They held it together until the second-to-last song. The a capella voices of 53 chamber singers – a mix of students from the Garlic Capital’s two main high schools – filled the cathedral at Mission San Juan Bautista with sweet harmonies toward the end of what marked the last spring concert for Gilroy’s legendary choir teacher, Phil Robb.
There had been intermittent sniffles and tender moments during the hour-and-a-half April 17 concert from student performers and a jam-packed audience of 500 – but for the most part, the evening rode on a wave of upbeat emotional energy.
That is, until Robb himself cracked.
The choir held hands as they sang, “Good Night, Dear Heart,” a simple, melancholic tune about goodbyes, with lyrics foraged from the epitaph author Mark Twain used on his deceased daughter’s headstone. During the song, Robb led the singers by waving his hands around in his trademark expressive way – until the last stanza, when he doubled over with emotion.
This led the singers, who had been dangling on an emotional thread all night, to burst. On the last note, they erupted in a scene of sobs and embraces.
“Nobody said it was going to be easy,” said Robb wistfully as the choir dried their tears.
The iconic choral director will retire June 14 after a 30-year career instilling the joy of singing to Gilroy high schoolers. Under Robb’s direction since 1984, the music program at Gilroy High School flourished and grew to a widely revered program among academic and musical communities throughout the state and beyond. When CHS opened up in 2008, Robb took that on, too, building the department from scratch and laying the foundations for another choral program as he darted back and forth teaching at both campuses during the week.
The musical legacy that Robb will soon leave behind was on display the night of his final spring concert, when a thousand parents, former students and community members came out over two nights to pay homage to the man who deeply impacted generations of Gilroyans.
“It felt like 1997 all over again,” said Danielle Rhinehart, a 2000 GHS graduate, moments after the concert ended with an uproarious standing ovation. “That was the year I would sit outside the door of the choir room and listen in on Mr. Robb’s class. It was the year I knew I wanted to join choir.”
Rhinehart stood with her brother, Josh Rhinehart, 25, reminiscing about their days in Robb’s chamber singer groups.
“It was the absolute happiest time of my life,” Danielle continued. “I honestly think music kept me in school.”
Josh Rhinehart remembers his first day in choir like it was yesterday.
“I walked in, and Mr. Robb was playing the piano. Without looking up or turning around, he said ‘Mr. Rhinehart, it’s about time you joined,’” he said.
As Danielle stood inside the brightly-lit sanctuary after the concert, recalling some of her favorite memories, puffy-eyed singers dressed in black dresses and tuxes mingled around their families, wiping their eyes and laughing.
A family with two generations of Robb students, 1985 GHS alumna Katie Day and her son, Jake Day – who graduated last year – laughed as they remembered the director milling around the cafeteria at lunchtime, attempting to recruit new students for choir.
“He makes people join that you would never see as the ‘choir type,’ ” Jake said. “At CHS and GHS, there was no choir type. It was full of jocks and all kinds of people. Mr. Robb made singing cool.”
Katie described spring concerts in the mid-1980s, when the choir women wore puffy pink dresses and the men sported snappy gray suits.
“That’s how long Phil has been enriching us. Since the days of pink dresses and gray suits,” Katie laughed.
Pamela Robb, Phil’s wife of 36 years, said she’s looking forward to her husband’s “very modified, put-my-two-feet-in-the-water kind of retirement.”
Pamela said that although Phil, who she described as “a little hyperactive,” will step away from his full-time role at GUSD, he’ll continue to dabble in teaching music with his part-time role at Advent Lutheran Church in Morgan Hill. He’s also been hired by GUSD for the next school year as a part-time musical mentor to the two choral instructors that will succeed him, thanks to a $30,000 stipend from the Connell family, Gilroy’s longtime choral music benefactors.
His legacy will live on symbolically as well. The GUSD Board of Education voted unanimously last week to name the GHS music building in his honor, which is a big deal considering GUSD’s policy is to name a facility after individuals “only under extraordinary circumstances.”
Robb began teaching choir within GUSD in 1981 as an elementary school specialist. Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, Robb filled numerous musical roles in the district at the elementary, junior high and high school levels, zipping around between campuses on his 10-speed bike, holding a guitar under his arm. In 1992, eight years after taking on his first high school choral class, he transitioned to teaching solely at the high school level.
After years of arranging excursions for Gilroy choir students to stay with host families in Japan, Robb and his wife helped establish the Gilroy-Takko Student Exchange Program four years ago. The program allows GUSD students to become enmeshed in Japanese culture, traditions and lifestyles, while strengthening a transcontinental relationship and forming new friendships with Gilroy’s sister city.
Other highlights of Robb’s 30-year career with GUSD include what he described as the “musical moments” – a fleeting minute of spine-tingling euphoria brought on by creating or listening to beautiful music – that he experienced with his singers over the years. During his tenure, Robb enjoyed these moments during student performances at Carnegie Hall, a Gospel church in Harlem and an empty train station in Sacramento.
As the choir sang those last chords of “Good Night, Dear Heart,” during his last spring concert, Robb relished one of his final musical moments he’ll have with his students.
“Mark Twain’s life changed dramatically after his daughter died. In that beautiful, lingering last chord, you can just sense Mark Twain not wanting to let go of her,” he said. “I suppose, in a sense, I didn’t want to let go either.”
• 2013 Pops Concert, 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 5 in Christopher High School quad featuring current and former choral students. All GHS and CHS choral alumni are invited to sing at this event. Contact Pamela Robb at [email protected], or connect on Facebook by searching for the group “Mr. Robb’s Final Opus” to sign up. Concert is open to the public. Tickets are $5 at the door.
• “Farewell, Mr. Robb” retirement open house from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday, June 8 at the Gilroy High School quad and student center. A program is scheduled for 2 p.m. Light refreshments served. Contact [email protected] with questions.