With a baton and passion, student brings music to the masses
Every now and then, Yale junior Nathaniel Meyer hosts “listening parties” in his dorm room, where he and his friends generally sit silently, sometimes with the lights out.
Together, they listen to long symphonic masterpieces by composers such as Mahler or Beethoven, or sometimes to concertos or chamber music.
For Meyer, these gatherings are an opportunity to unite classical-music lovers and those less familiar with the genre, so those he invites are usually an eclectic mix: athletes, budding scientists, humanities majors, and violin or piano virtuosos. He hopes that — whatever their interests, musical knowledge or background — his friends enjoy hearing, and hopefully appreciating, the music in a communal environment.
The principal trumpet player in the Yale Symphony Orchestra and a conductor of the Saybrook Orchestra, Meyer is passionate not only about performing classical music, but also connecting other people to it.
“Music is a universal language,” he says. “Some of the deepest philosophical and spiritual truths in human history were spoken not through philosophical or religious texts but through music. For me, music is about human connectedness, and there is nothing I love more than to draw people to beautiful music and immerse them in it. I’m kind of a music evangelist.”
Meyer, who has won two national trumpet competitions, says one of the reasons he became interested in conducting is because it allows him a greater opportunity to introduce music to others. This summer, he won third place nationally in The American Prize in Conducting in the youth orchestra division.
Presented by the Danbury-based non-profit performing arts organization Hat City Music Theater Inc., The American Prize recognizes talented performing artists in different areas who are considered “the very best.” Prize-winners are chosen based on submitted recordings of their performances.
“”The prize] was founded from the belief that a great deal of excellent music being made in this country goes unrecognized and unheralded, not only in our major cities, but all across the country: in schools and churches, in colleges and universities, and by community and professional musicians,” according to David Katz, a composer, conductor, playwright and arts advocate who is the chief judge for the prize.
Meyer agrees that some of the most sublime music ever written isn’t being heard, including by many people his own age. In 2010, he founded the bi-annual Belmont Music Festival in his Massachusetts hometown as a way to gather community members around music. He conducts the winter and summer performances in Belmont, which feature accomplished high school and college musicians from the area and beyond. The most recent concert in August featured works by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak featuring guest soloist Sebastian Baverstam, a student at the New England Conservatory who has captured national and international attention for his music-making on cello.
“Music is often the soundtrack of our lives,” says the Yale student. “We associate many of our memories with music. With these concerts, my hope is that someone’s life will be touched or changed, not by me, but by Beethoven or another great composer.”
While he conducts, Meyer says, he makes it a point to introduce the works being performed, or to tell a story about the composers. Sometimes, he’ll share his own perspective on the music with his audience.
“I always try to maintain the human connection and relevance,” he says. “Why should someone listen to Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 or Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ when they have so many other options? People like stories, so I might talk about what the music means to me and about what I think it can be for them. I’m breaking an implicit boundary between the audience and the orchestra, and with the orchestra, to draw connections.”
Meyer’s hope for the concert series is to inspire his hometown community to come together around a single performance in the same way that it has shared in the reading of a particular book as part of “One Book, One Belmont.”
While he recognizes that economic challenges have forced many local or regional orchestras to fold, the Yale student is optimistic that classical music itself — and its public performance — will actually make a resurgence in coming years.
“I think going to a music hall is the same experience as going to a library or an art gallery,” he explains. “In each place, there are great masterpieces, and our enjoyment of them is edifying. John F. Kennedy described art as the barometer of culture, and while I don’t think that art is the silver-bullet answer to our problems, I believe that through art, we come to terms with the profundity of the human condition. It is important for us to fund the things that are most important in our society. I think the communal aspect of being in a concert hall is going to become a new place of meditation for people in a technological world.”
Growing up in a musical family, Meyer performed with his siblings (the Meyer Brass Trio) in the Boston area and also was featured as a soloist with the Wellesley Symphony Orchestra, the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra and the NEC Youth Philharmonic. As part of the Young Artists Orchestra, a performance and study program for musically gifted teenagers, he spent a summer at Tanglewood. Meyer says he had a “transformational” experience there during a concert that featured Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Symphony, one that convinced him he had a calling to conduct. Nevertheless, rather than attend a conservatory, Meyer said he chose to attend Yale - where he is majoring in German studies with a concentration in music - because he wanted to pursue his passion in a broad context.
“Simon Rattle, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, is one of my chief inspirations,” says Meyer. “I had the pleasure to meet him last year. I asked him if he could give me advice in one sentence about pursuing a conducting career. He simply said, ‘Read everything.’ I took that to be about the connections you draw that go beyond the political navigating in a field that is a challenge. It’s also about the social connections, the human connections.”
A couple of times, Meyer admits, he has been chided for being too emotional as a conductor, for showing too much of his own passion for the music being performed. He has taken note, he says, acknowledging that he doesn’t want to “give people overload.” However, often the conductor is “taken for granted” at the podium, Meyer says, even though he or she is — in the Yale student’s eyes — in one of the most special positions.
“We try to talk in words about music and the experience we have as musicians, but it’s ineffable,” he says. “People have tried for centuries. But, as a conductor, I have the power to bring people melody — to empower the orchestra to sing at the top of its lungs and have people listen. ‘Maestro’ means teacher, and I want to inspire people to seek their own connections. I want to keep the conversation about music going and to try to live myself with song. It’s my most fluent language, and I can’t stop talking. Besides, imagine a world where everybody is always singing.”
— By Susan Gonzalez