Betty Meyers is currently Associate Director of Music at First Baptist Church of Greater Cleveland. She is also active as a chamber music performer and was an accompanist for Mr. Shaw on numerous occasions. Interview was done by Suzanne Shull for robertshaw.website.
SS - I'm here today with Betty Meyers and we are recording at the First Baptist Church of Cleveland. It's June 15th, 2017.
Betty, first I'd like to know how you came to know Shaw?
BM - First of all, while I was in college, I heard the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. I was familiar with the Robert Shaw Chorale from recordings and knew his reputation, so that I was determined I wanted to, at some point, work with him.
Following college, I moved to Cleveland, hoping to get into the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus under his direction. But, there were too many sopranos so I didn't make it then, but later, I even had something that I considered to be more exciting. I worked with him as an accompanist one-to-one, so that was very thrilling and a very important part of my life.
SS - I can imagine. You were very young then...
BM - I was just out of college, well, actually the first time I met Mr. Shaw was at the Church of the Covenant. I was directing the bell choirs then and, for a number of years the senior bell choir played on the Christmas program at Severance Hall. So, he came over to listen to a rehearsal and don't think that wasn't intimidating!
But, after the rehearsal he said, "Would you like to conduct on the concert?" Well, it was a televised concert and no, no way did I want to direct on his concert. But I was absolutely flabbergasted that he would ask someone he had never met before to conduct at Severance Hall. So that was a real thrill.
But then, several years later, I auditioned to become the accompanist for the Chamber Chorus at the Blossom Music School when it opened in 1968 and he came back for a number of years. For a week at a time there were choral directors brought in each week and they performed an entire work the following Sunday. For example, we started The Messiah on Monday morning, performed the entire work with orchestra and soloists the following Sunday afternoon.
So, it was...I shouldn't say it was a tense situation, but
SS - Intense?
BM - Intense is what I should say, yes. And so we had four hours of rehearsal a day, then I worked with him playing; accompanying for auditions, accompanying for coaching sessions, orchestra rehearsals and, of course, played harpsichord in the final performance. I worked with him in practically all aspects.
SS - And you were like a guest pianist, not like someone who he was used to working with every day. Were you treated like a guest pianist or were you treated like someone who should know...read his mind, I guess?
BM - Well, I think he expected me to read his mind but I will say, we got along fabulously. There was never one moment in my entire working relationship with him that there was any disagreement or any dissatisfaction with my work. In fact, when he later came to guest conduct the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus in the Verdi Four Songs, he had a rehearsal on a Sunday afternoon and for some reason the accompanist didn't show up. At ten minutes after the hour, I received a phone call: Would I come and play the rehearsal?
I had never seen the music before, never heard the music before, but I said I would as long as he knows that I wasn't the accompanist assigned to be there that afternoon. So, I went and played the rehearsal. Fortunately, I guess I did OK and eventually then...that was my first time playing for the Orchestra Chorus...but eventually I was hired to be an assistant accompanist which I did for 35 years.
SS - With the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus?
BM - With the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.
SS - What an exciting time for you..
BM - Oh, my whole life has been very exciting because of moving here to Cleveland and having the opportunities to work with the greatest conductors in the world.
SS - Well, can you tell us how it was that you were trained to do that kind of work? Where did you get your schooling? When did you start playing? Because you're obviously the kind of talent that Shaw loved...
BM - I started studying piano in my hometown in Berlin, Pennsylvania, which was a town of only 1,600 people. So I just had a local teacher until I went to college at Ashland which is now Ashland University here in Ohio. I did a lot of accompanying at the church, I sang in two choirs when I was home at church, I accompanied high school choirs, I played piano in a high school orchestra, in college I accompanied the A-cappella Choir and then I went to Indiana for my masters degree.
SS - Who did you study with in Indiana?
BM - Joseph Batista. Fortunately, I was able to get the degree in one year so I was not there a long time but...a thrilling experience.
SS - Well, before we started the recording we were talking about the uniqueness of Shaw as a person, as a conductor, in many ways. Would you like to speak to that?
BM - There were so many aspects of Shaw... First of all, he expects more than 100% of himself and thus, he expects more than 100% of the people that work with him. He puts his whole heart into everything that he does and what was amazing to me is that even thought he has done The Messiah many times over, he approaches the score every time he does it as though he has never seen the music before. I mean, getting up even at four o'clock in the morning to study the score before he comes to a rehearsal. So, that kind of attitude of a musician and respect for people's compositions was new to me and it's something that you then don't take for granted when you go and direct choirs yourself. He was a person who was very appreciative of your work as long as you did the work the way he expected you to... I received several hand-written letters from him, thanking me for my contribution and my work, which I have received from no other conductor.
SS - Another thing that you mentioned earlier had to do with what he could get out of a choir that was different. Can you speak to that?
BM - His sound was unique. It was not pushed, it was not hard. I don't know...would you say it was more of a mellow sound? But I thought what he got out of a total group - and he knew how to match voices so that, when he auditioned people for his chorus, he knew exactly what to do. This was absolutely amazing to me, too, without him having gone to music school; that this was just natural to him.
I don’t know quite how to say this but I think Shaw had a certain spiritual quality about him. He went beyond the music. There was a spirituality, a philosophy, that perhaps he gained when he was grow growing up since his father was a Minister. And I know that early on he had expressed a desire to follow in his father’s footsteps.
I remember one time at Severance Hall on the Christmas Program when he read Luke Chapter 2. I have never EVER heard anyone read that work, that chapter more eloquently than did Rober Shaw. And he brought this to all of the music that he did. There was something special that went far beyond just the music. He brought a certain aura to it that is really hard to describe.