BRATTLEBORO—Sometimes just as everything seems over, it turns out to be simply a new beginning.
When Robert Merfeld was finally diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he had to face up to his growing suspicion that his career as a pianist was coming to an end.
MS is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain and between the brain and body. Merfeld for a long time had found it increasingly difficult to control his hands.
He suspected the cause to be many things, including a Lyme infection, which indeed may have been a contributing factor, but the MS diagnosis made matters definite.
However devastating such news was for him, Merfeld is someone who hates self-pity, and he soon began considering other means to continue pursuing his love of music.
Following a career performing concerts all over the world, Merfeld is now concentrating his musical talents on teaching and composing. He wrote a book based on all he has learned through years of teaching music, and after a long career of playing what others wrote, he has begun to compose music of his own.
Published in 2017, Is It So If You Think It’s So?: Thoughts on Playing & Teaching Chamber Music — An Anti-Manual, describes Merfeld’s approach to chamber music and provides a fitting context for understanding his compositions.
Booktopia writes that in this book “the author reaches into a deep reservoir of experience to share his thoughts on coaching and performing. This book is essentially a plea for kindness and for an approach to education which breaks down hierarchies and the dominance of ego.”
Yet it wasn’t just words that Merfeld began writing.
Although Merfeld actually wrote a string quartet when he was a mere nine years old — “It was rather cute, “ he confesses — he did not compose anything again until he was 62.
The inspiration for Merfeld to revive his composing career came in 2008, when he was working with the Word Song Project in Boston. Participants were each asked to set music to the William Blake poem, The Tyger.
Says Merfeld, “I was hired only to play the piano for some of these compositions, but then I ventured to ask if I might attempt a setting of The Tyger myself.”
They agreed and so after all these years Merfeld tentatively began to compose music.
“Starting is always hard for me,” he admits. “It is easier to start composing with a poem. Poems make choices for you. Words encourage a composer where to go.”
On Saturday, Nov. 10, at 7:30 p.m., the Brattleboro Music Center will host a concert of Merfeld’s chamber works in the center’s new auditorium at 72 Blanche Moyse Way in Brattleboro. The concert will be the first time that some of his compositions have been presented to the public.
Merfeld has assembled a cast of distinguished musicians, many of whom are familiar to local BMC audiences: Bayla Keyes, violin; Katie Lansdale, violin; Anya Shemetyeva, viola; Rhonda Rider and Paul Cohen, cello; Mary Cicconetti, oboe; Jayne West, soprano and narrator. In addition, Merfeld himself will play piano on three of his pieces.
In addition to Merfeld’s String Quartet, and The Tyger — a composition written for soprano and piano — the program includes Cricket and Piglet — A Fable, a story that Merfeld wrote and subsequently set to music for violin, viola, and narrator.
Complementing this work will be another animal oriented piece, Animal Miniatures, commissioned by Michelle LaCourse, head of the string department at Boston University, where Merfeld teaches. Merfeld will be joined by his wife, Anya Shemetyeva, for the performance of this work.
The final piece of the evening will be Intervals for String Quartet, written by Merfeld in 2017.
The concert will be preceded by a talk from 5 to 6 p.m. with the performers and the composer to discuss what they do as teachers and what students hope to glean from teaching.
Merfeld grew up around New York City. (“Yet when I became a Red Sox fan in 1967, I lost all claim to being a genuine New Yorker,” he confesses with a laugh). He received his training at Oberlin Conservatory and the Juilliard School. His primary childhood teacher was the eminent pianist Leonid Hambro.
Merfeld is currently on the faculties of Boston University, the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, and the Longy School of Music of Bard College. He has also taught at Harvard, Dartmouth, Marlboro, and the Tong-Il Han Piano Institute in Korea.
“The dozen years I taught at Harvard were some of the best of my life,” he says. “Everyone was there for the right reason: a genuine love of music.”
Merfeld was a founding member of the Apple Hill Chamber Players, with whom he toured nationally and internationally for over 20 years. He has collaborated with numerous prominent artists including singers Jan de Gaetani, Lucy Shelton, and Dawn Upshaw, violinists Stanley Ritchie and Arnold Steinhardt, clarinetist Charles Neiditch, and violist James Dunham.
He has also appeared with ensembles such as the Philadelphia, Mendelssohn, and Muir Quartets, for which he wrote Intervals for String Quartet, which premiered at Tanglewood this past June.
“When I sat in the audience at the premiere at Tanglewood, I glanced at the program and saw the composers listed: Mozart, Dvorak, and myself,” Merfeld says. “I couldn’t believe seeing myself joined with such illustrious company.”
Commenting on his path as a composer, Merfeld admits that it is “half daunting and half liberating” identifying himself as a writer of music.
“People say they can hear, in my music influences, Bartok and early Schoenberg,” Merfeld says. “I myself don’t see it, but perhaps I am incorporating the music I love to play in what I write. People tell me I have a unified sound to all my music. I am too shy to say that about myself, but what I compose does sound as if it were all written by the same person.
“I love harmony in music, which may be the reason I was so attracted to the Beatles. Unlike practically anyone else in rock and roll, the Beatles were great harmonists. I see melody as an excuse for harmony, not the other way around.”
Merfeld is thrilled about his new career as a composer and writer, and about continuing his old one of teaching.
“I am always searching for what is possible,” he says. “You could say I am an eternal optimist. My wife has been amazing through all this crisis in my career. She tells me to refuse to dwell on what you can’t do. Do what is possible.”