rate composers. If he was doing a piece, that was the best music in the world right then, and it deserved your complete and utter respect and service. It doesn't matter if someone thinks it's good or bad or indifferent or poorly written or whatever, if you're performing it that's the best and it deserves your complete dedication and everything you can bring to make it sound good.
And that's what you try to do.
That's what you try to do; you don't judge it. If you really don't like it, don't program it. But if you decide you're going to play it, then you can't do anything else.
Do you still get excited on performance night?
Sure, absolutely. I always look forward to our concerts.
What kind of music do you listen to when you're away from work and you're just listening to music for enjoyment?
Not much. I don't listen to a lot of music.
You don't listen to rock 'n' roll?
I will. Most of that kind of listening happens when I'm in the car, and when I'm at home I don't listen to much music. I think about music every waking moment, so listening to it is sometimes not necessary. Why would I want to relax by doing that? But if I'm driving somewhere, I'll go around the radio and listen to whatever I find. And I listen to everything.
What did you listen to on the radio growing up?
You know in the '50s, what did you hear? "How Much Is That Doggie In the Window," "The Tennessee Waltz" by Patti Page. I enjoy all kinds of music. I'm more fond of some things than others, but I'll give them all a chance.
What do you do to relax?
I like to read. I like sports. I like to cook, obviously.
You are probably a Steelers fan.
No. Actually, I grew up a Browns fan and Indians when I was a little kid.
So, you associate with the Cleveland sports teams.
Not so much anymore. That's a long time ago. When I lived in Texas I hated the Cowboys. And when we moved to Washington, there was a George Allen era and Redskins football, and that city went nuts. You could not escape the Redskins. So, I kind of got close to the Redskins but they have been such a sorry franchise for the last 10 or 12 years, I've kind of given up on them.
You've lived in a lot of different places. How did this become home?
I was in Fort Worth and I was the assistant or associate conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony, and I was basically the second banana and I was just looking for some place where I could be the music director. I was applying for jobs everywhere and for some reason Columbus liked my application and gave me an interview and here we are. I have from time to time explored other options, but nothing has come up that would take me away from here. I've enjoyed it tremendously.
So, you're not looking to retire anytime soon.
I'll retire when I'm deaf. I'm not looking to retire.
How is your hearing now?
How is your hearing now?
(Laughter.) If I could think of something I'd rather do I would probably do it, but I can't think of anything. I think without music I would be a lost soul.