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Remembering Roger Tapping

Susan Wilson
Roger Tapping

The death of British violist Roger Tapping has left us utterly heartbroken. He was at the core of three great string quartets in his lifetime: The Allegri Quartet, which he joined in 1989; the Takács Quartet, which brought him to the United States in 1995; and finally the Juilliard Quartet, beginning in 2013. He died of cancer on January 18th. He was 61.

Roger developed a deep love for teaching and we were blessed to have him sharing his wisdom with students here in Boston for several years. He was on the viola faculty at New England Conservatory, where he also headed the Chamber Music Program. And he taught at the Longy School and the Boston Conservatory.

He had the most exquisite and insightful language for unlocking a young player’s imagination, and he offered precious tools for creating a unique and communicative sound. When students would get passionate in passages that are thick with many interweaving lines, Roger would urge them toward color to avoid a wall of sound: “I often describe it as ‘translucence’ — making something beautiful that you can also see the other beauties through.”

Tributes and memories continue to pour in on social media from the countless people who worked and played with him.

My memory of his visit to our studio in 2007 is vivid and consoling for me, as I hope it will be for you. He gave a gorgeous performance of Rebecca Clarke’s stunning Viola Sonata and Robert Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, with the wonderful pianist Judith Gordon. Our conversation featured his thoroughly personal brand of honesty, candor and humor.

In celebration of Roger Tapping, we hope you’ll take some time to dip into this precious performance from our archives, using the player above.



[22:13] Cathy Fuller Music by Rebecca Clarke. That's the Sonata for Viola and Piano. She wrote it in 1919, and that's a performance live from our Studio One today, with Roger Tapping, playing the viola and pianist Judith Gordon. Welcome back to WGBH.

Roger Tapping Thank you. Nice to be here.

Cathy Fuller Great to see you. It is such a passionate, impetuous, amazing piece. How much of it, I always wonder, is due to the fact that she was a violist. Could she have written this if she hadn't been a violist?

Roger Tapping I wonder. I think certainly it's beautifully written for the instrument. She was one of the students of Lionel Tertis, who is, as certainly all viola players in the world know, sort of really put the viola on the map as a solo instrument. So she was right there at the beginning of that. And it's so beautifully written.

Cathy Fuller She was in her early 30s, I think, when she wrote in 1919. I read somewhere that someone mistook more than once this music for music of Maurice Ravel as she was both an American and a British national.

Roger Tapping She was brought up in in England, actually had a German mother, but brought up in England and studied in England...

Cathy Fuller And her father was American.

Roger Tapping Yes. And then suddenly ended up in America. And there's a nice, twinkly picture of her in her 80's, I think. I think she lived a ripe old age. And after this flurry of compositional inspiration, she didn't write very much more. There's a nice little collection of pieces, although I think they're just beginning to discover there are more pieces than we thought. And I think people are beginning to publish them. And I'm intrigued by the idea of a couple of string quartets I read about.

Cathy Fuller Wow. Yeah.

Roger Tapping Just to see what they're like.

Judith Gordon I can only imagine.

Cathy Fuller How is the piano writing? It seems extraordinary.

Judith Gordon I think it feels a lot like it sounds, which is that you're just kind of going "whoosh!" all over the place and all over the string player. And it's just very serious fun to play.

Cathy Fuller Well, what would you say is the quality about, especially in this piece, about Rebecca Clarke, that puts her beyond being a good composer toward being more a great composer?

Roger Tapping It's a really original voice. I mean, it's just very beautiful. It doesn't feel trite at any point to me. I mean, we've been living with it for a while. I've been practicing a lot. We've been rehearsing a lot, we've been playing it, I've been teaching it, and I really go on loving it. So you can't really pin down why that is except that I think it just feels very assured and original. Not original harmonically, exactly. She was sort of in the time of the sort of French Impressionist[s], also, which shares something with English modal sort of writing, which you hear as well.

Cathy Fuller There's that gorgeous tune in the last movement. It sounds sort of like "Motherless Child," you know, that's what it always reminds me of, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child."

Roger Tapping I wonder if that's original, or whether she picked it up from somewhere, who knows?

Judith Gordon Maybe the original thing was her particular digestion of the world she was living in and everything that she heard.

Roger Tapping The interesting thing is that, I mean, because she was a woman, I think it's probably true to say that she was not given as much respect, and she felt that. And I read that she actually did an experiment and put on a concert of her works, in which she also included a piece which was also by her but published under a pseudonym, a male pseudonym. And so it is reported that that's the piece that the reviewers tended to talk about.

Cathy Fuller Well, there you go.

Roger Tapping Sort of proved something to her.

Cathy Fuller Yeah, it's a big story. And yet we almost didn't know that this was by her to appreciate how beautiful it is. Roger Tapping, did you start on the viola?

Roger Tapping No, I switched rather gradually. I started on the piano when I was six, violin when I was seven, then three nice girls came up to me when I was 12 and said, "We'd like to play string quartets and we need you to play the viola." And I'd been listening to my dad's amateur quartet in the room next door every Thursday evening and picked up that viola once and realized I might like it. So I gradually started playing just in quartets.

Cathy Fuller Well, that's the first viola as chick magnet story that I've ever heard! Well, do you have brothers and sisters who play?

Roger Tapping Yes. Not, not professionally. We all went through the youth orchestras together.

Cathy Fuller And that was in London?

Roger Tapping That was near London, about 50 miles away.

Cathy Fuller You were with the Takács Quartet for a long time, for 10 years.

Roger Tapping Yes.

Cathy Fuller And so I can see why you would want a Rebecca Clarke string quartet. Judith, how about you? When did you start playing the piano?

Judith Gordon Oh, so typically, age eight. Baltimore. Suburban. Just looking for things to do in the house.

Cathy Fuller And there was that piano.

Judith Gordon I enjoyed sight reading, and had an incredibly undistinguished trajectory, but very interesting, in later years, I guess.

Cathy Fuller You love to play with string players, though it seems like you always have.

Judith Gordon Maybe in another life...

Roger Tapping And string, players love to play with her.

Judith Gordon Maybe in another life I played a string instrument. I just wonder. I sometimes forget to even ... I don't even hear the piano anymore, sometimes playing sonatas. I just hear this combined sound world. And it was always like that when I first played with other people, which was a kind of a gradual thing. A little like like for you, I was older, I was at college and just some of the coolest people seem to be the string players. And, you know, then they asked me to play things with them and I just thought, how wonderful. And it didn't occur to me that pianists thought that playing with strings was somehow, you know, less glamorous than playing their recital repertoire.

Cathy Fuller Well, I remember you were at New England Conservatory, I remember you playing with Yo-Yo at the White House? That's pretty glamorous.

Judith Gordon Well, that was all a long time ago.

Cathy Fuller That was a long time ago. Now you're teaching at Smith College.

Judith Gordon Yes, I am.

Cathy Fuller And you're enjoying that.

Judith Gordon This is my first spring term, and I am totally fascinated by everything about my life there, both the musical and the other responsibilities of my job.

Cathy Fuller Now in the Schumann that you've brought, this is a a piece for horn.

Roger Tapping Yes, that's right.

Cathy Fuller But so what, right?

Roger Tapping It just works while on the viola and the piano. So we like playing it.

Cathy Fuller Lots of other people play it, too.

Roger Tapping Cellists play it.

Cathy Fuller Violinists play it. Oboists play it.

Judith Gordon Do they?

Judith Gordon I don't know. I mean, there's a collection of romances which those guys play as well. Yeah, can't quite imagine it on the oboe, but I don't want to insult anybody.

Cathy Fuller OK, well, we're happy to hear it. And that's what's next. This is the Schumann Adagio and Allegro, Opus 70, written in 1849 by Robert Schumann. This is Roger Tapping, violist, and Judith Gordon playing the piano. Music of Schumann live on 89.7.


Cathy Fuller More intense passion from Roger Tapping, violist, and Judith Gordon playing the piano. That's Robert Schumann, the Adagio and Allegro. Opus 70. In 1849, he wrote that piece originally conceived of as a piece for horn and piano. Roger Tapping, who spent many years with the Takács Quartet and those astonishing complete quartets of Bartók and Beethoven available on the Decca London labels.

That's just, well, you've got several bow hairs hanging from that. That's always a good sign. It's such such passionate stuff. What about Schumann on the viola? Does that work well, too?

Roger Tapping I think so. I mean, there are two very late works that he wrote the Märchenbilder, for viola and piano.

Cathy Fuller The "Fairy Tales," yeah.

Roger Tapping Yes, and there's this thing, he gets into it being sort of childlike and profound at the same time. And another work from the same period: clarinet, viola and piano, Märchenerzählungen. And those are a lovely to play on the viola. He writes beautiful quartet parts as well.

Cathy Fuller Can you introduce us to your viola, from whence does this beautiful thing come?

Roger Tapping Well, they say it's from about 1750 and from Italy. But people aren't prepared to say who made it.

Cathy Fuller Why?

Roger Tapping I think, I mean, you know, it's just one of those many anonymous 18th century Italian things, but I'm very lucky to have it.

Cathy Fuller How did you find it?

Roger Tapping Well, I was just searching in London and it came into my life just as I was joining a string quartet in England. So it was beautiful timing. I think it came in just in time for the audition, actually.

Cathy Fuller You were looking, and it was in a shop?

Roger Tapping It was in a shop. I wasn't quite sure. It wasn't in great condition. It was a little sort of smoky sounding.

Cathy Fuller Smoky sound.

Roger Tapping And for a while, you know, I liked it, but I always felt it could be better and it had lots of old cracks in it. And then during my time in the Takács Quartet, I played something by Nicoló Amati, an enormous instrument and a very distinguished instrument. And I took the opportunity to have this one restored by a young genius up in Salt Lake City, by the name of J.P. Lucas, whose theory was that if he did such work in a very, very dry place, it's why he lives there - actually, I think he likes the skiing - that subsequently, the cracks and the old openings wouldn't come open, and he did a beautiful job on it.

Cathy Fuller It is a stunning, stunning sound.

Roger Tapping I love it.

Cathy Fuller Do you ever get jealous of all these guys who can put their fingers on their strings, Judith Gordon?

Judith Gordon I find it very freeing to play a different instrument everywhere that you go. And I love hearing the stories about people and their instruments. And I think I can play a nice open string if pressed, but that's about it for me.

Cathy Fuller Well, you say you're falling in love with a large instrument in your life, right?

Judith Gordon Well, we have some very nice pianos at Smith College, and quite unexpectedly, I have had a good experience with one of them, which was for reasons still unrevealed. Very underplayed. So I'm looking forward to working hard on that instrument for my upcoming recital.

Cathy Fuller Well, it is in the same sense that one gets to know one's viola or violin. I mean, as one gets to want to know one's piano, right?

Judith Gordon I guess so. But I think pianos just don't reveal themselves in the same way to their players, even if you play the same one a lot. They're just, I like the mystery and the kind of randomness of them. And I leave the deep engagement of person-to-thing to the string players.

Cathy Fuller The deep engagement of person-to-thing, I like that. Well, when you're teaching, students can't always have gorgeous, gorgeous instruments. How does that work?

Roger Tapping It's true, and sometimes you pick one up, and you just can't do what you've been asking them to do. So I mean, you have to think about trying to encourage them to get something better. And on the other hand, there's usually, even then, something you can get out. I mean, Don Weilerstein, who's been here many times, he's a real lesson, because I've seen him in public, getting up and playing the worst student instruments and making the most fabulous sound on it. So if you have really the sound imagination, then you can still get that out of students.

Cathy Fuller So teaching in both of your lives is so important. The vocabulary of teaching, I'm always fascinated by. Is it a very metaphorical thing? Is your vocabulary with your students full of imagery and metaphors?

Roger Tapping Yes. I think I found that in the quartet, actually. If we were sort of talking about, you know, trying to work out how to play something and also coaching quartets, you know, you could shortcut so many technical discussions if you could actually agree on a mood. And you would even suggest the tempo and everything. So that's often the case. And then sometimes it's just nitty gritty, you know, put your fingers flatter, you know.

Judith Gordon Put the metronome on.

Roger Tapping And it's such a mixture teaching, isn't it? The sort of technical and the ...

Cathy Fuller Well, then there's naming that mood, I suppose.

Roger Tapping Well getting them to do so is, of course, the real art. I mean, getting people to move beyond just, you know, it's loud or soft, but really sort of thinking deeper about what they're after themselves.

Cathy Fuller And well, and what's great about pianists, I think, and string players in life is that, probably, I would guess that immersion in the world of Beethoven, it changes one completely and is deeply informative, I would think. You've done all the Beethoven quartets. That must inform your life.

Roger Tapping Yes, it's one of those things you would think from beforehand it would be an amazing thing to do, and it really is. And I'm lucky I'm still coaching them a lot. I've got some nice groups at the moment who are doing quartets, Beethoven quartets, and it's just endless. You keep on finding new connections you hadn't thought of and just marveling at the sheer originality, the imagination, the emotional freedom. It's quite extraordinary.

Cathy Fuller Teaching the Beethoven sonatas must offer you the same ability to really get to stuff, huh?

Judith Gordon Well, I find teaching almost everything is offering that. There's so much piano music that I bypassed because of my preoccupation with playing chamber music for many years. And so I'm enjoying just uncovering things even by composers I thought I shunned, like Liszt, through teaching. And it's wonderful to become more conversant with just a vast amount of composers who you would either never have come to or just didn't have the chance to.

Cathy Fuller So teaching is a key part of life.

Roger Tapping And I feel still quite new to it. It's my second year of doing it full time and it's constantly a challenge, you know, knowing how to how fast to go, how slow to go, how demanding to be.

Cathy Fuller I always thought how much information maybe not to, how to not throw too many concepts in at one time.

Roger Tapping Why did that make that person cry?

Cathy Fuller Why did she leave in that condition? Well, it is such a pleasure to have you both here. Thanks to both of you.

Roger Tapping Thank you very much.

Judith Gordon Thanks for having us.

Cathy Fuller is a Host and Producer for CRB.