Robert Adelson - Museum curator

On this occasion we meet Robert Adelson, curator of Nice’s museum of historical musical instruments

Robert AdelsonThe young Robert Adelson could hardly avoid getting involved with music. “My mother was a concert pianist and the house was full of music. I’ve one brother who plays the oboe professionally and another who’s an orchestral conductor and now my daughter Emma who’s nine is doing well on the viola da gamba.” He was raised and spent his early years in Detroit (a town for which he admits to no trace of nostalgia) but has since lived and worked in cities across the US, including Denver, Chicago, Boston and Washington, D.C. “I trained as a clarinetist and played with the Denver Symphony but my interest went beyond just performing. I became fascinated by the history of music and especially of the instruments that produce it. Strictly, that means I’m an organologist, a student of the development of musical instruments.”

Conservation and education

So what brought him to France and to Nice? “My wife Jacqueline teaches French at the University of Maryland and for some years she’s been running their European programme based here. I spent a lot of time in Nice and then this job came up.”

What exactly does he do? “Well, we’re sited in the Palais Lascaris, in the old town of Nice, a building which dates back to the middle of the seventeenth century when it was home to a local aristocratic family. Three hundred years later it had fallen into a very sad state; it was restored and turned into a museum of a rather old-fashioned kind – art, furniture, curiosities. Then it was decided to create a special museum devoted to historic musical instruments.” Why that particular choice? “In 1904 Antoine Gautier bequeathed his collection of instruments to the city. For decades it was mostly kept in storage. Then it was realised they had a remarkable cultural asset in their possession. With more recent acquisitions, it’s the second largest collection of its kind in France and one of the most important in Europe.”

So what’s on offer to the visitor? “Only a part of the holdings for the moment as we plan the development of our exhibition space. But our existing displays indicate our dual function: conservation and education. We aim to conserve a range of items illustrating the evolution of the main families of musical instruments. These extend from a sixteenth-century sackbut or trombone to Sidney Bechet’s clarinet – we now cover jazz, incidentally. The significance of an exhibit is not just technical – a horn in Mozart’s time was different from today’s – but also, as with Bechet’s clarinet, associative, either with a maker or a player.”

How does such a collection relate to the so-called “early music movement” which aims to recreate the sound of music as it was heard in its own time? “Very closely. I’ve been much influenced by the work of Christopher Hogwood, a pioneer in the field. Of course, you can’t just pick up an eighteenth-century guitar or violin and start playing it. Some old instruments are very fragile. Sometimes replicas have to be used but not always. We’ve been offering a series of weekly recitals by Sibylle Schütz playing a viola da gamba crafted by William Turner in London in 1658. They’ve been a huge success by the way and we hope such showcasing of some of our historical instruments will become a fixture.”

A transformational experience

Robert has been in Nice now for nearly four years. How does he like living here? “I think for an American it’s a very transformational experience, both positively and negatively. On one hand, there’s the value the French put on free time. Long hours and minimal vacations are not seen as signs of virtue. This is very good for family life, I’d say, and contrasts with the enforced workaholicism you often find in the US. On the other hand, the social culture is quite different from what Americans are used to. Neighbouring, for example, doesn’t seem to be on the agenda, and that you learn to accept. But I’m doing a job that fits me like a glove and so I’m very happy.”

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