Fantasy and Farewell: An Interview with Roger Myers
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Written by Phillip Scott   
Monday, 05 August 2013

Fantasy and Farewell: An Interview with Roger Myers

I interviewed violist and teacher Roger Myers on the eve of the release of his new Delos CD, Fantasy and Farewell. Recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios, it teams Myers with the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Michael Francis. The highly experienced producer Michael Fine was at the helm. I was delighted to discover a fact that I did not know when I accepted this assignment: Namely, Myers is a fellow Australian, born and bred in a coastal suburb of Sydney only a short distance from my own youthful stamping ground. (You cross a bridge famous for its traffic congestion to get from one to the other—not the Sydney Harbor Bridge, but a smaller one with the unappetizing name of The Spit Bridge.) Myers is now a professor at the University of Texas, but travels widely to perform and conduct master classes, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Due to the time difference, I corresponded with him about his career and his new disc by e-mail.

PS: Thanks for talking to Fanfare. Firstly, can you tell us something about your early life? Where in Sydney were you born, and was your family musical?

RM: I was born and grew up in the harbor-side suburb of Mosman and my family was musical. My mother was a concert pianist (she went by the name of Leone Stredwick) who had an important career both in Australia and in London before injury cut it short. My father also trained in piano as a boy but ultimately became a political journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald. He had done some work as a music critic for the paper, so suffice it to say music was a big part of my early life.

PS: Were you always interested in the viola, or did you begin with the violin, as many violists seem to do?

RM: I actually began my studies on the violin and came to the viola in my late teens. I was at the National Music Camp one summer...

PS: That was a Federal Education Department initiative to encourage young music students?

RM: That’s right, and I was asked to play second violin in an ad hoc ensemble (something I had not done for years.) I loved it! It got me thinking that if I found playing an inner line so fascinating, maybe I might give the viola a look. My mother noticed my growing love of chamber music and quickly brought a viola home for me to try. I remember reading the Prelude from the First Bach Cellos Suite and figuring out the clef in an afternoon to perform it for my parents that evening. We all looked at each other and knew that somehow everything had just clicked for the instrument and me. My teacher and orchestra director also both saw the instant affinity.

PS: Where did you study? I was wondering if you attended the Sydney Conservatorium of Music when Wolfram Christ (Karajan’s principal viola in the Berlin Philharmonic) was in charge? My timing could be out of course.

RM: I’m afraid it is; I was before his time. I studied firstly at the Sydney Conservatorium during the directorship of John Hopkins, then I went to Michigan State University for a year on a string quartet scholarship and ultimately completed my training at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles with Donald McInnes.

PS: Let’s come back to Donald McInnes in a moment. You played with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra while still a student. How did that come about? Was it a concerto performance?

RM: I did, but not as a soloist, sadly! Being a student at the Conservatorium put one into contact daily with members of that orchestra and from time to time students were invited to play with them. Many long-standing careers with the orchestra started that way, and increasingly I worked with them more and more until I went to the United States. The first concert I played we did amongst other things Stravinsky’s Petroushka , and this was conducted by the late Eduardo Mata from the Dallas Symphony.

PS: Who were your mentors, and what was your first decisive musical experience?

RM: Well, I have had many mentors, but without a doubt I would not be doing what I am today without the wise and guiding hand of my mother. She saw my potential and subtly drew me in certain directions. In Australia my first violin teacher was Pam Jenkins (a British ex-patriot who played in the Australian Opera Orchestra, and was a great teacher of kids), then with Christopher Kimber. When I switched to viola, Christopher handed me over to Peter Pfühl, who was then principal viola with the Sydney Symphony. I think my most decisive early musical experience was not as a string player but as a singer. I had a good boy soprano voice and sang in the choirs at Sydney Grammar School.

PS: That might explain your love for the St. Matthew Passion.

RM: Yes, and opera! The Australian Opera (now Opera Australia) frequently went to my school in search of boy sopranos for their productions and on three separate occasions I was chosen. This was such an amazing experience. My last opera was Otello with Joan Sutherland as Desdemona. The glamor, excitement, and proximity to great artists all set me on the course to realize a life for myself in music in some way.

PS: So, you went on to study with Donald McInnes at the University of Southern California. Tell us something about him.

RM: He was that rare beast: a truly fine pedagogue and also a world-class soloist. He had a big solo career in the States and Europe and made numerous recordings; primary amongst these was a landmark one of Harold in Italy.

PS: With Leonard Bernstein on the podium.

RM: McInnes was a protégé of the legendary violist William Primrose, and being a soloist himself was able to show how the viola can be played in the highest virtuoso tradition. It was amazing to study the Bartók Concerto with the man whose teacher it was written for!

PS: Did he influence your teaching?

RM: Yes, greatly. He had a positively scientific approach, knowing exactly what issue needed fixing and an instant solution that literally cut hours of trial and error out of your practicing and maximized your talents to their fullest. I’d never seen this style of teaching in Australia and was bowled over by it. He knew how to solve technical ills to reveal the underlying artist in an individual. His successes as a teacher, needless to say, were famous in the States. He also had the authority of his own career to back up everything he said. For me that was very reassuring, and I could place great trust in him.

PS: How did you go from there to where you are now, at the University of Texas?

RM: I actually get this question a lot! I left Australia with three members of the Conservatorium String Quartet to study on a quartet scholarship at Michigan State University. From there I took my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at USC, after which I looked for jobs, as anyone would. I decided I’d like to try a career in the States if possible.

PS: Visa restrictions can make that difficult, even for friendly nationals like Australians.

RM: Well, my visa allowed for 18 months of practical training after graduation so I had some leeway here. I went for a number of jobs both orchestrally and in academe, and the University of Texas was the job I won. Ultimately my teacher saw pedagogical abilities in me and thought that a university position would allow the perfect balance of developing this skill, while allowing me more autonomy and growth as performer. He was right in this. These days I cannot imagine doing what I do as a soloist away from being a teacher at a major university.

PS: Let’s talk about your work as a performer. You made your Carnegie Hall debut in 2005. What did you play?

RM: I played in Carnegie Hall with the Texas Piano Quartet, whose members are colleagues of mine at UT. They are all soloists in their own right and there is an electricity when we perform together. Anyway, long story short, we played a wonderfully varied program of piano quartets by Turina, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. It was an amazing concert, very well attended and extremely well received.

PS: Carnegie Hall must have been quite nerve-wracking?

RM: We worked hard before the premiere and yes—I think there were nerves leading up to that night. The funny thing was, when I walked on stage every little bit of anxiousness fell away and an incredible calm came over me. It was one of the most enjoyable performing experiences of my life: just four friends playing amazing music in an amazing space. You can’t get any better than that in music.

PS: You commission new work, both original and arrangements. Can you tell us something about that process? How important is it for a musician to do this?

RM: To date I have commissioned three works and have always tried to get to know the composer as a person before anything gets written. I meet and play for them, to show my style of playing, and to hear what their musical philosophy is. Then we throw around possible ideas for the style and length of the composition. I have never been disappointed with the results of my commissions and I attribute this to developing a good working relationship with the composer beforehand. Increasingly, I have come to believe that in a time where audiences are dwindling and there are questions about the relevancy of classical music (which I refute), one way to move forward is for the commissions to come from the musicians themselves, not just wealthy individuals and organizations. Musicians are the people who know the art best and it sort of makes sense that we might have an inside track on what our audiences will like, and what compositional trends might speak to them. The trick is getting the money to back up our desires for commissioning. The way I see it, if every professional musician saved up enough money (or raised it) for just one composition ever, we would have a huge number of works coming to the audience and surely, by the law of averages, many new masterpieces. We have an endless supply of well-trained composers who will write you a new piece at a most reasonable cost. There is no need to go to dizzying heights of expense. If you look at artworks, how many of us buy affordable paintings, with no thought about whether this will be a masterpiece in time? We simply buy them because we like them and with that level of demand in the market amazing artworks come to the fore. I see no reason why music should not be the same, and we players can influence this dialogue.

PS: I am wondering: Is it easier for a contemporary composer to get a viola concerto performed than, say, a violin or piano concerto where there is so much more competition in the repertoire?

RM: That’s a hard question to answer. I think it depends ultimately on the reputation of the performer and their access to performance opportunities. Playing a viola concerto anywhere is a rare event, so merely writing a concerto is no guarantee of a performance. Of the three works I have commissioned to date, in each case I had performance opportunities lined up with orchestras before the work was written.

PS: Still, the viola is coming into its own in the recording world. In particular, concertos seem to be rediscovered or commissioned as never before.

RM: You are right, this is golden time for the viola and we owe a great debt to the fine teaching that has been going on for the last 30 years, so now there are many really top-rate violists out there. Because of this the repertoire is continually expanding.

PS: What are you playing at the moment? Do you have new commissions in the offing?

RM: I always have the Bartók concerto in my fingers. My students play it a lot so I have no choice! Over the years I have frequently been asked to play the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante , so this is a perennial work in my repertoire, which is great because it is truly one of his most marvelous works. Before this CD release I played the Shostakovich Sonata with orchestra live and have found, for all its seriousness, that the audience really relates to the work, so it is definitely a continuing fixture for me. There are no new commissions as of yet (I need to restock my bank account!), but a few ideas are floating around in my head. I am pondering another orchestration of a major sonata, but right now I am gearing up for five summer festivals where I will be playing a lot of solo and chamber repertoire, so I am madly preparing 10 works for these—including, again, the Shostakovich sonata.

PS: Coming to Fantasy and Farewell, can you tell us something about your relationship with Michael McLean, who composed a Suite and arranged the Schumann Märchenbilder for you?

RM: I met Michael through another friend of mine and soon heard some examples of his work, which I found sonically beautiful, musically meaningful, and immensely accessible. This being a time when I actually had enough of my own money to commission a work, I approached him with the idea. I visited his Los Angeles apartment and spent a weekend with him listening to music, playing for him, and generally getting to know him. Suffice to say we became great friends and developed a close working relationship that allowed him to come to know my personality and playing. I really feel that his suite is tailored to my style of music-making. When I commissioned the Schumann orchestration we already had an established friendship, and work proceeded on it quite quickly. I read the orchestration through with my university orchestra and conductor, and then sent a recording of that session to Michael who proceeded to revise his initial orchestration. The result is on this disc and sounds to me rather like an original Schumann orchestration!

PS: McLean’s suite is a work in a very clear tonal style, but has a great deal of emotion invested in it. I’ve read several interviews where soloists say they have to work hard to keep their own feelings in check when they are playing highly emotive music. Was this true for you?

RM: With this work it was very true, since it was commissioned in memory of my mother. Michael invested a lot of energy into doing justice to this memorial piece, and he has produced a work filled with sentiment. Learning it and working towards the world premiere was especially emotional for me. I will never forget how the significance of every note (and how well I played it) weighed on my mind. But, come the actual world premiere—like with my Carnegie Hall debut—an amazing calm came over me and it all went beautifully. To answer your question, yes, you have to channel these emotions to some degree to be able to play such complex music.

PS: Vladimir Mendelssohn’s arrangement of the Shostakovich Viola Sonata (for Viola, Strings, and Celeste) would be a good companion piece for the Bartók Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. I have a 20-year-old recording of it with Mendelssohn playing the solo part himself, but I didn’t know anyone else played his version. Where did you come across it?

RM: Funnily enough, I never heard the orchestrated version until two years ago, as this project was being formulated. I knew of it but had not had an opportunity to hear it. When I spoke with my producer about what else to include on the disc a few works were proposed and rejected, and then he said, “Why not have Michael McLean orchestrate something like the Shostakovich Sonata?” At that moment I remembered it had already been done, so I bought the CD of it performed by Yuri Bashmet, as well as the Mendelssohn version.

PS: I should have known Bashmet would have recorded it!

RM: For all I can tell it has only been recorded three times in the last 20 years, so I thought this was absolutely the right way to go. It paired beautifully with the McLean and Schumann works.

PS: The Shostakovich sonata (his last composition) is extremely introverted and private. Is some of that quality lost in transferring it from a chamber context to a symphonic one? And if so, what is gained?

RM: The sonata is, in my opinion, one of the absolute best sonatas for any instrument in the 20th century, so the original version of it is still hugely important in my eyes. That said, and I mention this in my program notes, the orchestrated version brings an epic dimension to the work. Being one man’s amazing and honest chronicle of his journey to eternity, the work never makes for easy listening, but the orchestrated form makes these emotions so much more vivid and heightens the sections of repose and resignation more fully than the original. The second movement is much more biting and sarcastic in the orchestrated version, and hugely compelling rhythmically. In my notes I said that the original is like an etching in black and white while the orchestrated version is like watching a Technicolor movie. I think that sums up the difference.

PS: Your new CD is iconic in several ways: You are accompanied by one of the world’s great orchestras, it was recorded in the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London, produced by Michael Fine, and it appears on a classical label (Delos), which is one of the great stayers, currently celebrating 40 years in the industry.

RM: But you know, in forming my early ideas for this disc the last thing I was thinking of was making something “iconic.” A project like this comes from a basic desire to play music you like and think you do well. In choosing these works, particularly as a starting point the McLean Suite, one thing just led to another: what to put with the McLean and then what to put with the Schumann. Then of course, you look into who will produce the CD. In receiving recommendations about Michael Fine for this job, a whole lot of his advice naturally began to shape the project. It was he who suggested the LSO, and they usually record at Abbey Road. With the recording done, certain labels and markets suggested themselves—hence Delos. So everything just logically evolved from one thing to the other. The results have made me very happy!

PS: Rightly so. Finally, I always like to ask my interview subjects their opinion of the current state of play. Where is serious music at today? Are rumors of its death greatly exaggerated? And, in relation to that, do you believe the standard of execution is higher now among performing musicians?

RM: The state of play in music—now that is a debate best had over many cigars and brandy! My own view is that we are in a great time of change as the digital revolution affects every area of society and challenges some of our longest-held assumptions about the order of things. Music of all kinds is not isolated from these changes either, and I am sure there are many years ahead of rethinking, but I am absolutely certain things are in good shape overall. People need music of meaning. They always have and always will. How we package and disseminate it to our audiences: That is going to change as it has countless times before, but I am a believer in people, and for all the changes in society we are still fundamentally the same as we were thousands of years ago. As I travel and teach I am heartened by how many kids are learning classical music, and how many parents are demanding this be an essential part of their children’s upbringing. These kids will be our future audiences and somehow I’m just not that pessimistic! The teaching of instruments today is certainly better than ever before. More people are playing with great skill—so for me there is a great deal to be excited about.

M. McLEAN Suite for Viola and Orchestra. SCHUMANN Märchenbilder (arr. McLean). SHOSTAKOVICH Viola Sonata, Op. 147 (arr. V. Mendelssohn) Roger Myers (va); Michael Francis, cond; London SO DELOS 3441 (66:53)

This disc is not only a showcase for the talent and skill of violist Roger Myers, but also for the instrument itself. During this program the viola journeys from autumnal to skittish and finally to introverted—moods where its plangent tones are clearly an asset.

Michael McLean is a Los Angeles-based composer and arranger, and also a violinist. (He is not to be confused with the Utah composer Michael McLean, who was music producer for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for many years.) McLean’s early influence as a composer was Mozart, but he later became impressed by the Eastern European Minimalism of Arvo Pärt. He has had a Violin Concerto (“Elements”) recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. His Suite for Viola and Orchestra consists of three movements: Prelude, Passacaglia, and Chorale. Mostly solemn, as befits its commission as a posthumous tribute to Myers’s mother (concert pianist Leone Stredwick), it is tonal and deeply emotional without being in the least saccharine. The older composer McLean mostly resembles here (to my ears) is Vaughan Williams, who also wrote concertante works for viola. By no means unremittingly plaintive, McLean’s music picks up pace in the central passacaglia, giving the soloist plenty of rapid figuration. The orchestral forces are string dominated, which feels most appropriate in the final movement where the composer quotes a chorale from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion —a favorite work both of Myers and his mother.

McLean has also orchestrated the piano part of Schumann’s Märchenbilder (or Fairy Tales ), a late suite of four character pieces (or fantasy pieces, if you like). Frustratingly, Schumann does not give them specific titles: The moods vary from quirky to tender. The program is completed by an arrangement of Shostakovich’s last chamber work: his introverted, soul-searching Viola Sonata. This orchestration for strings and celesta was made by the Romanian violist Vladimir Mendelssohn, who recorded the solo part in 1992 with the Nieuw Sinfonietta under Lev Markiz for the Dutch label Globe.

The three pieces complement each other neatly in Myers’s program. The London musicians play sensitively for Michael Francis, with whom they have recorded concertos before. This young conductor, formerly a double bass player in the orchestra, has been conducting occasional performances and recordings with the LSO since 2007, when he stepped in to replace an indisposed Valery Gergiev. Myers himself is an expressive soloist, playing a Guadagnini viola made in 1763, which is warmly resiny in the lower and middle registers and strong in its upper register. I actually prefer his rendition of the Shostakovich to Mendelssohn’s: Myers takes the first two movements slightly faster—highly effective in the biting scherzo—but adds a whole minute to the final movement, where he is the more searching and affecting of the two. Plus, the sound of the new recording is far superior. I have not heard Yuri Bashmet’s recording.

If I have a slight reservation it concerns the two fast central pieces of the Schumann set. While McLean’s orchestration is both professionally done and aptly Schumannesque—no xylophones or suchlike, à la Schoenberg’s Brahms—I still missed the playfulness and the light and shade provided by an evenly matched duo of like-minded chamber musicians, such as Nobuko Imai and Martha Argerich (EMI: Argerich Chamber Edition). Nevertheless, that is merely an observation and should not detract from the virtues of this disc, which are many.

The viola is clearly entering a golden age on record, as Myers states in his interview. With young performers like Lawrence Power, Maxim Rysanov, and several others—not least Myers himself—recording little-known but worthwhile works by the likes of Rubbra, Holmboe, and Rósza, and with multiple versions available of viola masterpieces by Bartók, Walton, Hindemith, and Schnittke, the days of the viola joke appear to be heading for oblivion. High time too. Phillip Scott

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 24 July 2013 )