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 i