Margery McDuffie Whatley


Fanfare Magazine, Article, “There’s So Much”: A Conversation with Margery McDuffie Whatley

“There’s So Much”: A Conversation with Margery McDuffie Whatley

Margery McDuffie Whatley’s latest CD is titled Piano Gems: and while the title is intended to refer to the repertoire itself, it also reflects the quality of her discography more generally. In fact, Whatley’s output is gemlike in at least three ways. First, although she’s been recording for over 20 years, her discography is small, consisting of four CDs, each distinctive, each sparkling in its own way. Second, on each of them, the playing is notably precise and transparent. And finally, her interpretive voice is multifaceted as well, so that it hits different listeners in different ways. Jerry Dubins, talking about her performance of Brahms op. 118, pointed to her “intimacy,” “sensitiv[ity],” and “sense of vulnerability” (Fanfare 35:1). Reviewing her first release, in contrast, I praised her pungency (21:6). Peter Burwasser was taken with her “straightforward charm and intelligence” (35:1). In sum, a pianist with a strong personality—but without a chokehold style.

Her discography is unusual in another way, too: Most piano CDs that come along are organized by composer or period, or, less frequently, by theme; but except for debut CDs and recordings of actual concerts, general recital discs are rarer. All four of Margery McDuffie Whatley’s CDs, though, have been essentially recitals, moving across several centuries and throwing together composers who aren’t all that frequently roommates. So when I spoke to her in mid-March, the first thing I asked about was her choice of repertoire. Pointing out that, rather than knock off the four Chopin Ballades or even offer a more general Chopin collection, she has put out CDs, each of which would be a really good concert, each with a wide range of composers, and each with a beginning, a middle and an end. Is there a reason why she chose that approach? Or has it just worked out that way accidentally?

Her answer was surprising: “That’s interesting. This last one, yes, it is a recital program that I put together. But, for the first three, I was just thinking about all the pieces that I wanted to do at that particular time. And I guess, maybe, it turned out to be like a recital program. I didn’t think about that.”

She may not have thought about it in the sense of planning it self-consciously and explicitly—but it wasn’t quite accidental, either. This became clear when I pushed her a little further about what makes a good program, for Whatley is an unfailingly audience-oriented performer with a strong commitment to accessibility. “It all started with playing with my brother”—the well-known violinist Robert McDuffie. “Maybe he was just out of Juilliard or still a student, I can’t remember. But, he was doing the affiliate artist residencies, and he would go out and play in the community. He would go and play school shows. He was always trying to make classical music accessible to young people, to communities, to people who might not have the opportunity to go to a concert in some of these smaller communities. And I remember doing that with him. His ability to reach people of all ages and listening experiences definitely inspired me, so when I’m putting together programs, I like to put together programs that I think will be accessible to the public. You know, to the people that will come and hear me.”

That desire to make her playing audience-oriented was further nourished when she was a student at the University of Southern California. “When I was a graduate student there, in one of the courses that we were taking, we had to be entrepreneurs. And being a music student, how do you get out into the world after you’re out of college and market yourself, and become an entrepreneur?” So she and some friends created a group called the Pacific Music Alliance. “We would go around and book concerts ourselves, make cold calls to people in communities and…. I remember I went to Georgia, I went to the Chicago area and I would talk to the administrators in schools, and go and do a school show during the day, and then do a concert at night. The students would bring their families to the concert, and it would be interactive. It was like an ‘informance,’ because in between pieces I would talk to the audience. I still do that now—when I do a concert, I include anecdotes or whatever between pieces about the music and the composers. Just a little bit, vignettes to try to bring the audience in. And I do pieces that I enjoy, and maybe not too long. Maybe I’ll do a multi-movement work, and then mix it up with a bunch of short pieces. That’s hard to do as a performer because you’ve got to keep shifting your focus, going from piece to piece. It’s an endurance thing. But, the audience seems to enjoy it. And I try not to take intermissions either. Yikes!”

Yikes indeed! It’s increasingly clear that Whatley is a very unusual kind of pianist, one with a special kind of sensitivity to the needs and interests of her listeners, who are often ordinary people from the community. “You just go straight through and audiences seem to appreciate it, especially with how busy everyone is. Sometimes I see that at intermissions at concerts, people tend to leave after the first half. So, I don’t know. I just thought, ‘Well, everybody’s so busy. Just make it…. Just go through about an hour and a quarter and you’re done.’”

That relationship to her audience helps explain the general shape of her CDs—but what determines the specific repertoire, which covers more than two dozen composers on the four discs? With respect to her most recent one in particular, the answer is revealing: “What was going through my mind was I’ve been teaching a lot of these pieces—and was introduced to some of these pieces as a student when my peers played them—but except for the Mendelssohn Fantasy, I’ve never performed them. Everything was brand new. I just thought it’s time for me to learn them and play. And it’s kind of fun. It’s unusual for me to do a brand new program just in a year. Usually I’ll learn a piece or two a year and then recycle old stuff.” In fact, she hadn’t even taught the Rubinstein Valse-Caprice, which ends the CD with dizzying delight. “I just found that on YouTube with Joseph Hoffman and Arthur Rubinstein. I just thought, I love it. And this music is not performed very much and I think it should be.”

“I’ve been teaching a lot of these pieces”: Her teaching comes up a lot in our conversation, not just when we are discussing repertoire. So, for that matter, do her 16-year-old twin piano-playing daughters. So where’s the center of her musical life? I point out that if I’m, say, on a train and the person sitting next to me asks me what I do, my first answer is liable to be that I’m a teacher, rather than a narrative theorist or a music critic. What would her answer be? Does she think of herself as a teacher first? As a performer first? Or even—since she talks so enthusiastically about her daughters—as a mother first? “Wow,” she replies, “My brother asked me that recently. He was being funny. Because right now, life is just—I’m all of the above. I cannot really answer that. I’m all of it. I’m wearing all these hats. And it’s like I’m going crazy. It’s become a little tricky to balance everything—to get in the time with the girls, and my husband, but also practice time.” Even though she lives in a two-piano house—a Steinway grand upstairs, an upright downstairs—there’s constant battle for access, since her husband, an oral surgeon, plays the piano as well. (In fact, they met because he was studying with one of her colleagues, and it was his Steinway before their marriage.) So it’s a hectic life, doubly so because it’s hard for her to say “no” to things. “I think I need to start saying ‘No’ a little bit more.” A standard teacher’s remark—as is the follow-up: “Looking forward to spring break!”

It’s not surprising, either, that she brings up her brother so often in conversation—for besides her closeness to her daughters, Whatley obviously has a strong attachment to her family more generally. She’d recently been playing the Schumann Piano Quintet (“Huge work!”) with her brother, Annie Fuller, and “some of his string students from the Robert McDuffie Center for Strings.” Whatley’s mother is a pianist, too (in fact, she used her mother’s score for the Chopin Écossaises on this latest album), and last year the family “put together these Three Generations of Pianists concerts. We did it first in Macon, my hometown, at Wesleyan College, and my brother Bobby joined us with my nephew, who plays rock guitar. It’s hysterical. But anyway, we just did this whole family concert. And the girls and my mother, we did two pianos/four hands. And then I played with Bobby. And then mama came up—I call her mama, sorry—my mother came up to Birmingham, and the girls and my mother and I, we did that concert here in Birmingham. In fact, my mother is remarkable. She can just do anything. Well, she would hate me telling her age, but she’s in her 80s. And I can’t keep up with her. She’s still teaching and performing. So I hope I can be doing that in a decade.”

As for teaching: It’s been central to her life, even before she went to college. “Well, I’ve been teaching since I was…. My mother had me teaching some of her students when I was in high school. If she was very full, some people came in and I just learned how to teach from her method. Then when I went to school as a music major at Cincinnati Conservatory, where you have to do piano pedagogy and you have to have students, and you’re observed teaching. And then at USC, I was a graduate assistant and was teaching. So I’ve been teaching forever, it seems. Here in Birmingham now, I’m teaching mostly college students, but Birmingham Southern College also has a conservatory, which is the pre-college area. So I have taken on some students anywhere from the age of 6 on up to senior in high school. I really enjoy all ages, but it’s been very interesting teaching the younger ones, who might not be as disciplined or consistent in their preparation. So it’s a whole ‘nother world.”

There was a brief hiatus in her teaching: After 13 years working full time at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, the family moved to Montana (for more details, see her previous Fanfare interview in 35:1). “Not knowing a soul there, I was kind of like a stay-at-home mom. But I do remember going to a conference, and I got very involved with the music teachers’ association there, the state and local. I remember Nelita True was the clinician. She’s from Montana. She’s the legendary pianist from Eastman. She saw me and she wanted to know if I was still teaching, and I said no. And she said, ‘You must. You must teach.’ And I think that’s true. I think it really sort of ups my game, keeps me on my toes, it keeps me create. For example, I love teaching repertory that I don’t even know, that I’m not familiar with, haven’t played. I have a student doing the Ives ‘Concord’ Sonata. It’s not played very often. It’s not in my wheel house, so to speak. But I’ve had the best time working with that. And I just think that is, as I said, just…. I am proof. I just feel like creative juices are flowing there.”

And how does she decide what repertoire to give her students? It’s something of a delicate balance. On the one hand, they do need a broad range of repertoire. “One student might just love only music from the Romantic period. And they don’t like the sonatas, the Classical rep, or the preludes and fugues. And I say, well, you have to have your vegetables. So they get it—just a well-rounded diet. But within that I try to give them options. They go and listen and I just have them pick out items from a list that I give them—repertoire that they would want to learn, that they would want to go ahead and tackle. And that’s fine. There’s so much repertoire out there I would hate to assign something and say, ‘You have to play this,’ and they’re very uninspired by the piece, so they just can’t stand it.”

Peter Burwasser, reviewing her second album, noted that “her overall approach might be called romantic-centric.” I, seeing another facet of her art, am impressed by her Bach-like treatment of the music’s textures and rhythm. In fact, when she was young, Bach was central to her studies: “Yes, I grew up with a teacher who started me off with the Little Bach Preludes, and graduating to the Inventions. Then the Preludes and Fugues. Then go off to college and learn about the Suites and the Toccatas. Yeah, it’s important—also, just for voicing and melodic lines, and hearing all the different voices.” I mention that I hear a lot of Bach in her Mendelssohn—and, in fact, hearing only her Mendelssohn, I immediately would have said that I need to hear her Bach. (And her Bach Toccata in D, on one of her earlier discs, is in fact terrific.) She accepts my observation as “a big compliment,” but doesn’t quite come out in agreement. And, in fact, for all the influence of Bach, there’s a lot to be said for Burwasser’s observation, too—certainly, her Gershwin is more notable for its Romantic inflections, sometimes extreme, than for anything even remotely Baroque. When I point out that she takes rhythmic liberties in her Gershwin, she laughs: “A little, yeah.” And typically, she goes back to her family: “My father: I cannot believe that he’s 95 years old—still doing great. But I grew up listening to music of the 1940s—the 1930s and the 1940s. And then my mother—she plays by ear, she plays all the stuff, the Gershwin. And I just grew up with it. And that’s just how I hear it and how I feel it. I love that era. I love that genre.”

“That’s just how I hear it and how I feel it”: Perhaps that’s the key to Whatley’s style, which is very much “in the moment.” That’s tied to how she listens to music, too. “I am just inspired by … if I go to a concert, I’m just extremely moved and inspired at that moment. It’s just wonderful. For example, I recently heard Ann Schein perform, and I just thought, wow. That is the best piano concert I have ever been to. She played at a national conference at the national MTNA conference a few years back in Las Vegas. And the people that attend these conferences—they’re music teachers from all over, independent teachers, college teachers. You had the best of the best there. And she had us all in tears, just in the palm of her hand. And a pianist like that is somebody who truly speaks to me and inspires me. Anybody who just moves me at the moment. I love to go to concerts and just be in the moment with them.”

So for those who love being in the moment at concerts or listening to her CDs, what’s in the cards for the future? “I’m trying to think what I’m going to program next. That’s always so much fun. I do love…. I would like to do more Spanish music. I’ve done a little bit of Granados, but I’d like to do more. I also love quirky music, so I’d like to do more Shostakovich, or Prokofiev.” She’s recently been looking into the virtually forgotten Schytte Études for her students; she’d like to explore Ginastera, too. Contemporary music attracts her as well, and she is interested in learning some Liebermann. But most of all she’s struck by the vast opportunities for a pianist. “There’s so much. There’s so much. And I just want to come across something that is new and unexpected.”

~ Peter J. Rabinowitz (from Fanfare Magazine, July/Aug 2019)