Mary Riles will play the Haydn Concerto No. 2 for Cello at our next performance. I spoke to Mary about this concerto and her musical life. She was kind enough to take the time to engage in a wonderful discussion.
When did you start playing music and how did you start playing the cello specifically?
When did you know you wanted to be serious about it?
When you were in Oberlin, when do you know that cello playing was “for real” for you?
The Haydn Concerto No. 2, how did you choose that piece and why did you choose that piece?
What are the things we should watch for?
Soliloquy is solo cello, no accompaniment. It’s so different than the Haydn. What are the solo challenges?
KCO: When did you start playing music and how did you start playing the cello specifically?
Mary Riles: I think I started with recorder when I was 4 or something like that, I don’t really remember. My older sister played harp and her teacher gave a recital with a friend of hers who played cello. My mom brought me as well as my sister. I was 4 years old, and it was the first time I’d heard the cello. I was just struck. It’s my earliest clear memory. I remember the church, and I remember the purple cushions in the pews. I remember seeing her, and I remember being overwhelmed by the sound of the instrument. And so I knew I wanted to play the cello.
A couple years later, I started lessons with her, the woman that I had heard play. She was my first teacher and I think I studied with her until I was about 12 and she moved away to New York City.
KCO: Wow, and where was this?
Mary: St. Louis.
KCO: You were in St. Louis, you hear cello for the first time and you’re just overwhelmed. And where does it go from there? You take lessons from a really early age?
Mary: We lived in England for 9 months when I was 6. My dad had sabbatical. I think it was the next time I heard the cello. We got off the plane and went to our friends’ house and their daughter, who was a few years older than me, was practicing cello. I walked in the house and heard cello again. I remember looking down the hallway and seeing it. I must have started lessons right after we got back. I was the tail end of being 6 years old.
KCO: That’s really early!
Mary: Yeah. I think that music education was important to my parents and also I had strongly expressed the desire to play the cello. I think they were waiting until I was a little bit bigger.
KCO: Did you go Suzuki method?
Mary: No, I studied with this woman that I had heard the first time and we used Dotzauer and golly, that was so long ago, Dotzauer and then various other pieces.
KCO: How did you manage the size of the cello though?
Mary: They do make very small cellos. I had a half size to begin with I suspect that the half size might have been a little bit too big for me but I’m not sure.
KCO: I see. So, you took lessons and when did you know you wanted to be serious about it?
Mary: Well, in the sense of sort of personal commitment and heart connection, I was serious about it from the very beginning. I went to Oberlin, and I was double degree there. I was in the college and the conservatory.
I had two passions through my life: one of them was music and one of them was language, English. I intended to double major in cello performance and English, so I had an advisor who was in the conservatory who was my teacher and an advisor in the college. Somehow between those two advisors, and myself, somehow I did not realize that I had to take the first course in the English major sequence my very first semester in order to be able to complete the degree in the five years, given distribution requirements. I didn’t do that and by the time I realized what that meant, it was too late, I would’ve had to stay a sixth year, which was not in the cards.
I wound up doing ancient history, classics as my college degree. I had taken Latin for like six years or something like that when I was growing up, and it’s just one of those moments in time where this seemingly super inconsequential choice has these really profound long run repercussions for the rest of your life. Had I done the English degree, I think it’s reasonably likely I would have gone the academic route rather than the musical route because the academic route was so much easier than music, which is, you know, fabulous and brutally challenging.
Mary: And I, for a while in my life, but by the time I was a junior, probably, I’d decided that I wanted to strive to be the best cellist that I could be and that I’d rather be a professional musician and a nonprofessional reader or thinker or whatever you want to call it, than the other way around. The idea of playing substantially below the level, sort of below the capacity I had, sounded very unappealing to me.
You have to make choices. Playing in ensembles is the right place for me. I get to teach people over a long course of time, it’s just really wonderful, personal, collaborative endeavor.
KCO: You make it sound good. I haven’t had a teacher that I’d connected with, in a long time.
Mary: My first teacher was really wonderful. I had a couple of teachers who were really not wonderful. My college teacher died young of esophageal cancer and in fact my first teacher also died young, she had a heart attack, and so I don’t have a current mentor. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a mentor relationship like that.
KCO: I’m sorry to hear that. That’s rough.
Mary: I grew up in a family of teachers, my grandfather was a band and orchestra teacher, my father a professor, my brother and my sister are both teachers, it’s really in my family DNA maybe, and I really just think it’s such an important profession. I definitely have missed having the presence of a relationship with a former teacher for sure. But it’s also true that you can learn from so many people and so many different ways. I have so many incredible colleagues who I learn from and whom I respect, and I really feel grateful for that.
KCO: When you were in Oberlin, when do you know that cello playing was “for real” for you ? When did you think, “I know I can do it?”
Mary: Those are two different questions!
Well I think, I decided by my junior year that playing the cello was what I wanted to do. The self-doubt demons like to mess with any conviction that one acquires. I think that, to be honest, I think that I’ve known on some level that I was a musician since I was very young, some part of me.
KCO: The Haydn Concerto No. 2, how did you choose that piece and why did you choose that piece?
Mary: Well, I had a conversation with James and we talked about what to do. We had been talking about the Elgar and I can’t even remember how it worked its way around to being Haydn. He had been talking about a particular program, I think an English program, and the Haydn. I played the C Major Haydn maybe 15 years ago. D Major is a Concerto that I’ve always really loved. It is so lyrical and so elegant and yet possesses such a depth of feeling and it really resonates for me.
It’s a big technical challenge. You jump up and down a lot, there’s a lot of notes up high on the finger board. There are places where it goes really fast, but it is also doesn’t feel extraneous or like as an ego expression of the composer or something like that.
It’s an expression of energy. There’s so much joy that runs through it, so it’s a piece that really appeals to me. It definitely felt like a challenge, but a challenge that I wanted to take on.
KCO: That was a great description, because I was going to ask the follow up question about explaining to a non-string player.
Mary: I think energy and joy are the things, but also depth of feeling, like its form is elegant, but it’s in no way a superficial piece. It sings.
KCO: What are the things we should watch for?
Mary: Hmm, the things to watch for?
KCO: Well listen to, but I’m thinking from the technical point of view. Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s hard about someone else’s instrument.
Mary: Well it goes up really high. it also goes up high and crosses all four strings, often you’ll be up high on the A string, maybe a bit on the D string, but this goes all the way across all four strings and it’s hard to balance on a cello because the range is so wide. Having both clarity and power across all four strings is challenging in terms of just making a cello and playing a cello, so one of the challenges is to play up high on the C and G strings and have a clear tone, have it not be muddy.
KCO: That’s easy for a brass player to understand because it’s hard to make all notes sing because of the physics of the instrument.
Mary: It has lots of leaps. Big, big intervals up and down the string are hard. It’s also full of chords, which can be challenging to get in and out of with grace.
The third movement that has all these wild octaves that go up and down the instrument, way up high in the register and way down low. If you look at a guitar, the frets get closer and closer together as you go up the finger board, and of course the same thing is true on all stringed instruments. You can’t just put your thumb and third finger on an octave and them move that shape up and down the cello. You have to adjust how far your fingers are from each other in order to retain the octave as you move up and down the finger board. Doing that at a high rate of speed presents some challenges.
KCO: I saw your performance of Soliloquy online. Soliloquy is solo cello, no accompaniment. It’s so different than the Haydn. What are the solo challenges?
KCO: Are they the same in both pieces? Does it really come down to interpretation and really finding what you want to say as a player?
Mary: Well it’s a really different thing to prepare a solo piece as compared to a concerto which is not a solo piece in the sense that multiple people are creating this piece of music. Yet, I’ve been spending several months working on the Haydn by myself, in my studio. I’ve listened to it, and what I wound up doing actually was writing orchestral cues in my part. Not all the way through, but in various places, so that I could feel them as I was playing my part. I even recorded some of the orchestral lines so that I could play with myself as a duet so that I could feel the rhythmic interplay between the two parts.
I’ve also played it, a pianist friend of mine offered to play through it with me, so I’ve played with him. I’ll probably do that again, and then obviously I will rehearse with the orchestra. And part of rehearsing with the orchestra and writing in cues is logistics, how does everything fit together, and that’s not even, that can be not as simple question because rhythm really drives phrasing so much and so you have to know how things fit together in order to make music.
But also, music for me is fundamentally about communication and relationships and when you’re working on a piece which is solo, literally you are the only music and yours is the only part, it’s still about communication and relationships. I mean obviously it’s less complicated from the fact that you don’t have to refer to what anybody else is doing.
KCO: It also means all the pressure squarely on you. It’s not like your entrance is going to be late, but still, to me, and they are worlds different.
Mary: When you’re playing by yourself you have to create everything. The fewer players you have, the more responsibility each player has for creating the harmonic and rhythmic world and structure. As a single player, you are both more free and also have to be even clearer about what it is you’re presenting, because you have to present the whole thing.
The concerto is a funny, odd duck because the person who’s playing the solo part has such profound influence on the process and musical choices, but at the same time, all of us in the room are finding and expressing the spirit of the piece and its relationships. It goes well beyond, well “x” section has to be quieter so that you can hear “y” section. All that stuff is super important but it’s like, when I’m explaining rhythm to students who haven’t been playing for very long. I tell them that as they develop their sense of the beat. Every time they play it’s a dance between the beat and the notes on the page; it’s a relationship.
Feeling that relationship deepens your understanding of the music and your feeling for the music. It’s not just a sequence of events, it’s how the music is with or is not with the beat, for example, and similarly, certain things are only visible in relief. The concerto is not whole without all of its parts and all the parts inform all the other parts.
KCO: Perfect. We’ll look forward to it. I look forward to hearing it.
Mary: Thank you!
Interview on May 22, 2018
by Francis X. Langlois – tuba player in the KCO