Askville: Maestro on a mission

Daniel Meyer became music director of the Asheville Symphony two years ago at age 33, a time of life when many young men are still living with their parents and playing too much Guitar Hero.

Daniel Meyer

But then Meyer has always been precocious. He grew up near Cleveland, learning to play the piano at age 6 and violin a few years later. After crushing the hopes of many fellow competitors in regional recitals, he went on study music at Denison University and the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory Of Music before traveling to Vienna, where the ghosts of Mozart, Strauss, Schubert and scores of other composers still linger.

Jobs as an assistant conductor followed, first with the Knoxville Symphony and later with the Pittsburgh Symphony, where he remains as resident conductor. Although Meyer makes his home in Pittsburgh, he divides his time more or less equally among the Steel City, Asheville and Erie, Penn., where he directs the Erie Philharmonic.

With his swept-back, collar-length hair, sharp brown eyes and the occasionally formal air of a VIP, Meyer seems to fit the profile of a maestro. But he also has a weakness for Top 40 music, and he’s not so bound by professional demands that he can’t get up to Craggy Gardens for a good tramp in the woods now and then.

Xpress caught up with Meyer during a week-long residency with the Asheville Symphony. Beneath the customary black suit coat and pants, the maestro wore a fleece vest—perhaps hinting at his other, more rugged side. Or maybe he was just cold.

Mountain Xpress: There’s this stereotype of conductors as white-haired, intense guys. How do you fit in?
Daniel Meyer: Well, people quip that composers don’t really start getting good until they get to their mid-50s; I’ve got a ways to go. But I understand the quip in that the more you grapple with Brahms’ Second Symphony, the more deeply you understand its inner workings and the better you can convey that to the audience. So I can’t wait until I conduct Brahms’ Second Symphony for the 45th time. But I still think that my version of it now is valid, because I have a sense of curiosity about the music and where it should go.

Are you an intense guy?
You have to bring a degree of intensity to your work to inspire a group of musicians who already know how to play their instruments and already have an opinion about how particular pieces should go. To stand in front of that group and tell them how you feel it should go—yes, that requires a degree of fortitude and intensity.

Is there a part of the orchestra that is the equivalent of the class clown? Bassoonists, maybe, who are back there saying, “Like, whatever, dude…” or nodding off?
[Laughs.] It’s usually the sections that are furthest away from the podium, out of earshot. They also have fewer notes to play. Traditionally, in any orchestra, the brass and the percussion sections are the clowns.

Are there pieces of music that you consider overrated?
Well, wow. There are pieces that I admire but feel I don’t have something to say about yet, like Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral.” I’ve always admired it, but I feel it’s a problematic work from a lot of standpoints. And there are works like Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos that I admire but have never been to a live performance of that captured my imagination. But these are all accepted masterworks—there’s a reason they’ve survived. Beethoven still makes it on the stage hundreds of years after he walked the earth. It’s because his music is so expertly crafted, but it also has an enormous spirit that audiences today can resonate with, even though they’re not wearing powdered wigs and riding around in carriages.

Are there any pieces of music that reliably move you, that bring you to tears?
The danger for me is that there’s so much repertoire running past my brain that I don’t get the time to sit back and reflect. So I do need to take some time and just sit back and breathe and listen. That’s how those moments happen—you get overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and poignancy of a musical moment, and you think, “My God!”—you’re touching the divine.

What other kinds of music do you like?
Pop radio, particularly when I’m in the car or at home fixing dinner. I really love classic ‘70s R&B and funk and soul. I also like bluegrass and early ‘80s synthpop. I’m not a big fan of rap, and I’ve never been attracted to country music. But pop music is great when I drive—each song is like three minutes of ear candy. It’s like, “Mmmm, that tasted really good.”

Do you hang out with conductors?
Conductors tend to be lone wolves. But I do have some very close colleagues. I definitely pick my fellow conductors’ brains.

How does a conductor relax?
Shutting off the TV. Turning off the lights. Walking outside on a beautiful day. My best head-clearing experience is driving up the Blue Ridge Parkway and finding a short hike.

Classical music has a reputation as music for people with pearls and coiffed hair. Why does it matter for the rest of us?
Classical music is significantly more demanding of its listeners than other art forms. It requires that you give of yourself. It requires that you shut off your cell phone. You focus on the musical development and the line and its persuasion, and what these notes and instruments and sound colors really represent. What sort of memories do they tap into? What sort of imaginative states can you enter into? What deeply felt passion—ardor? sorrow? anguish?—does the music communicate to you? If you give yourself to this art, you’ll be richly rewarded.

The world is an increasingly loud and distracted place. Is our ability to pay attention to music at risk?
It’s hard, definitely. As quick as data dissemination has become, and the extent to which we’re able to control what we see and hear and what we don’t, I think there is a danger of losing that skill of truly and deeply listening. But I also think that’s why classical music will survive. People will always be attracted to the self-reflection, exploration and depth of feeling in it—something you can’t get through other media.

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