Robert Simonds

“A country, after all, is not something you build as the pharaohs built the pyramids, and then leave standing there to defy eternity. A country is something that is built every day out of certain basic shared values.”— Pierre Trudeau 

With two of the industry’s great institutions at its center, Rochester is on every classical musician’s radar. I moved here in September to join the RPO, but it felt more like entering a musical ecosystem. Maybe similar to how an engineer might move here for a single firm, but find herself in an innovation cluster. And as I’ve explored the city beyond Gibbs Street, I’ve been amazed at the depth and dedication of the city’s network of institutions. 

I was asked to share a few thoughts on being a new resident, and I have lots to say about my new home. But as we’re experiencing this crisis together, I would also like to share what I believe is possible and what our organizations can become.

The very first day of my professional career, nearly twenty years ago, was the morning after 9/11. I have seen how arts organizations play an important role in rebuilding a community after a crisis, man-made or otherwise. This challenge is unique, and it is uniquely sinister in that it undermines the public institutions that mobilize people to gather together.  But the solution is still the same. We still seek ways to foster connectivity, to reduce isolation, and to inspire a community through the alchemy of great art and live performances in our shared spaces.

Robert Simonds, violin

Just as this health crisis was becoming unavoidably serious and businesses were closing, my wife and I attended a very small gathering to discuss Rochester’s housing policy. As we went around the room, the event’s host asked if any of us had “public-facing jobs.” Of course, the question’s spirit was outwardly about COVID, but hearing it that way resonated with me—the musicians’ work is public-facing and the RPO serves a public good. Whatever uncertainties there are, this institution is for everyone and when it comes time for Rochester to come together again, its arts and educational institutions will be there.

Since the suspension of live performances, I’ve been reflecting on what their value is. On a personal level, what I most miss is meeting a few people at random at each concert out of the thousands who come through our doors. From those extemporaneous conversations, a common theme has emerged—the people of Rochester have a shared love of their institutions. I’ve gotten more recommendations of one-of-a-kind places to visit and things to try than I could ever honor.

And they’re right. After our first visit to the Public Market, my wife said something spontaneously that has become something of a family motto: “everything in Rochester is 20% better than you think it will be.” And she means everything. From the city’s restaurants to its parks, from its museums to its shoreline, the city consistently over-delivers.

As high-functioning as our institutions and businesses are, they now face a historic challenge. One of the first things I pass on my bike ride to work is the George Eastman Museum.  A trip around the city is filled with reminders of Rochester’s dynamic past and the durability of its institutions. A danger, though, is putting them under glass. By definition, century-old organizations have made pivots, they’ve retrenched and they’ve grown, but that is no guarantee of present adaptation. The past provides guideposts but not blueprints. We will be learning together.

Innovation—in education, technology, and the arts— is one of Rochester’s shared values. As we emerge from this crisis, I believe innovation will be a binding agent. While undergirded by a commitment to excellence, the trends of collaboration, experimentation, and cooperation between educational institutions and the performing arts will accelerate. The short term is uncertain but as I talk with colleagues and leaders of other institutions, there is a pent up vision for renewal. That collective action is what animates me most about a return to work. And rather than a simple obligation to return to normal, there is an opportunity to serve this community in new ways.

2 thoughts on “Robert Simonds

  1. Fantastic article. Thank you for sharing!!

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    1. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about new ways, Robert. Do you think every larger city community around the country seeks those same ideals and if not, how do you get its pulse? Wishing you continued enjoyment and success in your new environment😊

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