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Interview: Guest conductor Michelle Merrill steps up to the podium for Oklahoma City Philharmonic’s Classics series

Brandy McDonnell
The Oklahoman/NewsOK
November 12, 2017
Link to article here

Female guest conductor Michelle Merrill to step up to podium in OKC

Considering she found her inspiration in a childhood bag of Halloween candy, it’s probably not a stretch to call Michelle Merrill’s career a treat.

“I was trick-or-treating, I was 7 or 8, and this lady was handing out piano lesson business cards on the candy. I took it home and dumped out all my candy and found this business card and said, ‘Oh, hey, Mom and Dad, can I take piano lessons?’” Merrill recalled with a laugh.

“So, I started on piano, and then actually my older sister played saxophone. So, of course I wanted to be like her — she’s eight years older than me, so I wanted to do everything like her — so I started playing saxophone. And that was my main instrument in college, actually. There’s not many pieces for orchestra with saxophone … but then I knew I wanted to be a conductor from a fairly young age. In high school, I knew that was what I really was drawn to.”

The associate conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Merrill will make her Oklahoma City Philharmonic debut Saturday as guest conductor for the third concert in the OKC orchestra’s Classics series. Born in Dallas and raised in Canton, Texas, she said several family members will be driving up for the performance.

“I love going to different orchestras. … Last year, I did the Beethoven violin concerto with two different orchestras and two different soloists and it was two completely different performances. And that’s really fun because you’re doing the same piece that you know so well, but you’re getting to come back to it with a different perspective, different light, a different mood — and that’s based on the fact I was with different people, I was with different soloists, I was in a different kind of environment, a different hall,” she said. “In some ways, it’s like reading a good book that you always to go back to and find new things every single time.”

Michelle Merrill will be the guest conductor at the Oklahoma City Philharmonic's Nov. 18 Classics concert. Photo provided
Michelle Merrill will be the guest conductor at the Oklahoma City Philharmonic’s Nov. 18 Classics concert. Photo provided

Rarity on the podium

As a woman, Merrill, 34, is aware that she is still a rarity on the podium.

“We did a show recently where I was conducting for assisted living residents … and these are people in their 70s, 80s, early 90s and so many of them told me, ‘You’re the first woman conductor I’ve ever seen,’ and I thought, ‘Oh wow,’” said Merrill, who is also the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Phillip and Lauren Fisher Community Ambassador.

“I think you’re going see that number change dramatically very soon because so many women and young ladies are going into conducting because they’re seeing more women on the podium. They’re seeing that it’s kind of not the stigma that is has to be an old man job, and it’s becoming more of a viable career path (for women).”

While Marin Alsop, who became the first, and so far only, woman to lead a major American orchestra in 2007, when she started as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s music director, has talked about the sexism she faced when she set out to become a conductor, Merrill said she thankfully did not encounter the same barriers to the baton at Southern Methodist University.

“She was told like ‘women don’t do that’ when she said she wanted to be a conductor. … For me, that was never the case. I was lucky enough to be in an environment growing up and then when I went to SMU in Dallas that nobody said, ‘Oh, women can’t do that,’” said Merrill by phone from her home in Jacksonville, Florida, where her husband, Steve Merrill, is the principal percussionist for Jacksonville Symphony.

“My teachers … they never once scoffed at the idea that women could be conductors and were always encouraging. I think that’s a huge part of why I never felt intimidated by it in any way, because it just seemed normal to me. But at the same time, I know I’m lucky because I had all these great females going before me.”

With the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, she helps plan and conduct more than 30 concerts per season, including its renowned educational webcasts, which have reached in excess of 100,000 students to date in classrooms throughout the nation.

“My husband went to a concert at one of my first seasons in Detroit when I was doing an education concert … and he said, ‘It was so interesting because you would see the little girls in the audience all conducting along with you.’ He said, ‘Not necessarily the boys, but all the girls were definitely doing it.’ He was like, ‘I think it’s because they saw themselves in you and so they’re thinking, “Oh, I can do that”’ When you hear things like that, you think, ‘That’s great.’ I love that I can be kind of an example for even younger generations that they wouldn’t even think twice about it being a male or female on the podium,” she said.

“We want really the music to shine through the most. I think in so many ways, the conductor, whether they’re male, female, black, white, old or young, they all have different statures. We all look different, we all have different makeup physically, and therefore we’re going to actually have different ways that we move. Say you’re all doing Beethoven ‘Symphony No. 5’ and you have five different conductors come in, it could sound completely different under those five different conductors. And I think that’s what’s so magical is that in some ways the music really takes over, but of course it’s influenced by whatever the conductor is doing and that relationship between the conductor and the orchestra.”

Michelle Merrill will be the guest conductor at the Oklahoma City Philharmonic's Nov. 18 Classics concert. Photo provided
Michelle Merrill will be the guest conductor at the Oklahoma City Philharmonic’s Nov. 18 Classics concert. Photo provided

Debuts in doubles

Merrill won’t be the only one making her OKC Philharmonic debut Saturday. The concert’s soloist, flutist Yossi Arnheim, also will be performing with the orchestra for the first time.

In a collaboration between the OKC Philharmonic and the Oklahoma Israel Exchange, the concert will feature Arnheim and three other players from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

The guest conductor said she wanted to showcase the work of prominent Jewish composers in the concert, including American-Jewish composer Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” orchestral suite and Hungarian-Jewish composer György Ligeti’s “Concert Romanesc.”

“It’s always kind of a delicate balance of programming … and when we settled on this I was really, really happy. I think it’s going to be a nice full course menu for the audience,” she said.

The varied program also will include American composer Walter Piston’s dramatically celebratory ballet suite from “The Incredible Flutist” and German composer Carl Reinecke’s delicately beautiful but technically challenging “Flute Concerto in D Major.”

“This concert represents a great balance of the familiar and new, and it is all really enjoyable music. ‘Appalachian Spring’ is regarded by many as the greatest American work of the last century, and it is one of my own personal favorites. And we are thrilled to share two of the other works on the program — Reinecke’s flute concerto and the Ligeti ‘Concert Romanesc’ — that may be new to many in the audience, but we know they will be very well received,” said OKC Philharmonic Executive Director Eddie Walker in a statement.

“It’s a great program, and we look forward to working with Michelle Merrill on the podium.”

IN CONCERT

Oklahoma City Philharmonic Classics concert with flutist Yossi Arnheim

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker.

Tickets and information: 842-5387 or www.okcphilharmonic.org.

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