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Interview with cellist Peter Wyrick

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In the coming months, we will be featuring interviews with musicians of various backgrounds. If you are a musician and would like to be featured in our series, please contact us at elijah.ho[at]hotmail.com. A full list of interviews can be found here.

Peter Wyrick is the Associate Principal cellist of the San Francisco Symphony. A Juilliard alumnus and former student of Leonard Rose, at the age of eighteen, he recorded the Cello Sonatas of Gabriel Fauré with Earl Wild; an album of Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Quintets with Rudolf Firkušný later won France’s Diapason d’Or and received a Grammy nomination. Wyrick is the soloist in Haydn’s First Cello Concerto with Joana Carneiro and the Berkeley Symphony, tomorrow evening at Zellerbach Hall (ticket information). Below is a transcript of our December 3, 2013 conversation with cellist Peter Wyrick.

EH: Mr. Wyrick, you have quite the musical background.

Wyrick: Yes, I come from a family of musicians. Both my parents were music educators in the New York area, and I grew up there in Poughkeepsie. My brother, Eric, is Concertmaster of the New Jersey Symphony, and my other brother, Jed, is a pianist and professor of Comparative Religious Studies at Chico State University. My wife, Amy Hiraga, is a violinist with the San Francisco Symphony as well. We play together as often as we can.

I began studies at the cello at the age of seven, having started with the piano three years earlier. I think I came to the instrument quite easily. Many of the technical demands were instinctive to me, until the age of seventeen, when I started to think about it all (laughs). All of a sudden, everything just became impossibly difficult! I’m still trying to emerge from that awakening, dealing with the difficulties of playing a string-instrument.

I’ve had many teachers over the years. At Juilliard, I studied with Leonard Rose, who was a wonderful influence, as he was for many of his students. I must have been one of his last, as he died in 1984, the same year I graduated. My strongest impression of him, as an instrumentalist, was that he would demonstrate at our lessons, just four feet in front of me - that’s how he taught – and say, “Well, here’s how it goes!”. It was incredible, just the kind of command he had of the instrument, the command of tone, even in his later years. He was still a vital cellist until the very end.

EH: You were the Associate Principal cellist of the New York City Opera Orchestra until 1999. What are your feelings about the recent, tragic turn of events ?

Wyrick: It’s a great tragedy. Many of my friends and former colleagues were in that orchestra, and now they’re out of work. Had I not come out to San Francisco in 1999, there’s a very good chance that I would be in the same boat as my colleagues. It just seems that something that was so effective for many, many years in the city of New York, was spoiled. I’m not sure how it all happened, but what a tragedy it is. A lot of my peers are in struggling-mode right now. The orchestra was a very important half-year commitment for many musicians, and now they don’t have that. I could very well have been in the same position as them.

EH: Both of your children are string players. I’m curious to know, what are your thoughts on the future of the art form in this country ?

Wyrick: Yes, one of them is a violinist, a graduate of the New England Conservatory, and the other is a cellist, a junior at Juilliard. I have faith that the future of classical music will be fine. It’s a tradition of such richness that it’s going to be obvious to many that without it, there will be very little to hold on to in terms of beauty, in terms of something to connect to in an emotional way. Music is the most interactive, being in-touch with your emotions, and it’s impossible that its potential will diminish. There is so much support and interest for it here in San Francisco - I’m playing almost more than I can take on - and I am so grateful to be here. Our family has made the commitment to be very involved in the community. As far as we can tell, though our children are young and just starting out, they’re getting the opportunities here. The interest is that great. I think we’re extremely lucky, and there’s really nothing I’d rather be doing.

EH: You recorded the Cello Sonatas of Gabriel Fauré with the late Earl Wild, who is arguably, one of the funniest musicians in history. What are some of your fondest memories of this outstanding pianist ?

Wyrick: Earl Wild really took me under his wing and was a great influence on me. I spent a lot of time with him: we played together at Wolf Trap, we had the recording sessions together, and he really was an extraordinarily brilliant, very funny man. I think he saw something in me that he appreciated – I was around eighteen at the time - and it was an incredible opportunity to work with him.

I was attending the Aspen festival in Colorado that summer, and I had to leave for New York in order to make those Faure recordings with him. We had very little money at the time, and so I had to take a bus from New York back to Aspen. You can imagine how many hours that took (laughs). My father told me I had much to think about on the way back from those recording sessions, and still to this day, I listen to those recordings on LP, feeling so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with such a master. It really was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Earl had plenty of advice for me, and told me that as a musician, it’s all about the process of preparation, of learning, practicing, and drilling. He told me the end-product was just a result of the work, and in some sense, was almost secondary. I’ve learned that if you have the energy, whatever comes will come.

EH: On the subject of recordings, is there a right way for aspiring musicians to listen to them ? Is there a cellist whose recordings you find yourself still drawn to after all these years ?

Wyrick: Musicians need to play in such a way that is almost carefree; we should really let the engineers worry about being perfect. There’s a sense of sterility because people are often preoccupied with not screwing-up. The artist I listen to more than anyone else is Anner Bylsma (video), who has a huge recording discography over many years. He is, for me, the ideal: playing to the beauty of the music. If things aren’t perfect, that’s okay. The beauty of the music itself is greater than perfection.

EH: What are your thoughts and ideas on the creation of a beautiful tone on the cello ? What word of advice can you give to students who are struggling with this most difficult aspect of music-making ?

Wyrick: My father was a baritone, and I grew up listening to him a lot, with my mother at the piano, in Schumann, in Brahms, etc. Tone is the voice of the musician, and I think I developed mine from those early years, sitting under the piano. If you listen to my brother at the violin, he and I have a similar concept of sound. This is the personality of the musician, it is the true voice of their sound, and I think a lot of it comes from what we experienced growing up in that environment.

EH: Tomorrow evening, you’ll be performing Haydn’s gorgeous Cello Concerto No. 1 with Joana Carneiro and the Berkeley Symphony. What can you tell us about this work ?

Wyrick: I’m very fortunate to be performing this piece with the Berkeley Symphony. I’m an orchestral musician, and it is quite rare for me to have the chance to play in-front of one. The work is a big challenge, but I chose it because it’s one of my favorite pieces in the cello repertoire. It was actually discovered in 1961, a sort of new piece for us, and I’m so glad that somebody found it. It’s a piece I played as a young person – though not since I was 21 (laughs) – and it has remained with me all these years.

Written around 1750, the cello was going through a big change, an important period of its development where it became more of a solo instrument. This happened because Haydn was given the advice of a wonderful orchestral cellist, on thumb-position, etc., and the cello suddenly became a soprano instrument. It went from being used as this grumbling sound to being a soprano voice, which helped it emerge from the texture of the orchestra. The Haydn piece has an almost four-octave range, which was almost unheard of at the time!

EH: Is there a little or lesser known composer whose works you believe deserve more attention ?

Wyrick: The cello repertoire is quite slim, and while I was in the process of choosing the Haydn concerto, I actually very much considered performing one recently written by Jimmy Lopez, who lives in the Bay area. It’s an amazing work, but unfortunately, it’s still under contract to another cellist for another year or so.

EH: Mr. Wyrick, it’s been a great pleasure speaking with you. Best of luck to you this Thursday.

Wyrick: Thank you so much, Elijah!

A full list of reviews and interviews with artists can be found here, and new material can be freely sent to your e-mail by clicking ‘Subscribe’ below; follow us on Twitter@elijahho.

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