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Interview: Timothy Myers

Timothy Myers talks about his time spent studying with Lorin Maazel and the great impact it had on his career. With a summer debut at Santa Fe Opera and many notable engagements on his calendar, Myers is a conductor you need to know.

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As a protégé of Lorin Maazel, what part of your tutelage had the greatest impact on you and your career?

Working with Maestro Maazel was one of the most formative periods of my life. He helped me to do what I hope to help others do: to see something for myself that I hadn’t previously seen as possible.

I was originally hired to assist Lorin Maazel on a production. We had never met before I began work and our first meeting was when he arrived for a piano dress rehearsal which I conducted. I was very intimidated because he was such a titan of a musician and man. I had seen many of his performances at the New York Philharmonic and was intimately familiar with his recorded work. I was sure that I was going to conduct the rehearsal, he was going to see me as a fraud, and that would be the end of my career, but instead it was the beginning of a deep mentorship.

The singularly most impactful moment of our relationship occurred while I was sitting with him after a performance at Castleton. He entered this phase that he did sometimes where he would become grandfatherly in a way. He said, “You know, you don't need to worry about agents and publicists. Today is day one and tomorrow is day two. Your job is to be better on day two than day one. If you do that, you're going to be really damn good."

That moment changed my life and has inspired my work. I hadn't heard an orchestra live until my mid-teens or opera until college, and for him to believe in me so fully was a boon to my confidence. I will forever be grateful for his generosity of spirit. He helped me to be confident that I was on the right path, reminded me that I was really good at it, and to keep doing what I was doing; working hard and staying focused on the music.

Now, when I study scores or work on a premiere, I’m thinking "day two has to be better than day one." The spirit of what we do is in the craft. That’s how I approach rehearsing with an orchestra, to be fully aware of the fact that we are capable of far greater things than we think. Where are we today? Let’s be better tomorrow and go beyond what we think we can do.

How has classical music shaped your life and inspired your career as a conductor?

For the first two decades of my life, public radio and a community concert series that would come to town a few times a year were my primary exposure. My parents also encouraged me and my siblings to study piano as it was important to them for us to have that experience in life. But being a professional musician wasn’t on my radar because I didn’t know people who did that other than educators or my piano teacher.

I was curious about continuing my piano education in college and studied seriously at a small liberal arts school in Kansas where I took a conducting course and mentored with Joel Levine. It was here I also learned that my biggest joy in making music was the collaboration with other people. Then I read all of the biographies of the great conductors and I took two key conclusions: I needed to be a better musician to be a highly effectively conductor and all conductors I greatly admired, with the exception of Bernstein, had gone through the opera house.

What directed my next step was thinking about what that looked like for me, as a kid from Kansas who had been to one or two operas ever. Instead of graduate school for conducting, I decided to focus on advancing my skills as a musician and studying piano at a higher level. I didn’t feel there was any point in going to school to learn conducting technique if I didn’t have depth as a musician and therefore something to say.

I ended up at Florida State University where I got to do it all: play music, conduct, and work with singers. I had the motivation and ambition, and my teacher Douglas Fisher was able to assist me in significant ways, and then it just went! I had always wanted to do a summer program but in the second summer of graduate school, Marilyn Horne hired me to assistant conduct at Music Academy of the West. It started happening that I had work on the podium. As a young conductor you can spend a lot of time watching other people conduct, but my policy was always conduct rather than cover. I believe it’s a craft you learn by doing and overcoming every challenge to make great music.

What are you most looking forward to with your debut at Santa Fe Opera conducting Pearl Fishers?

I am thrilled to be making my debut at Santa Fe Opera this summer. It’s truly a bucket list engagement. I remember going for the first time in 2009 and being enamored. For me, Santa Fe is just one of those mountaintops.

We settled on Pearl Fishers, a revival of their 2012 production which was really beloved. It is a piece I really enjoy conducting because it is the work of a great melodist when he was just figuring out what he was doing. There is a freshness to it, this unfettered, unapologetic kind of heart on your sleeve music making in it.

Of course, it’s very stylized in a French way and really impassioned. I love the youth of it, the vigor, the characters, the choral music. I love the way the orchestra contributes to creating mood, tension, and color. I also love the piece because there are only four principal singers. It’s intimate. There’s something really cool about having a small cast which feels like making chamber music. I really love when I have the opportunity for that level of intimacy. For all of these reasons I’m very much looking forward to starting rehearsals.

You are one of five candidates in the Winston-Salem Music Director search culminating this year. What about this orchestra has inspired your candidacy?

There are challenges to conducting. The calendar for one. Over the last couple years I have had a wealth of wonderful opportunities to lead opera productions. Last season’s Salomé at the Florida Grand Opera, conducting the new production of Bernstein’s West Side Story at Houston Grand Opera, going to Wexford were really key and exciting things about which I’m really passionate. The challenge is that those projects are extraordinarily time consuming.

I want to re-balance my career with artistically fulfilling experiences that don’t demand so much of my calendar in a lump. I’m in a phase where I am trying to turn my focus back toward symphonic repertoire. There’s so much great repertoire I have yet to conduct and that I want to be immersed in. The second reason is more pragmatic. With a young family, I am looking to have some shorter engagements in my schedule.

I was happy to be invited to apply to the Music Director search at Winston Salem. Several of their musicians had played in the North Carolina Opera orchestra when we did big repertoire like Wagner and were bringing in players from a larger geographical radius, so I had a history with some of the musicians. I’m also passionate about my adopted state of North Carolina and invested in helping the arts institutions in the state become leaders in the industry. I sensed Winston Salem Symphony was positioned to enter an exciting new period with the growth of the city and the state of North Carolina.

Do you see a move toward orchestral conducting as something that’s unexpected or has this always been part of your roadmap?

More broadly, my interest in conducting started in the symphonic repertoire and I had a diversion where the focus became more solely opera. And then a middle period in the early years where it balanced out, that I was doing a lot of symphonic work with fine orchestras.

I now have a repertoire of over 80 operas but it’s time to refocus my direction and explore other things. I’m incredibly passionate about being equally immersed in opera and symphonic works. They really do complement each other.

It’s no secret that you have helped grow and inspire young and diverse classical music audiences. What are your thoughts about the future of classical music and what do you want your mark to be?

The future of classical music is extraordinarily bright. We do need to remove the limiting stigma to it. People automatically go to a certain place when they hear ‘classical music’. People are not turned off by classical music but by what they perceive the experience to be. That is something to rectify in our generation.

As the world becomes more automated, people will yearn for personal experience and personal expression, and to be involved where that is key. One of those things is classical music. We as musicians create moments that have never existed before and will never exist again. There’s something undeniable about the energy of all these elements coming together on stage and therefore in the audience.

Platforms like Primephonic can be a conduit to the live experience. We have so much incredible music being composed by vibrant artists, being performed, and being recorded by incredibly talented and dynamic performers. And we have wonderful ways of disseminating the music. Recorded music was my access to this genre growing up. How wonderful is it that I can listen to the evolution of The Pearl Fishers over a 50 year period. I love being able to learn from master musicians and have at my fingertips what has come before me. We use it to engender interest for the music that is the conduit to people experiencing this phenomenon in a hall where they are contributing to the energy of the music themselves.

I don’t worry about the future of our art form. As long as we continue to innovate and to address challenges the future is bright.

Listen to Timothy Myers' Favorites playlist on Primephonic.

LISTEN NOW