Saturday, May 21, 2016

Interview with the MSO's Brian and Katherine Manker

I had the pleasure of interviewing Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO) performers Brian and Katherine Manker on April 11th. They are two of the three members that make up "Manker and Friends" who will be performing a benefit concert at St. Philip's as part of our 125th anniversary festivities. The trio is composed of Brian Manker on cello, his wife Katherine on violin and WeiTang Huang on piano. The concert will take place at St. Philip's church (25 Brock North) on May 27th at 8 pm. See the full interview below.

Richard Matthews, Social Media Coordinator, St. Philip's Church.

Richard: Thank you very much for meeting with me today and for performing at our church at the end of May.

Richard: You both play with the MSO and you both teach music. Clearly music is an overarching theme for the both of you. How did music come to play such a central role in your lives?

Katherine: Music was in our family growing up. My mom's a musician. I grew up in a house of music, music was always there. We always went to concerts, I fell in love with music and I wanted to do it. I started playing piano at four years old and then violin in fifth grade. At one point in high school I decided I wanted to just play violin. It's taken me everywhere around the world. The concert with Brian Manker and friends not only are we married, (Brian and Katherine are husband and wife) Wei [who plays piano in the trio Manker and friends] was a student of my mother.

Brian: My parents both had day jobs...but they were both singers, and sang in churches and opera courses and different kinds of things so I was hearing a lot of music around the house and there was a piano. There is a funny story about me being two years old, which I don't remember at all, singing some aria that my mother had been practicing while being pushed through the grocery store in a cart. People looking at this two year old [asking] like what is the matter with him? That processing of what you're hearing or whatever that is that leads to some kind of affinity for it perhaps I think begins really early. So I started playing the cello when I was nine and it was kind of a fluke. I really wanted to play a much louder instrument like the trumpet or clarinet or something like that, but in the public school I was going to you had to wait another year to start that. I had the choice of picking a string instrument. I had my heart kinda set on the violin, for no particular reason other than I kinda knew what it was. But I had a conversation with my father, we were driving in the car and I asked him what he thought about what instrument I should pick and he said, "well the cello is a nice instrument, when its played well". So I picked the cello not really knowing anything about what I was getting into when I was nine and started public school and had some private lessons and eventually fell in love with it. I didn't fall in love with it right at the beginning and I didn't pick it because I loved it but it did happen that I did fall in love with it.

Richard: Would you argue that like language acquisition some are just borne to the world with a brain that is more capable of processing, understanding and playing music?

Brian: I would agree with that...Early exposure to multiple languages leads to more mastery of the language. Its harder to learn it the older you are. I am not saying its done for anybody I just think its difficult to assimilate in the same deep fashion that one does as a youngster. Which goes to the whole point about exposure being the number one thing.

Richard: Would you say that you found yourselves through music?

Katherine: I feel like we are music, its who we are.

Brian: Its hard to say which came first, its the chicken egg kind of a thing. Even the instrument that you play influences the kind of person that you are. For example if your playing the trumpet, its a bold instrument, people will notice you, you have to have a lot of confidence because you can't hide your mistakes. You really have to have a kind of swagger to play the trumpet. Many trumpet players do embody that. I have a lot of friends who play trumpet so I speak from experience. Some other instruments are more complimentary instruments. The cello for example, your often playing an accompaniment line or a base line. You have to understand where the other people want to go and you have to help them to get there. And yet at the same time you also will get to share in playing those melodies and having the spotlight. So it creates a different kind of relationship with other musicians depending on what you play... It molds you eventually.

Katherine: Music is not just a career it is a vocation. We live the life of artists. We both have strengths in other things. I can see myself in management. I have a knack for that.

Brian: She is the organized one.

Katherine: I do the taxes every year. Brian has fantastic teaching skills and lecturing skills, he can do that extremely well. But still when you think about it, would I want to do that all the time, no. When you are onstage or performing or doing chamber music that is when you feel like you are really alive.. We like sharing too, music really is about sharing, so you always feel like you are giving, it feels good to give, generous thing to do, it makes us feel good. That feeling when you are giving a concert and sharing that music is way better than a paycheck, really. I mean you need the paycheck but that thing that you are giving feeds you.

Richard: In what ways would you say that self discovery is part of the process of making music?

Brian: I think for me any kind of art functions a bit like a mirror. You hold it up in front of you or you contemplate it or you are exposed to, what it reflects back your own reaction you find ways to connect to it Over the course of time you are exposed to the same work of art and have a different reaction and that means that you have changed and can measure yourself in a way through that. Then there is the other kind of self-discovery, which is the craft of playing, trying to do better, lots of pursuits have that in a way it is not that different than athletics, trying to do it better than the last time. To figure out how to communicate something better more efficiently, more coherently. Your battling against yourself against your weakness, trying to play to your strengths hopefully but you want to try to be complete, so there is a lot of self discovery in that.

Richard: Is there such a thing as perfect performance?

Brian: Oh I don't think that happens. A perfect performance no...maybe that was the best I could do. OK, that's not perfect, I am happy that I did my best.

Katherine: I think its different for different people. How to answer that question. Some people may have an easier time than Brian.

Brian: There is a difference between going to play and trying to reproduce exactly what you practiced. And going to play and having created conditions for yourself to succeed and to explore, there is a difference of mind-set. I tend to go into the second category more than the first. Some people are much more in that first, I've practiced and I pushed the button and the music is going to come out. It took me a long time to figure that out, I am better at it now than I used to be. That was never really my goal. So perfect? What would that be?

Katherine In Orchestra, which is what I mostly do, its a huge group, so what I think I did which is not making mistakes having a good concert. doesn't necessarily make that concert a good concert. It could be a great concert but as a group maybe I missed something along the way. So you can have two things happening at the same time. We did some concerts recently on the U.S. tour where as a group you felt everybody was putting on their "A" game. You can feel that, those are good concerts, but they are not perfect. Chamber music we will be happy if people are happy.

Brain: You are not just trying to recreate the notes you're trying to make an experience...we are trying for perfect, don't get me wrong, were trying for it whatever that is.

Richard: What happens if you make a mistake? Does it bother you?

Katherine: Depends what kind of mistakes you make.

Brian: You have to leave all those things behind you.

Katherine : Things bother you but you also in time realize that what bothers you people don't even notice.

Brian: You have to be able to deal with your own humanity, we just not robots, you have to be able to deal with that in a forgiving manner.

Katherine: Sometimes it surprises you more than you are upset.

Richard: When you play a piece of music do you try to get into the composer's head or do you simply play it as you perceive it?

Brian: Its a combination the mirror thing again. You don't know the composer, sometimes it does happen but even in those cases it does not give you that much of an indication, it surprising into what the text means, the hieroglyphics on a page. Its like there is tradition in law, you have a law that was written 200 years ago and its been interpreted over the years. Its gone through all kinds of changes, and some laws nobody even pays attention to them and some of them have adapted to our time. Music to some extent music is like that. You have to play in the time that you are living in you can't play in. Of course you try to get to that, you try to get what that was, but there are an awful lot of things that have happened along the way.

Katherine: Different generations have gone through different training. I think our generations is more respectful of the composers traditions so we try to fall into that. Some of our colleagues are putting their own personal thing to it. Sometimes it can sound so different... I think we tend to honour that law tradition we can't ignore our teachers and the teachers before them. Things that were handed down to us.

Richard: Would you say that composer like Stravinsky or Satie were revolutionary for their time?

Brian: Some pieces of Stravinsky... are truly revolutionary, but others are a little bit like found objects that are made into art. Satie is doing a little bit of the same kind thing musicologically speaking, reducing down to bear elements and saying notice this. Hes taking a lot of stuff away and leaving stuff behind. Who is truly revolutionary, that's tough.

Katherine: We recently played the Rite of Spring like a lot, on tour, we were both saying can you imagine that this was that piece that shocked the world. There are still passages that bring that. There are other things that were outrageously difficult at the time which now are not so hard, so much music has been written since then. Sometimes you go back to Stravinsky and say that is really simple. The emotional content of that piece remains.

Brian: He [Stravinsky] embraces brutality.

Katherine: Tonight we are playing Shostakovich's 8th symphony, some things scare you. You feel that as you play it.

Richard: Do you play things better by feeling it?

Brian: Its hard not to live it when you are right in the middle of it.

Richard: I would imagine at your level it is hard to play without feeling?

Katherine: Some people they would get excited about the notes but they are not always passionate.

Brian: There are so many different ways.

Richard: So virtuosity can exist in the absence of passion?

Brian & Katherine: Absolutely!

Richard: I noticed on the program that you will be playing Beethoven and Dvorak. Why did you pick these two composers?

Katherine: I always wanted to play Dvorak with this particular trio.

Brian: They are great works...For an audience that wants to support something like this I think it is nice to give people something that they can go away having fallen in love with.

Brian: Dvorak really had his real heart on the sleeve, his music is generous. In Beethoven there is something positive and triumphant somehow.

Richard: Dvorak seems to be have composed music in a way that just seemed effortless, is that true?

Brian: There is a naturalness about Dvorak for sure. He is like a ripe apple, you don't have to dress it up with a sauce its just nice right off the tree. There is just something so fresh here.

Richard: Why does Beethoven resonate with so many people?

Katherine: Genius, talk about crafted, [he was an] amazing pianist...masterful talk about classical music, here you go.

Brian: He is really the first composer to write works where there is a narrative line to the music, and it follows a very typical narrative line that is similar to stories in mythology. where you have the hero and he goes through a process, a dark place and he comes out through the trials either changed or triumphant, that is the prototypical Beethoven work. People get that. There is something about his ability bring that across to have those moments of affirmation work and not fall flat. They work. It is not just because of the life story, it is because it is actually there in that music. He wrote music in a way that resonates with people. The fifth symphony being a perfect example, darkness to light and blazing light at the end. Played a lot of those pieces, and I tried to understand a lot about his biography and trying to understand who he might have been. I don't think he was such a bad guy. He's not the thunderbolt hurling god of music that he has sort of turned into, he just a guy.

Richard: What can people expect at your concert?

Katherine: We expect that they want to come because they want to help the community. That's why were here, we want to help too.

Brian: Its a lovely venue, its a small space, very intimate space, the perfect space to hear a trio in. Because your close to the music its easier to engage with it. The bigger the space the harder it can be for a small ensemble. I think people will go away thinking that there was an intimacy and immediacy, and a vivid quality that they will appreciate.

Richard: Once again thank you very much Brian and Katherine, we look forward to your concert on May 27th. For more information about the concert including the program and the musicians biographies click here.

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