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A look back: Catching birds is part of the job for this Pops conductor, July 28, 1979, by Andrew L. Pincus

Editor’s note: In addition to previewing and reviewing concerts, Andrew L. Pincus wrote a popular roundup of news items and compiled them in a regular Eagle feature called Rambling About Tanglewood. This piece, from July 28, 1979, features a light-hearted moment in Tanglewood history.

black and white newspaper article

Everybody knows Papageno, the bird-catching hero of Mozart's "Magic Flute." Well, meet his Tanglewood counterpart, Al Robison. He not only catches birds. He conducts the Pops.

Robison — Alfred F. Robison, to give him his full name — is the man Tanglewood audiences usually see pushing pianos around, arranging musicians' chairs and moving risers and acoustical panels on stage. He's the Boston Symphony Orchestra's stage manager, a line of work he's done for the orchestra for 25 years.

But in the last few weeks Robison has displayed a new range of talents. First, he made his debut as a Pops conductor at Old-timers Night in Boston, leading a performance of "The Stars and Stripes Forever." That momentous event came about because the boys in the band (that's the BSO) chipped in $1,000 to the orchestra's Musical Marathon, buying him the debut as a Marathon premium.

Then, during a Weekend Prelude program of four-hand piano music by Gennady Rozhdestvensky and his wife, Victoria Postnikova, Robison was pressed into duty as a Papageno.

It happened when one of the Shed's nesting baby sparrows swooped in a minute or two before the end of Mussorgsky's Sonata in C and landed inside the piano. The pianists, blissfully unaware of the problem, played on. The audience held its breath, waiting (a) for the bird to fly out, or (b) a note to go thunk when the players hit the string where the chick was roosting.

Neither thing happened. When the duo went out to the wings before the next number, however, they learned they had become a trio. At that point they agreed to have the piano de-birded.

Out went Robison, a giant of a man who moves 11 tons of equipment from place to place on the BSO's tours and wrestles wooden stage panels around as if they were papier-mache.

Out went the bird, cupped in Robison's hands.

Out went man and bird, all the way to the woods behind the Shed, where Robison deposited his catch on a limb and watched until he was sure it was safe.

Robison has only two things to say about his conducting debut. The first is: "I died!" The second is that he now has a respect for conductors that he never felt from humoring their whims backstage.

About his Papageno act, he allows that he had to do the same thing about seven years ago at a Weekend Prelude performance or rehearsal — he can't remember which — when another bird pulled the same stunt on another pianist.

Robison found this year's sparrow sitting on the wooden frame of the piano, which is why a string never went thunk.

"He was just sitting there in the back of the piano," Robison said. "He was scared, or enjoying the music, or something."

Now will the boys in the band please get together and buy Mr. R. a suit of feathers, to be worn the next time a bird mistakes a piano for a tree?

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