Heavenly Music: An Interview with the Nashville Symphony’s Roger Wiesmeyer

Writer Josh Belcher At Rockin' God's HouseI am proud to bring  you a subject that is very near and dear to my heart: music.

I love music in all shapes, sizes, and forms. To me, music is the greatest gift that God has ever bestowed upon humanity. I have never met anyone who did not enjoy music in some kind of form. The English playwright and poet William Congreve said it best: “Music has charms to sooth a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”

Classical music especially reflects the glory of God. Its elaborate layers of harmony and counterpoint give us a stunning glimpse of our Father’s creativity. J.S. Bach, arguably the greatest composer in history, once said: “Music is an agreeable harmony for the honor of God and the permissible delights of the soul.”

One of the greatest gems of music we have in Tennessee lies close to Nashville’s famous Broadway street, and it houses some of the most accomplished musicians ever to grace a stage. It is the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, and it is where the Nashville Symphony resides.

Adding even greater luster to the name Music City, the Nashville Symphony is one of the most active orchestras in the country with 19 recordings on Naxos, the world’s top classical music label. In addition, the Symphony has received 14 Grammy nominations and 7 Grammy wins — two of which were for Best Orchestral Performance!

The Schermerhorn Symphony Center is noted for it unbelievable acoustics and intricate architecture. It is 197,000 square foot of musical heaven, and everyone should see it at least once in their lifetime. In the coming months, the Schermerhorn will feature Stravinsky’s Firebird, Michael McDonald, and a tribute to Patsy Cline — even Vince Gill and Amy Grant performed a Christmas special! You can find more details at the official website for the Nashville Symphony.

I recently had the privilege to interview Roger Wiesmeyer who plays English Horn for the Symphony. He has also played oboe in three other symphonies before returning to Nashville in 2001. He owns a 105-year-old Steinway baby grand piano, and, when he’s not playing musical masterpieces, he loves gardening. (I personally enjoyed that last part — just knowing he has time for gardening!)

Roger Wiesmeyer of the Nashville SymphonyRockin’ God’s House: For people who are not familiar with it, describe the English horn and its roll in the symphony.

Roger: The English horn is a quiet solo woodwind instrument. Unlike the oboe (its smaller cousin), it plays infrequently; but when it does play, most of the orchestra either stops or plays very quietly so it can be heard. While the oboe, which is also a double reed instrument, plays in little bits throughout a long piece (a few seconds here, a few seconds there), the English horn will often play only once in a longer piece of music like a symphony, but that solo will be often times a minute or longer (which in my line of work is a very long time). Imagine holding your breath that long! [laughs]

Rockin’ God’s House: How would you describe the symphony to someone who has never been?

Roger: We make mostly beautiful sounds that inspire the listeners’ imagination and lift their spirits. It is 83 people breathing and feeling time as one organism.

Rockin’ God’s House: Tell us about some of your favorite performances?

Roger: Playing the Bartók Second Piano Concerto with Yefim Bronfman as soloist and Giancarlo Guerrero conducting. Strauss’ Four Last Songs this September with soprano Renée Fleming. Mendelsohn’s Elijah last May with guest conductor Nicholas McGegan.

Rockin’ God’s House: How long have you performed with the Nashville Symphony, and have you performed with other symphonies?

Roger: I played with the Pittsburgh Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, and Honolulu Symphonies before joining the Nashville Symphony in 2001.

Rockin’ God’s House: What is your musical background, as far as education and performance experience?

Roger: I started piano when I was four and still gravitate toward it. I love playing Mozart and Brahms and Debussy (with a little Bach thrown in). I studied oboe at the Curtis Institute of Music. I consider the time I spent sitting next to oboist Eugene Izotov in San Francisco to have been my graduate work. My parents met in junior high orchestra, and my brother was an aspiring violinist during my formative years. I have had many teachers (both formally and colleagues whom I was privileged to sit next to). My most important teacher was Ellenita Zimmerman, who was my first piano teacher.

Rockin’ God’s House: Express your feelings and opinions on conserving the music arts and why it is important for people to come to Nashville to enjoy the music at the Schermerhorn?

Roger: Art helps us examine our lives. It consoles us when times are difficult and gives voice to our deepest joys. When I consider the sacrifices that my colleagues have made to help our fellow Nashvillians do this, I am deeply moved. Equally important is for us to find a practice that allows us to examine what we think is important and make choices reflecting this: it could be learning a musical instrument, singing, quilting, gardening, drawing, etc.

Rockin’ God’s House: Which performances in the near future are you looking forward to the most?

Roger: I love playing the Nutcracker, which has a great English horn part. Since I have played it so much, it is like a milestone that allows me to “check in ” and see how my playing has progressed or changed over the past year. Also, we are playing a piece by Maurice Ravel, his G Major Piano Concerto, this February. It has a HUGE (three-minute) English horn solo in the slow movement. Giancarlo Guerrero will be conducting, which is very comforting when a musician is faced with a big job like that. Also, while I haven’t worked with the piano soloist, Conrad Tao, I have heard his debut CD. In addition to being a monster pianist, he is also a very fine composer and will bring that dimension to the performance, which I am very excited about!

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