The magic of Dr. Rollo Dilworth '87 is close at hand. Just search his name on YouTube and you’ll see videos of a lively conductor, hear the sounds of a polished composer, and learn from a seasoned educator. Yet beneath these videos is a man whose passion for and understanding of music is transcended only by his ability to personify it.
“I think of everything in musical terms,” says Dilworth, Chair of Music Education and Music Therapy and Professor of Choral Music Education at Temple University. “If you think about it, every living being is musical, because we all have a heartbeat. Even plants have a rhythm.”
Dilworth felt the beat and rhythm early on. At age seven, his elementary teacher noticed his singing and note-reading ability, suggesting to his parents that he consider more formal studies on piano and in music theory. “I guess the rest is history,” he says.
Dr. Joe Koestner, longtime choral teacher at SLUH, recalls Dilworth’s formative years: “Rollo was skilled in piano in the Western Classical Music tradition but also had absorbed the unique playing and compositional style that is African-American Gospel Music. He absorbed all he could of the limited musical experiences available to him at SLUH in those years and was very generous in sharing his musical gifts with the community.
“While still in college, Rollo, at my request, wrote a song for use at SLUH’s Holy Spirit Mass. I used it for many years as either the opening or closing song for that liturgy. He arranged the accompaniment for full Jazz Band, and it truly was spirit-filled.
“Rollo really blossomed when he got to college. With his combination of charismatic choral conducting, compositional skills and pianistic excellence, he began to attract the attention of music publishers, college faculty and many choral directors who, like myself, would have Rollo come to their school as a guest clinician to work with the kids on style and to conduct his own works.”
As a conductor, Dilworth is a performance in and of himself. He energizes and elevates the performance of his singers and musicians to new heights with incredible poise, his body fluid and unified with the music, personifying each piece in poetic flurries, sweeping undulations and feisty contortions. He and the music become one.
What makes Dilworth unique – and exceptional – is the creative foundation that matches his ability as a performer. His musical compositions offer a fresh and forward look at an important historical genre known as African-American Spiritual. By creating modern, innovative arrangements of the Spirituals, born during slavery, he makes an old art form relevant today.
For instance, in one of his signature compositions entitled Take Me to the Water, he keeps the first portion of the piece original to maintain integrity, yet later he quotes two spirituals in a contemporary way with modern harmonies drawn from jazz, gospel and even blues, as opposed to the way it was sung out in a field acapella-style. This, says Dilworth, helps the music resonate more with contemporary, and especially younger, audiences.
He also brings the spirituals genre to the concert stage by writing piano accompaniments – and in some cases full orchestral accompaniments – so even those in the classical world can access the music.
Dilworth says he uses music as a tool to inspire singers, especially young people. “Music has the power to heal us when we’re hurting. It provides the opportunity to unite us when we’re divided. In many ways, music can hold up a mirror to our faces, to not only show us more about the world around us but to show us who we are.”
Dilworth’s remarkable talent and innovative approach have allowed him to excel in a highly competitive field.
In 2009, he was commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony to write a piece based on Langston Hughes’ poem Freedom’s Plow. It premiered with David Robertson, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony IN UNISON Chorus. “That was an exciting experience,” Dilworth says. “I flew back for the premiere.”
More recently, he wrote a piece called Bound for Glory, which premiered at Carnegie Hall in New York City on November 18, 2017. Performed by the Canterbury Choral Society as a prelude to Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, it was a 25-minute piece centered on the spiritual genre with an ascension theme of moving from an earthly existence into a heavenly realm.
A singer, pianist and composer, Dilworth spends most of his time these days as a conductor. When he’s not working or listening to composing legends like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jason Robert Brown,
John Williams or Quincy Jones, chances are you’ll find him playing Words with Friends (the modern, mobile version of Scrabble).
“I am a Scrabble fiend,” he says. “I used to own seven Scrabble boards, with one or two in the trunk of my car and in my office. Now with Words with Friends, I have about eight boards going on with friends at any given time.”
He reflects on his career with gratitude, noting, “I feel blessed to have the opportunity to pursue something I’m so passionate about.”
“Dr. Dilworth is a shining example of someone who has dedicated his professional career to preparing young people to succeed,” says Richard Englert, President at Temple University. “The outstanding work he has done with our Choral and Music Education Programs, and as a champion for new music and community outreach, further exemplifies the mission of the Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University.”
“Rollo has gone from being a quiet SLUH student to an international superstar in the realms of composition and choral conducting,” says Koestner. “SLUH is doubly blessed to have such an alumnus and one who keeps contributing to his school so many years after graduation.”
Recalling the last time Rollo visited SLUH, Koestner says, “He did a clinic on a Thursday and then did us the honor of staying in town until our concert on Sunday and guest conducting his work on the concert. I can still hear the kids chanting ‘Rollo! Rollo! Rollo!’ as he came up from the audience to conduct.”
I Dream A World
One of Dilworth’s favorite poems is I Dream A World by Langston Hughes, an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. Hughes was an innovator in what is sometimes called jazz poetry. “Even though the text was written several decades ago,” says Dilworth, “I find it to be powerful, inspiring, and relevant to our present.”
Dilworth has set about a dozen of Hughes’ poems to music, including I Dream A World:
I dream a world where man, no other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth and peace its paths adorn.
I dream a world where all will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white, whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth and every man is free.
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl, attends the needs of all mankind —
Of such I dream, my world!
- LANGSTON HUGHES (1902-1967)