Although Robert Holquist decided to stop taking piano lessons at age 11, he could not stop playing the piano. And although Holquist retires next year as professor of music and director of choral activities at Western Carolina, music will continue to fill his life. The Wisconsin native plans not only to continue serving as minister of music at First Baptist Church in Sylva, but also may teach classes at WCU part time, judge music festivals and work at choral clinics.
“The two favorite things in my life have been working with people and making music,” said Holquist, honored for his service in April at a concert featuring more than 200 vocalists (pictured above right), most of them former students. “I’ve had a career that has combined those two things since 1967.”
A WCU faculty member since 1979, he teaches applied voice, choral methods and conducting, and conducts the Concert Choir, University Chorus and Early Music Ensemble, an a capella chorus of about a dozen members that performs at the annual Madrigal Dinners in December. What students say they appreciate about Holquist is the way he reaches out to them on a personal level. Courtney Allen, a senior music education major from Salisbury, said she was moved when Holquist shared with the Concert Choir that his brother, Neil, was dying after a four-year battle with cancer. As he conducted, his students could see that he was crying. “It was one of the most heartwrenching things I have ever seen, but I felt that he cared enough about us personally to tell us about his life,” said Allen.
She also admires how Holquist performs alongside his students. At last year’s Christmas concert in the Fine and Performing Arts Center, the audience became silent as he took his place in line to sing with his students, who were dressed in Elizabethan costumes. “I feel it’s a sign of respect,” Allen said. “When someone is just standing in front of you, telling you what to do, it can be intimidating. But if that person who has so much more experience than you thinks you are good enough to sing with, that’s pretty awesome.”
Holquist says his first love may be conducting, especially large works with choruses, orchestras and soloists, but that he also enjoys being part of the “formative musicianship” of junior and high school students. He has served as a clinician throughout the Southeast, a judge at choral and vocal festivals, a judging coordinator for the state Honors Chorus program and director of the 1992 N.C. All-State Chorus. Holquist also has been a leader with a state music educators association and was the North Carolina president for the American Choral Directors Association from 1987 to 1989.
In recognition of his contributions, a group of WCU students in May 2000 established the Robert A. Holquist Vocalist Scholarship Fund to assist the School of Music in maintaining a tradition of excellence in choral and vocal music. The scholarship goes to a student who is active in choral groups, in good academic standing and whose “whole heart is in the choral and vocal program,” said Holquist.
Robert Kehrberg, founding dean of the College of Fine and Performing Arts, described Holquist as a dedicated musician, great citizen and above all, an exacting teacher and mentor for students. “It has been a pleasure to work with him for the past 23 years,” said Kehrberg. “When I needed help, I could always count on Bob to be there and assist in whatever capacity asked. In fact, I do not remember him ever turning down a request. It is faculty and musicians with this attitude that Western Carolina’s reputation in the arts is built on. His presence is always welcoming, and his love of music and teaching continues to inspire me.”