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Renaissance man; The multitalented Robert Duerr wears many hats, as a conductor, an organist and an Episcopal priest

Robert Duerr, who is conducting the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus on Friday, is eating a Reuben at the Pearl Street Brewery, when the sound system suddenly kicks in.

Boom. Boom. Boom.

Duerr's face clouds. "I can't stand this," he says.

He flags down the waitress.

"Excuse me," he says gently. "Would it be possible you could turn down the sound system?"

No, he is told, it's not possible, the volume is set, and ...

"Could you regulate it so there's less bass?" Duerr persists.

"We really don't have control over basses," the waitress says.

"But it bothers my stomach," says Duerr, calmly, charmingly. "I have trouble eating when I hear this bass pounding. Can't you -- couldn't you ...?"

The waitress, melting, says she will see what she can do. As she departs, Duerr resumes his conversation. Suddenly the bass level drops. He stops.

"See," he says.

You can tell, in that brief exchange, what makes him a fine conductor -- and why he has conducted at the Metropolitan Opera, Tanglewood and a host of other prestigious venues. He has the kind of hearing that cannot be turned off. (A doctor told him recently, "You have the hearing of a newborn baby!") And he has a way of coaxing results out of people.

Speaking of coaxing, it might help that Duerr, 57, is an Anglican priest. Rehearsing the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus recently at Daemen College, he shows a kind of cheery, British patience.

The approach seems right for the singers, who are still reeling from the controversial loss in January of former director Doreen Rao. The chorus also has been led recently by University at Buffalo professor Roland "Ron" Martin, another sunny personality.

On break, the singers seem happy.

"Wouldn't it be nice," one of them ventures, "if he and Ron Martin could both lead us?"

>The enfant terrible

Duerr, who is also giving an organ recital Sunday in Westminster Presbyterian Church, is in the middle of a busy week. But that is normal. He has always led a crowded life.

As a student at North Tonawanda High School, he took organ lessons from Buffalo music legend Hans Vigeland, longtime music director at Westminster and for a time the manager of the BPO.

Duerr gives endless credit to his old teacher. "He was an eclectic, really passionate guy. A really neat person," he says.

"He wasn't just an organ teacher. He was a mentor to me at that time who instilled in me how to be a well-rounded musician. That's what encouraged me to be the musician I am."

On his Westminster recital, Duerr is giving the premiere of "Three Pieces" for organ by Nils Vigeland, Hans Vigeland's son.

Nils Vigeland, who since 1998 has been chairman of the composition department at the Manhattan School of Music, recalls Duerr from his days as his father's student. "My dad thought he was extremely gifted," he says.

"We got to know each other later. He conducted at [New York] City Opera for seven or eight years. Then he became an Anglican priest. ... He's had a very different kind of life -- many different stages."

Duerr's odyssey began when Hans Vigeland, perhaps inadvertently, inspired him toward an unusual goal: to be a conductor as well as an organist. Michael Tilson Thomas, then BPO music director, suggested he try the University of Southern California.

In California, seeking conducting experience, Duerr decided to found his own orchestra. Singlehandedly, he founded the Pasadena Chamber Orchestra, which he ran from 1977 until 1986. Nils Vigeland, whom Duerr commissioned to write a piece for the orchestra, admires his initiative in founding and guiding the group. "He's a persuasive person," he says.

The group won awards. Variety magazine referred to "the musical genius of Robert Duerr, enfant terrible of the Pasadena Chamber Orchestra." But in time, Duerr felt boxed in.

"Duerr complains that he spends more time raising funds than raising his baton," People magazine reported in 1984. "He lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment that doubles as his office. His social life, such as it is, revolves around music."

There was a downside to that kind of commitment. When Duerr left to do more opera conducting, the orchestra could not go on without him. It folded.

Going forward, Duerr made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1989, conducting "Porgy and Bess."

That was a day to remember. "It was most glorious coming out for the curtain call," he says. The cast was African-American, as is traditional. "We went out to dinner," Duerr says. "They took me to places up in Harlem. [Conductor] James Levine said to me, 'You will never forget the chorus of this opera, such lovable people.' "

The years flew past with a dozen more operas at the Met, then opportunities at Tanglewood, the Spoleto Festival and other prestigious venues.

Once, at the New York City Opera, Duerr conducted three operas in one week.

"I felt so alive to be able to switch from one to another," he laughs.

>Da Vinci and Vivaldi

Duerr always has been drawn toward the spiritual and, at 40, he left a job as assistant conductor at the opera house in Basel, Switzerland, to spend time at a Catholic monastery in Germany. In 2006, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England.

After four years in England, he came home last fall to be of assistance to his parents. He is serving as assisting priest at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in North Tonawanda.

His two concerts this week are a kind of homecoming.

Friday's concert at Kleinhans Music Hall features Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Dona Nobis Pacem," followed by the Requiem by Gabriel Faure. As a high school senior, Duerr organized and conducted a performance of the Faure, involving BPO musicians.

For his Westminster recital on Sunday, he is looking forward to playing Nils Vigeland's "Three Pieces."

"This is the hardest piece I ever learned in my life," he beams. "It's really not organistic in many ways. He has so many leaps and clusters. Things are much more pianistic."

A virtuoso organist -- he won a national competition in his 20s -- Duerr is up to the music's demands. He appreciates that Vigeland poured his heart into it. "He wrote to me, 'I have never felt more inspired to write a piece in my entire life.' "

As he rediscovers his roots, does Duerr ever consider settling down into a full-time position?

"If the right job is offered, without a doubt," he says.

The situation is complex.

"You want to be fulfilling what you're called to do and try to be excellent in all things," he says. "In other generations, you could be a Renaissance person. You could be a lawyer, and a priest, and a medical doctor. Look at da Vinci. Or Vivaldi.

"Now, everything has become so specialized. You're even a Baroque conductor, or a Classical specialist -- I like all this stuff. Organ, chamber music, contemporary, Baroque.

"That's why I move around a lot."



Concert preview

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, "Songs of Eternity: Choral Spectacular," conducted by Robert Duerr, 8 p.m. Friday at Kleinhans Music Hall. Tickets, $30-$40; 885-5000

Also, Robert Duerr performs an organ recital at 3 p.m. Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 724 Delaware Ave. Admission is free; for information, call 884-9437.