Acclaimed conductor Robert Ryker is in Colombo to conduct the Gustav Mahler Orchestra in a series of concerts, with the final gala concert on November 22 at the Lionel Wendt. The American-born conductor who initially aspired to be a civil engineer has achieved remarkable international success, conducting orchestras all over the world having  spearheaded the [...]


With his baton and a bit of Ryker philosophy, he brings out the best


Always there for the musicians: Robert Ryker conducts the Gustav Mahler Orchestra at a performance at the Russian Cultural Centre. Pic by Eshan Fernando

Acclaimed conductor Robert Ryker is in Colombo to conduct the Gustav Mahler Orchestra in a series of concerts, with the final gala concert on November 22 at the Lionel Wendt.

The American-born conductor who initially aspired to be a civil engineer has achieved remarkable international success, conducting orchestras all over the world having  spearheaded the formation of the  Tokyo Sinfonia orchestra, the North Bay Symphony Orchestra and the National Philharmonic of India.

He has written over 250 musical arrangements, compositions, orchestrations and performing editions and is also known as an accomplished public speaker.

Mithahasini Ratnayake caught up with the Maestro in the midst of his packed schedule of performances.

Extracts from the interview:

 Q: It’s intriguing how you wanted to first be an engineer.  How did the switch to pursuing music happen? 

A: In terms of education, I never had a plan that was really structured.  I also came to the realization that I didn’t really fit academia at all.  I was reading stories when the class was studying something, was very into science fiction.  When I was a little kid, I used to play under the dining table, build forts, and because I was into structure only in that sense, I knew I was going to be some sort of civil engineer.

When I was in high school, we had a music clinic that I was actively a part of. I also had a group of five, we called ourselves the ‘Four and a half Dutchmen’.  After I graduated, I realized that a huge part of my life would remain unfulfilled if I did not pursue music, as it was something that made me feel alive.  Two weeks later I transferred to being a music major at Indiana.

Again, I never really fit academia and although I loved it, I failed music literature and music history.  I had to repeat my courses, and in doing so, I did get my As.

But that was the pattern of my life – in my career, even though I did eventually get my degrees, it wasn’t at all academically smooth.  Despite all of the detours and obstacles, what kept me going was the passion and persistence I had.

Q: You mentioned you “wound up” in the Montreal Symphony?  How did that journey come to be?

A: At age 35 I decided that playing the tuba, my instrument, was not something I really thought I should continue till the age 65.  Usually, when playing in the symphony you end up playing the same instrument all your life.  So, I thought, in my wisdom, I should play the tuba for 20 years, then I conduct.  A young man’s thoughts.  Being a simple American, I thought maybe I should go back to school get a degree.  I was accepted into a doctoral program in a school in America.

 Q: When did you start doing performances as a conductor? 

A: When I got the job in the Montreal Symphony, I was principal tuba at that time.  My conductor was a very world-famous conductor, Zubin Mehta.  Zubin was great and because of him I could’ve easily had a streamlined career conducting orchestras, but I decided to go back to school.  After that I went to Canada and still didn’t know what to do.  I got hired to conduct orchestra after orchestra, starting small.  I kept doing this for a year, conducting bands, amateur orchestras, neither getting kicked out or resigning and honestly it seems like quite the right fit.

I had an invitation to conduct in Japan, so I packed my things, and I flew to Tokyo.  I met with this manager who had a big reputation, who arranged for me to meet the president of the largest music school in the world, 5000 music students. That’s when things really kicked off.

 Q: What would you say makes you stand out as a conductor? 

A: I decided that if I ever have my own orchestra, I’d want to change a few things such as bridging the gap between the audience and the players.  So, there are some things that I think are user-friendly, or audience friendly that I do with the Tokyo Sinfonia that I’ve also been doing with the Mahler Orchestra.  One is commentary – I speak something personal about the music to give the audience an idea as to what’s in the programme notes.

And to the students in the Performing Arts University today, I told them of this old saying, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”  That’s a good way to form a programme as well as producing a variety of pieces.  When I performed for the students, I wanted to give them the idea of how to be a musician, how to be a professional and how to reach an audience, not just how to play.

When I conduct, I’m simply focused on making the music as beautiful as possible.  As you know, the conductor’s baton makes no sound.  It is the musicians and the orchestra that do.  My job is to basically work with the orchestra to make them sound as best as they can.   So I’ve told my players not to call me ‘Maestro’, or doctor, professor, or sir.  My musicians call me Robert because I am there for them.

 Q: What are the types of orchestras you’ve worked with?  Do they vary in nature, in potential based on the players and their intentions?

A: They do, and this is quite important actually.  In a student orchestra, the rehearsals are the important things.  All the work is in the rehearsals to keep them informative and in touch with the type of music they play.

In a professional orchestra, the rehearsals are just preparation for the concert…..   the focus is mainly on the performance.

In a community or amateur orchestra, these are players who want to basically get together every couple of weeks and enjoy playing.  Again, the conductor’s real job is at the rehearsal, making them fun and enjoyable, with occasional concerts being held.

 Q: What has your touring experience been like, travelling across the world to do many performances with multiple orchestras?

A: After I got my doctorate, I met the general manager of the Calcutta Symphony, and they were looking for a conductor.  I wound up being the music director of the Calcutta Symphony in 1976.  I went back to Canada, switching from position to position and I got another invitation to come to Tokyo, then Shanghai, Hong Kong, St. Petersburg, Russia, Moscow, Leningrad.  It’s nice to know that with touring I have friends in all these places.

 Q: What would you say is your philosophy as a conductor, if you have one? 

A: Ah yes, I shall gladly share some Ryker philosophy.  So, you could say that a teacher works with the students in his class to complete a course of study for their general or professional understanding.  Similarly, a conductor works with the players in his rehearsals to prepare a programme for a performance to thrill an audience.

In every orchestra I have worked with, I have felt that the players genuinely want to make truly beautiful music.  The problem is, how do you do that?  We all start with the simple black notes on the white page left to us as a cryptic musical message from a composer long, long gone. His imagination was rich and expressive, but the written message he has left us is written in a simple code.  Those little black notes are not the music.  The essence of the music is to be found in the connection between the notes.  That is the challenge.

In the Mahler Orchestra of Colombo, just as in the Tokyo Sinfonia, every player naturally has his own conception of the musical expression.

The conductor’s challenge is very simple.  He must study those simple black notes intensively to discover his own personal and profound conception of the music which lies therein.  Then, on the podium, he patiently teaches it to the players.  His technical tools are his eyes, the baton, body language, face and energy.

The final objective is, as in all things in life, essentially very simple.

  Q: What has your experience with the Gustav Mahler Orchestra been like so far?

A: This is an orchestra in its young phase, its building process, so I approach them in a different way than I do my own orchestra.  I think they have a good future.

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