Flutist Paula Robison and violist Scott Nickrenz are practicing at home. A high stone wall, eight inches thick, surrounds their small terraced penthouse, sealing out the screech of Manhattan traffic 17 floors below.
Robison is in the bathroom warming up on her silver Powell flute. "I usually come here," she explains, "because he gets his bow tangled in the shower curtain." Nickrenz is in their pink living room, lost in a Vivaldi sonata. He stops to listen to his wife run through a Mozart concerto. He yells, "FLAT!" She pauses, then resumes, on pitch.
Robison, 36, and Nickrenz, 40, have been married for six years and are each other's best friend but not necessarily severest critic. "Paula is the superstar flutist of her generation," he says. She responds, "Scott is a great, great violist."
Prejudice aside, there is some corroborating evidence. Among the world's best solo flutists, Robison is certainly the preeminent woman. When Nickrenz isn't playing the viola, he directs the Brooklyn Academy of Music Chamber Music Series. "Our instruments are the focal point of our lives," Nickrenz explains. "We don't have to separate our work from our pleasure."
Just as well, since they travel half the year on the concert circuit, often together, playing as many as 200 engagements. Nickrenz says Robison offers him more than wifely companionship. "Before we met I thought I was pretty hot stuff," he recalls. "Paula told me I could play better. She insisted that I buy one of the greatest violas in the world"—a 16th-century Gasparo da Salò. "I was obsessed with getting him this viola," Robison explains. "It was like investing in a house, but you can't live in it." (She won't disclose its value.)
They first performed together professionally in the 1960s while married to other people. Their relationship turned to romance in 1969 when, as recent divorcés, they played on the Music from Marlboro concert tour. After living together for two years they were married in 1971. "It was love," Nickrenz jokes, "L-U-S-T." Paula had been the wife of a cellist and had no children. Scott was married to a pianist, and their daughter, Erika, now 15, shows a promising talent for the instrument too.
Last October Robison gave birth by cesarean section to her first child, Elizabeth—"my greatest creation to date." She canceled several concerts last year so that she could nurse. Knowledgeable audiences still shout, "How's the baby?" when she steps onstage.
Paula was born in Nashville where her father, playwright David V. Robison, taught at Fisk University. Her mother, Naomi, was a retired actress. Singer-actor Paul Robeson, a family friend, was her godfather, and her uncle Jerome Lawrence co-wrote the 1956 stage version of Auntie Mame.
After failing at the piano she began studying the flute at 11. "I knew I was destined to become a musician the minute I picked it up," she recalls. "The sound of it was so beautiful. It's like an extension of the voice." She enrolled at New York's Juilliard School at 18 and under the later influence of mentors like flutist Marcel Moyse and pianist Rudolf Serkin pursued a solo career at a time when most flute players safely joined orchestras. In 1966 she won the coveted Geneva International Competition, one of the few such events open to flutists. "I expected concert offers everywhere," she says. "Finally I got it into my thick head that I would have to do it all by myself." During this period in her mid-20s the pressure became so great that she sought help from a therapist who once trained as a musician. "He had an imaginative style," she says, "and he cured me." She has since played concerts on four continents, in addition to recording five LPs.
In upstate Hamburg, N.Y., Nickrenz's father, a part-time jazz pianist, encouraged him into music at age 11. "When I got my first violin," he recalls, "I took it home and slept with it." By 13 he was playing square dances and spending his salary on his stamp collection. At 15 he switched to the bigger, deeper-voiced viola and at 18 was accepted at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute. In 1959 he joined the Pittsburgh Symphony to help finance the contemporary string quartets he led before turning to the classics. He moved to the Brooklyn Academy in 1973.
Aside from their mutual passion for music, Scott claims, "We have nothing in common. Paula's idea of a hot evening is to curl up with a book. I like a good bridge game." His culinary guru is James Beard ("Rich, heavy sauces"). Hers is Adele Davis ("Quality not quantity"). "He tests my love every morning with his first cigar," moans Robison, "but when we fight, we fight clean, mostly about how to organize and get things done." "Paula's worst habit," Nickrenz explains, "is moving too fast when she doesn't have to. It drives me crazy." Robison laughs, "But I always take your criticism well, don't I, dear?"
In fact, she says, "We're ridiculously romantic. We love to go ballroom dancing—the old-fashioned kind. No discos for us." Robison presents Nickrenz with a two-foot collage of memorabilia of the past year each Valentine's Day, and they observe most holidays with fervor. "Halloween is a must," says Robison. "In my alter ego I'm a witch"—so saying, she lapses into a cackling imitation of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Professionally, too, they are complementary, not competitive. "As artists we don't feel that one is better than the other," Nickrenz says. "We want the best for each other." They are currently occupied as co-directors of chamber music for the Spoleto Festival, which opens in Charleston, S.C. this week then moves to Italy on June 28. The two of them will also perform.
Next fall they plan to travel less to stay close to Elizabeth. Nickrenz will continue to teach at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music, and Robison will join the Juilliard faculty. "The wonderful thing," he says, "is that only yesterday we were the up-and-coming players. Now people look to us as authorities." Paula agrees: "The important thing is to continue to grow. Old musicians play in a certain way that young musicians can't possibly duplicate. It makes the wrinkles a little easier to take."
Romance blossomed between the two colleagues in 1969; 'It was love,' says Nickrenz, 'L-U-S-T'