BSO Soloists in the Spotlight
Saturday, May 1, 2021
In an encore broadcast from 2017, virtuoso musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra take center stage at Symphony Hall in works by Vivaldi, Krommer, Jolivet, Rota, and Schumann.
Ken-David Masur, conductor
Cynthia Meyers, piccolo
William R. Hudgins and Michael Wayne, clarinets
Thomas Rolfs, trumpet
Toby Oft, trombone
James Sommerville, Michael Winter, Rachel Childers, and Jason Snider, horns
Vivaldi - Piccolo Concerto in C, RV 433
Krommer - Concerto No. 2 for two clarinets and orchestra, Op. 91
Jolivet - Concertino for trumpet, piano, and strings
Rota - Trombone Concerto
Schumann - Concert Piece for four horns and orchestra
This concert is no longer available on demand.
In a conversation at Tanglewood, BSO piccolo player Cynthia Meyers describes her musical path to the BSO to Ron Della Chiesa in an interview recorded at Tanglewood:
Ron Della Chiesa (RDC) [00:00:00] I want to talk about your early days as a musician and the transitions you made in your life.
Cynthia Meyers (CM) [00:00:08] How much time do we have?
RDC [00:00:09] Well, we can we can go on forever, just like Shostakovich. You know, just 15 symphonies, right? Right. The early days, the beginnings of it.
CM [00:00:19] Well, I started in my public school program, which I'm forever indebted to. To this day. That's why I think education is so important to me. I've been involved in education with every orchestra I've ever played with, because it's been such an integral part of how I started. So I started in fourth grade and wanted to play the oboe because my sisters played the oboe. And where I was growing up in this tiny town in western Pennsylvania, the reeds were too expensive and they didn't have instruments, you know, to to give us. So I said, "Oh, well, the next best thing is the flute." And I was bad. I was really, really bad. So bad that the band directors tried to convince my parents that I should quit and continue piano because I was a pianist. I played piano from the time I was three.
RDC [00:01:04] Now where was this?
CM [00:01:05] Somerset, Pennsylvania, a little town in western Pennsylvania, about an hour east of Pittsburgh, an hour and a half east.
RDC [00:01:14] That's steel country, coal mining country?
CM [00:01:15] Coal mining. If you ever drive through Pennsylvania on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, you drive straight through the middle of downtown Somerset. For many years, it was it's only claim to fame that the Pennsylvania Turnpike goes right through the middle of town. It's the only town on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
RDC [00:01:28] You know, I think Henry Mancini is from Aliquippa.
CM [00:01:31] He is from Aliquippa.
RDC [00:01:32] And my wife, my wife said there's a big Italian community out there, too, in Tocany.
CM [00:01:38] Oh, okay.
RDC [00:01:39] Out that way, there's an Italian community out there. They worked the coal mines and the steel mills, things like that.
CM [00:01:45] Oh, okay. Lorin Maazel was from Pittsburgh, so that was the big musical family. And my, you know, when growing up, we all knew who the Maazels were. We knew, you know, when I was a kid. But I grew up watching Previn in the Pittsburgh on the local public radio stations and TV. So that was-- every time I hear that movement of Carmina Burana, I think about that. Previn and Pittsburgh, it was their theme song, the orchestral music.
[00:02:09] Anyway, so I played in the fourth grade and went through middle school and high school and started studying with the principal flutist of the Pittsburgh Symphony my junior year of high school. I had studied with my band director's wife for many years and they decided I needed something better. And it was a shocking, a shocking transition. He was very difficult, basically told me that I shouldn't play the flute, I should quit. So I ended up trying to audition for Duquesne and was accepted as a music education major, which I did not want to do. And so my father said, "What do you want to do?" And I said, "I want to play. I just need a teacher to explain how to do it." And so I went down the street to Carnegie Mellon and they accepted me. So I started there and then studied with various people. Ethan Stang was there for the first couple of years I was there. He was the piccolo player in the Pittsburgh Symphony. And he was a wonderful man, very much a grandfather figure, and helped me kind of heal from the wounds of my high school teacher. And, but then I took lessons with-- traveled to Minnesota to take lessons with the principal flutist of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, whose name is Julia Bogerad. And we spent two and a half hours doing nothing but long tones. And when I say long tones, I mean holding the B for a long time before she let me move on to a B flat, I got the exact right sound and she explained to me exactly what needed to happen, how I needed to move my air, how I needed to use my face.
[00:03:46] And then from that point, I called Jeff Khaner, who was principal flute in the Cleveland Orchestra, and asked if I could come take a lesson. And he said, "Well, you know, I'm expensive." And it was fifty dollars an hour, which in 1984 was...
RDC [00:04:00] A lot of bread.
CM [00:04:01] A lot of money for my family. My father is a Lutheran minister, was a Lutheran minister, so they didn't make a lot of money. But they drove me up there and, you know, made sure I had the right instrument and, you know, did whatever they had to do to make sure I could get to where I needed to be. And I went and played for him. And he had heard me in college. And he asked me, "So, what did you do between now and the last time I heard you?" I said, "I took a couple of lessons with Julia Bogerad in St. Paul." And he said, "Well, that was a good move because you figured out what you needed to do, what you needed to fix." And so I started studying with him and studied with him all through. I went to CIM for grad school and worked with him all through that time and played with great conductors and, you know, just had a great, great time.
RDC [00:04:48] What was the real turning point, the major breakthrough in your career at that time?
CM [00:04:54] Well, I was playing the flute all the time. The major turning point was when I discovered the piccolo. And that was a concert at Cleveland Orchestra, and I distinctly remember to this day what they were playing. I was sitting in the last row of Severance Hall, which was the best place to hear, and it was where the students' tickets were. So I was sitting back there and it was Yo-Yo playing Shostakovich. And the first piece in the program was Mother Goose, Ravel's Mother Goose. And the last piece on the program was Daphnis. And of course, you know, my teacher, Jeff Khaner, sounded like a million bucks and I was ready for him to sound like a million bucks. But what really caught me was through each of those performances was this incredible piccolo playing that I just couldn't keep my ears off of. I mean, it was just stunning. It was stunning. And I ran backstage and I found my teacher and I said, "Can you find Mr. Hiebert?" And he's like, "He always leaves. He's the first person out.".
[00:05:53] And so I called him later on and I said, "I'd like to take a lesson. I want to know how to do that." And I remember going in for my very first lesson and he asked me, said, you know, "What's your motivation?" I said, "Well, there's a piccolo audition coming up." He said, "Well, do you want to play the piccolo?" And I said, "I don't know. I think I probably could." I had a crappy instrument, all silver, 1923 Haynes piccolo. All silver piccolo. He said, "Well, you probably need to get something a little better." And so I did. I found a used instrument, which was a beautiful instrument, and went in and took a lesson and he said, "Now, come back, absolutely come back." And I was hooked from the first lesson I took with him through all the time. The last lesson I took with him was ten years ago before I took the Boston Symphony audition. And he's now 93. They just honored him at the flute convention in San Diego. He is an amazing, an amazing person, an amazing teacher. That's what got me hooked.
RDC [00:06:49] Here you are, here you are now, you know, in one of the most exciting eras in this orchestra's history.
CM [00:06:56] It certainly is.
RDC [00:06:57] Playing a repertoire you must have thought about, dreamed about playing. Shostakovich? 15 symphonies?
CM [00:07:02] All of them. Yeah.
RDC [00:07:05] Piccolo is, uh...
CM [00:07:06] I was hoping I'd be doing it in my mid 20s, early 30s rather than in my mid 50s. But it's OK. I'm thrilled to do it whenever I get to do it. And with Andris, it's a whole other experience. I mean, he knows that repertoire so well and it's so much fun to play for him. So of course, it's, for me, especially in the symphonies we just recorded and the two that are coming up and six and seven that we're recording this year, it's some of the scariest piccolo repertoire that comes out.
RDC [00:07:37] What makes it scary?
CM [00:07:38] Well, it's very exposed and it covers everything from extraordinarily soft, sustained playing all by myself to riding the top of the orchestra and coloring the violins and forte high register, lots of, you know, technical, high technical passages. So it's very technically difficult, but it's very musically difficult. So it doesn't ever let down except for the fact when, for instance, in Shostakovich 10, I sit for a good seven minutes before I play that last solo on the first movement. So I have seven minutes to get all worked up and scared and contemplate that first entrance.
RDC [00:08:19] And you did something right. Because that's a Grammy award-winning recording.
CM [00:08:23] I am very proud of that recording, I have to say. I'm very proud of that recording. But it, you know, it was very, very, very, very stressful. So, you know that the stress of the music and the stress of the recording itself is bad. But having to do it with somebody like Andris is a joy because for him it's really about what we're trying to bring to the music, what we want to say. And you realize, you know, your purpose is much higher than, geez, that B flat was really out of tune. I mean, that's easy to fix. You know, those things you can fix. But when you're playing for somebody who has such a love of the score and the music and the history, the time period of history, it just... It's incredible. It's really incredible. So it's an amazing time for the orchestra. I have to say, to a person, you know, you look around and people are happy, they're smiling, they're excited to play. The audience is excited, you know. It's great.
RDC [00:09:29] Andris talks a lot about as a youngster growing up under Stalin's shadow. What a great title that is for this.
CM [00:09:35] It is.
RDC [00:09:36] And, you know, look at this retrospective that he's bringing back Shostakovich into the mainstream.
CM [00:09:41] Right.
RDC [00:09:42] There are times in the music, when we're doing our radio broadcasts, and I know I speak for Brian and our crew, that we're listening in the headsets and I hear this melancholy poignancy suffering. And then all of a sudden the satire, the biting satire, it's like he's nailing it to the regime all the time.
CM [00:10:02] All the time.
RDC [00:10:03] And you must, as a player, you're going through all those transitions, right?
CM [00:10:07] Exactly. And you have to bring that sense, so the audience really hears it. You know, it's incredible music, because he wrote pieces where he needed Stalin to think he was praising him and praising all the work he was doing. At the same time, you know darn well there was none of that in the music. So, you know, to bring out that that bite underneath all these amazing triumphal chords and you realize it was ugliness. It was ugliness at that time. It's hard to do. It's hard to do. And I think Andris really understands the extremes of that music, really, really well.
RDC [00:10:56] The Leningrad is coming up.
CM [00:10:57] I know. And I've never played it. I've never played that. And I've never played 6. I studied them, but I've never played them. So I'm really excited to do that. The Leningrad, there's a couple of really interesting books. One is a children's book, a young adult book that I just bought for my kids that I'm actually going to read before.
RDC [00:11:14] Speaking of your children, they're musicians.
CM [00:11:17] My kids are musicians and my husband's a musician. So we're we're all one big, happy family, although they're all bass clef musicians. My husband's a cellist and he plays oftentimes with the Esplanade Orchestra, but he plays Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra and Rhode Island Philharmonic. And there's a lot of freelancing and teaching in the area. And my oldest picked the cello, and he's been playing since he was four and my youngest wanted to play the bass from the time he was little. And my argument was, you're too small, there isn't a bass, you can't do that. So we play the cello for a little while because he was certainly not going to play treble clef instrument. Until, in first grade, we were in Houston, Texas. They needed violins in their orchestra. They had an orchestra in the public school in the first grade. And so he decided he wanted to be a violinist. And that lasted all of about a year and a half maybe. And he said he didn't like the sound. I think it's all the years of hearing me practice in the back room where they would come in and beg me to stop. "Mama, please stop. Please stop." So when we moved here to Boston, I was talking to one of my colleagues, Todd Seeber, in the orchestra. And I said, "Christopher really wants to play the bass, but he's only in second grade. I don't think there's a bass, you know, the instrument's too big." And Todd said, "Oh, no, no, no, there are basses. You can get him a bass." So soon, as soon as he could do it. So he's a bass player. He was at BUTI this summer.
RDC [00:12:43] I want to ask you about the, you know, your instruments, because we talk about the violin. Everybody sees a Stradivarius. Is there a Stradivarius of the piccolos?
CM [00:12:53] Well, you know, it's interesting, wind players don't usually play older instruments because the scale is so different and the technology is so different. So it's not like you would find a flute that's playable in a modern orchestra that was made in the 1700s like you find with cellos and violins and violas. But I, I do play what I consider to be the Stradivarius of piccolos, because of its history and just because of the sound of the instrument. It was made in 1937 by Verne Q. Powell, who was a Boston flute maker, and then the shop was right across the street from Symphony Hall on Huntington Avenue, where the From The Top offices are, and Music Espresso, and NEC has offices in that building. And the Powell flute maker used to be there. And up until 1937, they had always made-- they had made silver piccolos up until then. And then they realized that silver was used with flutes because of the ability to be able to project. Silver flutes tended to, in those days, tended to protect clearer and better through the larger orchestras than wood did. Piccolos don't ever have trouble being heard. So they went back to making Piccolo's out of wood, but just the bodies. And the head joints were made out of silver to look like a little flute. So it had a, you know, an embouchure plate and all of that. And then Powell in '37 decided he was going to make an all-wood piccolo. And he made it for George Madsen, who was the piccolo player in the Boston Symphony. And George had that piccolo. And we think, I don't have proof, no way of knowing this. And I would love to somehow find out for sure. But we think that that may be the instrument that premiered Bartók Concerto for Orchestra in 1944.
RDC [00:14:41] In Symphony Hall.
CM [00:14:42] In Symphony Hall.
RDC [00:14:43] Right.
CM [00:14:44] And there's a huge piccolo solo in that piece. So we, you know, I like to think that this may be the instrument that did that. When my teacher was playing in Cleveland, he was a student of Jimmy Pappoutsakis, who was the second flutist in the Boston Symphony. And then my teacher won a job out of the Army. He played in the Army band during the war. And he went to Cleveland and Jimmy knew that George Madsen was retiring in '65 and was going to be selling that piccolo. So he called Bill Hiebert and said, you need to ask about this piccolo. And he did that. And Bill bought this piccolo. And so, Bill, all the great recordings you hear of Szell, all those Beethoven symphonies and "Kije," and Shostakovich 5, and, you know, Tchaikovsky 4 with Lorin Maazel, all of those recordings for the Cleveland Orchestra were done with this piccolo that my teacher had bought. And so he retired. It went to the second flutist of the Cleveland Orchestra, Martha Aarons, who was his student. And Martha called me about four years ago and said, "I'm not playing. It needs to be played. Do you want it?" And I said, "Yes, I want it."
RDC [00:15:58] There's a movie here, "The Red Violin." The Silver Piccolo.
CM [00:16:00] I know, I know!
RDC [00:16:03] Starring Cynthia Meyers, and we flash back... Oh, I can see this movie.
CM [00:16:07] So it was, it came back to Boston four years ago I guess now. And I've been playing it not as my only piccolo. I play another instrument as well. The instrument I've been playing for many years, but a lot of the high, loud in the Shostakovich 10, the last movement, second movement, last movement are all on that piccolo.
RDC [00:16:30] Of course, your repertoire is so varied. I mean, let's see, with the Pops, I mean, everybody knows. Everybody, when Stars and Stripes Forever happens.
CM [00:16:39] Oh, I've got a great story about that.
RDC [00:16:39] You got a great story about that. And, you know, more gags about piccolo players.
CM [00:16:44] I know.
RDC [00:16:45] When you leave, you're the first one off the stage. All these other people lugging basses, drums, percussions.
CM [00:16:51] But we also can go into an elevator with a bass player and look at them and say,"Don't you wish you played the piccolo?"
RDC [00:16:55] Yeah, it's another one. I think that's a New Yorker one.
CM [00:16:58] Yeah, I think so. [Laughs] Stars and Stripes. My very last one of my very last concerts at the Houston Symphony in 2006 was July 4th. And I turned to my second flutist and I said, "Wow, this is the last time I'm ever going to have to play Stars and Stripes, because, of course, the Boston Symphony is out of Tanglewood during that time. And it's the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra who plays July 4th. So I'm not going to have to do that anymore." And my colleague said, "Wow, that must be a really good feeling." And I said, "Yeah, kind of! I'm kind of tired of this." I obviously did not do my research and the end of my first Pops season, I called my colleague in Houston and I said, "Judy, I've played Stars and Stripes 38 times." So I learned my lesson and Stars and Stripes really well.
RDC [00:17:48] So you had just a wonderful career and now you're teaching privately.
CM [00:17:54] I also teach at NEC.
RDC [00:17:56] At NEC.
CM [00:17:56] Yeah.
RDC [00:17:57] In addition to the full schedule with the Boston Symphony, the tours, you just had this very successful European tour, other tours coming up.
CM [00:18:05] There are, I think, our next one. We do a small North American tour to New York, Montreal and Toronto in the spring. And then we have Japan, I believe, coming up.
RDC [00:18:15] How do you adjust to different halls? Because your instrument has such a...
CM [00:18:19] Oh.
RDC [00:18:20] ...Sound to it.
CM [00:18:20] It's hard. It's taken, it takes time. And to a certain extent, you just kind of have to rely on the fact that you have to play what you know your instrument does and not worry too much about the acoustics that you're in, because it'll throw you off. So certain halls, I adjust to really quickly.
RDC [00:18:42] Can you adjust in rehearsal when you know?
CM [00:18:45] If you have the time. Normally, our sound checks, if we don't have a complete, you know, a rehearsal in the hall, we can run to a hall and be there with a half an hour soundcheck or 15 minute sound check so you can check the louds and you can check the softs. But on my part, sometimes it won't even, he won't even hit something I play because I, you know, I rest for large quantities of time. So, you know, I spend a lot of time warming up on the stage. I'll spend time with other people on the stage because people drastically change how a hall sounds. We notice that out here at Tanglewood. Last night when we did the Verdi Aida, I was commenting at breaks, like, "Wow, it feels really dead in here," because it was humid and it was a packed house. And so it changes the acoustic drastically. So, you know, even in our home halls, conditions can change where you have to adjust rapidly and you get used to that over time. And most of the halls that we play in, there's only one time I can think of where we just never really adjusted and we didn't worry about it. And that was outside at Grafeneck, in Vienna. It was 99 degrees and we were doing Mahler's Sixth. And it was such a horrible acoustic, but such a wonderful presence with the audience. And it was so much fun to be there. But the acoustic was awful and there was nothing you could do about it. And you just say, you know, we're going to play our best.
RDC [00:20:12] Have you had any works commissioned for you?
CM [00:20:15] One in Houston, actually. We had the contrabassoonist and I had a work, a concerto for contrabassoon and piccolo, and we premiered it on April 1st, which I thought was appropriate. Yeah. So that was that was written by Damian Montano. So I'm trying to talk Gregg Henegar into doing that with me.
RDC [00:20:34] Yes.
CM [00:20:35] I think it'd be fun. And the Pops, you know, at least. It would be a good show.
RDC [00:20:37] It would be, it would be fun. Well, you've had a wonderful career and it seems to be no end to it as you head into-- how many years now?
CM [00:20:46] I've been, I'm starting my 11th season with the BSO. I came here in 2006.
RDC [00:20:51] And played under some, not only our present music director, but some great guest conductors. Do you have any favorites?
CM [00:20:57] Oh, Dutoit is way up there. I love playing for Dutoit. I love playing for Haitink. He's somebody I'm actually in awe of. I, you know, that was a "pinch myself" moment the first time I played for him, as I grew up with those recordings. I grew up with Dohnanyi in Cleveland. He was their music director. So I heard everything they did. Sometimes three times a week we would beg, borrow and steal to get into Symphony or to Severance Hall to hear them.
RDC [00:21:25] It's interesting you mention these great musicians because it's that era before that. Harry Ellis Dickson once told me, he said, "You know, under some of these titans we played mostly under fear."
CM [00:21:38] Yeah. You know, they all said that about Szell.
RDC [00:21:40] Yeah. Szell, Fritz Reiner, Toscanini. I mean, they got results, but, you know, in a very nasty way.
CM [00:21:48] Yeah. I mean, the old guys in Cleveland would talk about Reiner and they'd say, you know, well, you know, "When he died, six guys volunteered from the Cleveland Orchestra to be pallbearers.".
RDC [00:21:57] Yeah.
CM [00:21:58] And I made the comment, I said, "Oh, my gosh, you must've had such respect." He said, "Oh, no, we wanted to put him in the ground, make sure he stayed there." I mean, they were scared to death of him.
RDC [00:22:06] And thankfully, that era is is long gone.
CM [00:22:09] Yeah, much long gone.
RDC [00:22:11] Must be terrible pressure for musicians to play in.
CM [00:22:13] It was terrible. Szell was that way, but my teacher loved him and he loved my teacher, Bill Hiebert. He just adored Bill. And he got a certain sound out of the orchestra that still, even this many years, it's still very much present.
RDC [00:22:29] It's interesting how different conductors, Ozawa, Munch, Leinsdorf, Levine and now Andris developed their own sounds. But it takes it takes time, doesn't it?
CM [00:22:43] Right.
RDC [00:22:43] But you hear the sound, particularly now in Shostakovich, that's coming into fruition. right?
CM [00:22:50] Right. Oh, I think it's very much changing.
RDC [00:22:53] You just know, it's the Boston Symphony playing Shostakovich.
CM [00:22:55] Yeah. Yeah. Which is interesting because I don't think that the orchestra was ever known as a Shostakovich orchestra. I mean, it's always more of a French, you know, French sound, but he's really, he's bringing things out in the orchestra that are new and I think exciting. And, you know, the orchestra is excited to do it. It's great repertoire. I mean, you can't... for me, it's the best repertoire out there. So it's very exciting.