Happy 75th Birthday Robin Miller (1942-2014)
I first met Robin Miller in the late 1970's. He was the principal oboe of the newly created Scottish Chamber Orchestra, based in Edinburgh at the Queens Hall with John Tunnell leading. Michael Storrs took over the management and with Jukka-Pekka Saraste, Sir Charles Mackerras and Jerzy Maksymuik conducting they soon established themselves as one of the top chamber orchestras in the UK, touring all over the world.
He was giving an informal recital in the Queens Hall bar area. He played Malcolm Arnold's Sonatina. Maybe he played something else too, I can't remember. But I do remember the slow movement in particular. It was mesmerically beautiful.
My father had recently moved to Edinburgh in 1973, his last posting as an RA officer with the Ulster Scottish regiment. I had started school at George Watson's in Edinburgh a few years later in January 1975 and had won a Macfarlane Scholarship to study the oboe with Philip Hill (Principal BBCSSO) in Glasgow on Saturday mornings as a Junior at the RSAMD. David Nicholson the principal flute with the SCO coached the wind chamber ensemble at the Junior RSAMD when I played principal oboe. Julia Girdwood principal oboe of ROH Covent Garden since the late 1980's was principal oboe in the RSAMD Junior orchestra. David suggested that I should think of having lessons with Robin, which I did in 1979.
I remember driving out to the house that Robin and Mary had in Perth just after their first son William was born. I had just passed my driving test and my parents kindly had said I could use their car. I remember arriving early and going to get a cup of coffee in a hotel. Then Mrs Miller (Mary) admonishing me for not just knocking on the door even though I was early. I remember addressing Mary as Mrs Miller on that day - and for me, on some levels, she will always be Mrs M.
Listening to his playing again more recently whilst preparing his pages on the Lonarc Foundation website, I realise even more now, having played with so many different oboists, how similar our styles of playing are. Maybe in the two years of having lessons with him before I came to the RAM in London, he influenced me more than I realised. I also found myself moved to tears listening to him play again, his presence so strongly embalmed in these recordings.
I soon became friends with Mary and Robin, their children - William, Ellen, Edward & James and Katy & Jo-Jo, Robins children from his first marriage; Mary's mother Margaret, her sister Elizabeth and husband Brian and their four children. Mary and Robin in effect became my musical 'god-parents'. I was often babysitting the children and cousins from soon after they were born, during the holidays as a student and accompanying them abroad to festivals like Aix-en-Provence.
After I moved into my flat in Marble Arch I often had the Millers 'en masse' staying over night sleeping on spare beds, sofas and cushions on the floor, taking any space available, when they were en route from the continent back to Edinburgh.
Whilst at the RAM it was lovely to be able to pop into the Wigmore Hall when he was rehearsing with the Nash Ensemble, or nip into a rehearsal at the RFH or Barbican when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra were down for a concert.
I remember rushing on a rainy evening, from having played at Janice's (one of their nannies) wedding in Ayr, to attend the premier of Peter Maxwell Davies 'Strathclyde Concerto No 1 for Oboe and Orchestra' at the Queens Hall and unfortunately crashing my parents car by going into the back of a stationary car at traffic lights, I had not seen in the dip of the road, having come off the motorway. After the concert attending a party for Mary's birthday hosted by Elizabeth in Royal Crescent, Elizabeth commiserating and helpfully suggesting I take some of the left over cheese from the party to my Dad the next day as a peace offering when confessing. I was banned from driving one of their cars for a good 15 years afterwards!
I remember evenings full of wine and fantastic food (Mary is a superb cook) and interesting talks. Robin once gravely intoned, whilst puffing on a cigarillo with a glass of wine in hand - "Be careful what you wish for Doodles, because that is what you will get".
I remember the model wooden galleon he was building. I remember the model metal soldiers he would painstakingly paint. I remember his laugh - a sort of sniggering, snorting "Mutley"- style mischievous giggle. I remember him admonishing me to not throw a tea bag away after one use, but to put it to one side to use again. I remember him petting the Millers enormous dog Rory. I remember him advising me to have a boiled egg with marmite toast soldiers before a concert as the egg gave energy and the marmite with its B12 properties helped to soothe the nerves. I remember him always doubting his playing, always asking if the performance was good enough. I remember him sitting by the beach at St Andrews in 2008 and telling me St Andrews was a lovely place to retire to, that he was happy. I remember his expression of joy recognising me when I went to visit him in Bristol in the summer of 2012. The nurses were concerned that my appearance might confuse or upset him so I had to stand back and wait for the nurse to wheel him towards me. He recognised me from a fair distance, which was very heartening. I also remember him admonishing me, later that afternoon, for taking too long reading the record sleeves of his Stockhausen/London Sinfonietta recordings with Janet Craxton. Even then he was well aware that these recordings were precious.
I also remember him telling me that when the SCO asked him to re-audition in 1989 that he would not do so. Chosing to keep his dignity and to walk away, explaining he had seen other oboe and horn players humiliated similarly in the past and knew it was not worth fighting. At the time I was shocked and confused and really didn't understand why he hadn't fought for his right to stay.
But I didn't understand. No-one did. Not fully. Not then.
Old colleagues from his BBCSO London days tried to assist. I remember Robin coming to stay in late 1989, when I was on a UK tour with South Pacific, and David Theodore had suggested him to play 3rd Oboe in the BBCSO on an Asian tour and also in ROH Covent Garden 'down the line'. Mike Geanes said, however, that folk soon began to realise that something was not 'quite right'.
It was very shocking when Robin was asked to leave the SCO as no-one at the time realised he was suffering from the hereditory muscle-wasting Huntington's Disease. Robin was adopted, and this kind of information was obviously not passed on to his adoptive parents. He was only correctly diagnosed a good 10 years later. This intervening period was a very difficult and distressing time for the family. One sliver of good to come out if this sorry saga, was that due to most families who have Huntington's Disease in UK being registered, Robin was reunited with some of his blood relatives - his birth mother and siblings who were still alive, before he died.
It is so lovely to have these recordings of him to listen to. Robin Miller was an exceptional oboist and he needs to be remembered. I feel so very privileged to have known him. I just wish we had had more time to play together professionally as I think we would have made a very good oboe section.
I miss him terribly.