Classical Music

Notes from Round Top: Michelle Merrill

Conductor Michelle Merrill offers sounds and insights from the Round Top Music Festival.

The Round Top Music Festival is a long-time Texas classical music tradition. Founded in 1971 by concert pianist James Dick, the summer institute is a training ground for exceptional young musicians from universities and conservatories around the world.

The annual six-week festival has become known for its orchestral concerts, chamber music recitals, and masterclasses, as well as for its 210-acre campus in the Texas Hill Country filled with historic architecture, fountains, gardens, herb collections, and cats.

In this series, Notes from Round Top, we’ll feature concert recordings and interviews with conductors of the 2018 Round Top Music Festival, which takes place June 3 – July 15.

Born in Dallas and a graduate of Southern Methodist University, Michelle Merrill is Associate Conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the newly appointed Music Director of the Coastal Symphony of Georgia.

Watch Michelle Merrill conduct the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral,” below:

 

This summer, Michelle Merrill is making her debut at the Round Top Music Festival, where she will conduct the 2018 Texas Festival Orchestra in a Joan Tower Celebration, on Saturday, June 23. The program is part of A Day Honoring Women in the Arts.

Learn more about Michelle Merrill, her 2018 Round Top program, and her life as a conductor, below:

 

How did you fall in love with classical music, and specifically with conducting?

I grew up in Texas, which is a huge football state. My dad had been a semi-pro player and coached a bit on the side, so when I was a child, we were at every Friday night football game (if you know the show Friday Night Lights, the mentality of everything shutting down when there is a football game is not too far off in Texas!) But with football comes marching band, which was probably my first introduction to “classical music” in a way, since the band would perform standard works transformed for the field. I remember being bored all night long until halftime when I could watch the band perform. I would “conduct” along with the drum majors and be enthralled with the music and the spectacle of it all.

Fast forward to fourth grade, when there was a competition called “Music Memory” that myself and six other friends signed up for. This was basically a competition where you would study 10 pieces of music and memorize the composer, the title, and the genre, and then you would have to identify each in a “drop the needle”-style test. The pieces included works like “Aquarium” from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, “Un bel di vedremo” from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, and my favorite at the time – “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. We would skip recess every day to go and listen to this music. We would act out our own “scenes” to what we thought was happening, and a few times everyone would act like they were playing an instrument while I was conducting. It was wonderful and cemented my love for classical music.

In high school, I became Drum Major for the marching band, which was my first introduction to “conducting,” but there were also a few times when the teachers would be out of town, and they would let me run the class and rehearse. I’m not sure how all of my classmates felt about that – but I loved it! This also gave me a taste of what it was like to really stand in front of an ensemble and make musical decisions for people other than myself.

Of course conducting, itself, is very different than any of the above experiences, but they led me to classical music and conducting, and the journey that would continue to be my life as it is today.

 

What does the art of conducting mean to you?

I view conducting as a collaboration – between myself and the composer (living or dead) and especially between myself and the musicians. As a conductor, I am there to guide the ensemble in the interpretation and flow of the piece. But music is living and breathing, and the players come with ideas of their own as well, so it’s my job to put all of those ideas into a cohesive whole to create the best performance possible with that ensemble.

My favorite thing is taking a piece to different places and making it a new experience each and every time. That is what makes live music as an art form so wonderful – it is always a new experience each time you return to it.

 

At Round Top, you are a mentor as well as a conductor.  What do you hope to impart to these young musicians during your week with them?

Most of us got into music not just because we had a knack for it, but because it moved us in one way or another. Sometimes, in the thick of practicing and taking auditions and preparing works, young musicians can forget why they got into music in the first place. It should be a fun, rewarding, spiritual, and uplifting experience, and I hope our week together helps remind us all of that fact.

 

I understand that you love to run and hike. Just curious – do you use that time to think about scores or work out musical ideas in your head?  Also, do you plan to enjoy the outdoors while at Round Top?

Not really – in fact, I have an annoying habit of singing the music in my head at whatever tempo my feet are going, which almost always tends to be the completely wrong tempo for whatever piece I’m working on!

I use running and hiking to clear my head mainly, which is helpful after a long day of studying, because then I can come back to the music with renewed focus. And yes, both my husband and 11 month old son will be with me at Round Top, and we are greatly looking forward to enjoying the outdoors while we are there!

 

As some who grew up studying piano, saxophone, and conducting in Texas, do you think there is a distinct “Texas classical music culture”?

Yes – I think the public school music scene in Texas is really fantastic. Having taught in other states before becoming a professional conductor, Texas schools have the benefit of support and funding, which I hope will continue for many, many years to come. Whereas other states may have one music teacher for K-6 and a second for 7-12 doing everything they can, Texas benefits from multiple teachers who are passionate about band, choir, orchestra, elementary music, theory, jazz, mariachi … the list goes on and on … and so students get the benefit of highly specialized teaching, which I think is quite wonderful. 

 

You are Associate Conductor for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  I assume you are based in Detroit?  Could you describe your typical day?

This is my fourth season in Detroit, and the first year that I actually haven’t lived in the city and instead have my home base in Jacksonville, FL, where my husband is the principal percussionist of the Jacksonville Symphony. We have always gone back and forth between both places (and still do), but with my reduced schedule in Detroit this year, as well as increase in guest conducting around the country, we sadly gave up our midtown apartment that was walking distance from the hall. 

Because 80 – 90% of a conductor’s job happens off the podium and involves hours upon hours of score study and preparation, I have the benefit of being able to do that part of the job anywhere, which is nice because it means I am able to be in the same city as my husband and son (who has been on about 25 plane trips already with me this year to various locations!).

A typical busy score study day (now that a baby is in the mix!) involves waking up when he does around 7 and playing for a little bit until around 9, when I start my studying. We take a break for lunch if we have a little bit of time (otherwise I just eat at my desk), and finish around 5 or 6. Take a run or walk, eat dinner, and then either go back to more studying or relax in the evening before getting to bed around 11. Pre-baby I would work at night until 1 or 2 in the morning sometimes because it’s my favorite time to work, as there are very few distractions.

On a day with double rehearsals, I will study in between (if it’s a double) by having a quick lunch, or try to squeeze in a little time at night. Those days I typically don’t do as much studying though, as I try to fill my time answering emails and doing all the other parts of the job that need to get done. I like to have large blocks of time when I’m working on music, so doing all the other business works well on those days.

 

On June 23 at Round Top, you’ll conduct a concert called a Joan Tower Celebration, in honor of the iconic American composer’s upcoming 80th birthday.  For those unfamiliar with her music, what do you want them to know?

I am extremely excited because Joan will actually be in attendance for our rehearsals and concert, and she is such a powerhouse figure in modern American classical music. When people hear “modern music” they tend immediately to cringe before even giving it a listen, but Joan’s music is quite accessible and has numerous colors and soundscapes. It is creative and complex, and I’m honored to be presenting three pieces for this celebration.

 

Tower’s Made in America, Purple Rhapsody for Viola and Orchestra, and Flute Concerto will be paired with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra on the second half of the concert. Why does that pairing work well with her pieces?

Bartók was an influence on the music of Joan Tower, and I also think with the two concertos on the first half, it is nice to feature an orchestral “concerto” as well.

 

The need for more diversity in the classical music world has been an ongoing issue, and is particularly at the forefront these days. Do you have any thoughts or opinions on that topic, based on your own experiences in the male-dominated conducting world? Do you have any personal advice for women pursuing careers in conducting or composing?

Regarding diversity in terms of gender, I have been extremely luck in that I have never experienced prejudice or discrimination as some of my predecessors have. I owe a lot to the glass ceiling that they broke. I also think that more and more women are pursuing conducting these days because young girls are seeing women in these positions. In 20 years, we may not even look twice at a female on the podium, in much the same way that we don’t think twice about a female violin soloist gracing the stage. The only advice I give is simply to work extremely hard, and stay true to yourself and the music.

Regarding diversity in general, this is something we think of a lot in Detroit. Especially for our education and free community concerts, we strive to always present at least one piece written by a person of diverse background, and engage soloists who can show our students and families that they too can do classical music if they want to. It is very much about representation, and I think we can across the board continue to improve upon that and provide opportunities for those of diverse backgrounds to get experience and opportunities within the classical music world.

 

Who is your conducting hero, and why?

My teacher, Paul Phillips at SMU, is one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known. I continue to learn more about music from him every time we talk. He is always focused on the “why” behind music and phrasing and bringing out the small details that really make a piece what it is. He taught me how to really see and hear music from the inside out.  

 

What has been your proudest moment as a conductor?

I made my subscription debut conducting Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6” with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra [see video above] on March 31, 2016, which would have been my dad’s 76th birthday. He had always been supportive of my career, and I remembered especially his telling me to “go for it” when I asked him about pursuing conducting on a phone call to home (which was significant, since it was normally my mom who answered the home phone). He passed away a few months before I won the job with the orchestra, and making my classical debut on that night in particular was incredibly special to me.

 

What is the funniest or most unusual thing that has ever happened to you, or that you have witnessed, on stage during a concert?

I was conducting Gershwin’s “Second Rhapsody for Piano” with Detroit on a subscription concert with pianist Sara Davis Buechner, and all of a sudden I turned the page of the score and my W-2 tax form was staring me back in the face. I guess I had placed it in my bag, and it had gotten in between the pages of the score! I didn’t flinch at the time but simply moved it out of the way. When I got off stage, I asked our Librarian, Ethan Allen, to make sure he got it when he got the scores, so I wouldn’t have any issues with the IRS! Very tame, but that’s probably the funniest thing that’s ever happened to me!

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Catherine Lu

Catherine Lu

Content Producer & Announcer

While growing up in Chicago and Houston, Catherine’s love for art, music and creative writing was influenced by her teachers and parents. She was once concertmaster of the Clear Lake High School Orchestra and a four-time violinist of the Texas All-State Symphony. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Catherine...

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