Robin Howell (1955-2023) obituary, historic reed instrument specialist

Robin Howell passed away in Toronto on Sunday, April 9, at the age of 67 after a long battle with illness. Robin was born in Los Angeles into a family of artists, surrounded by art and music. His study of music began at a very early age under the tutelage of his elder brother, David, a singer, opera historian and composer. Robin began serious study of the recorder and clarinet at age seven, his first professional engagements at age eleven. Under the guidance of Dr. George Skapski at Cal State Northridge he began his research into early reed instruments, which continued lifelong. Having fallen in love with the bassoon at age twelve, Robin was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Don Christlieb, his long time teacher, mentor, colleague and friend. Robin had learned the basics of machining and silversmithing from his father and his uncle, and already had a keen interest in instrument making. Together he and Christlieb explored the bassoon and its music, both contemporary and Baroque, and the inner workings of both reed and bocal. Robin founded RBH Bocals, making hand-wrought bocals with specialized bore designs in many alloys. As a maker, his primary aim was freedom of musical function.

A true polymath with prodigious memory, Robin pursued study of psychology, philosophy, massage therapy, acupuncture and mycology. After a year living in Lima, Peru, where he played bassoon with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional del Perú, he spent four years at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, in Basel, Switzerland, with a dual major in Baroque bassoon and recorder.

Robin wrote several unpublished chamber works marked by his love of jazz, European village music and rhythmic complexity. He has the distinction of having taken composition lessons with Milhaud and Stravinsky early in his life.

Robin performed and taught extensively, specializing in the bassoon literature and performance practices of the baroque and early classical periods. He has performed and recorded with many orchestras and chamber ensembles including Basler Orchester-Gesellschaft, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra, Apollo Ensemble, Amadeus Winds, Il Complesso Barocco, Tafelmusik, Ensemble Ricercare and Divertimento Ensemble, to name but a few. He prided himself in exploring the limits of musical expression. His performances were evocatively nuanced with refined articulation and striking dynamics.

Robin’s active performing career was cut short by Lyme disease in the mid ’90s. Even through this nearly fatal encounter, he continued his bocal making and research, consultation on performance practice and fine instrument voicing, tuning and restoration as well as teaching. In recent years he contributed to the study of the aulos, making reconstructions of the ancient double-pipe and developing techniques for crafting plausible reeds for the instrument based on ancient texts, iconography and archaeological specimens.

Robin was a remarkable musician, innovative researcher and skilled craftsman with a kind-hearted soul. His life made an impact on many students, colleagues, friends and family.

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