Fridays at Four: Roger McVey and the art of “Transformations”

Rohan Press, A&E Reporter

The piece was Gustave le Gray. Roger McVey sways at the piano, and the music sways with him. His delicate phrasings create a series of impressions that coalesce, physicalize, then fade away.

The theme and title of this week’s Friday at Four recital series — organized and hosted by Professor Jackie Wood of the Music department — was “Transformations,” a concept the music exhibited perfectly. 

During the recital, McVey, the pianist, explained to the audience that Gustave le Gray — composed by American pianist Caroline Shaw, the youngest person to win a Pulitzer Prize in music — was meant to unfold slowly — a gradual metamorphosis of music and self.

“What we do is as classical musicians is like what actors and actresses do,” McVey said. “We have this piece of music that someone else wrote — just like an actor has a set of words that someone else wrote — and we have to bring it to life”. 

In the next few weeks, McVey plans on performing in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Seattle and Sandpoint, Idaho — he likes to stay close to his home in Moscow, Idaho, where he is an Associate Professor of Piano at the Lionel Hampton School of Music. 

The Fridays at Four concert series was established in 1999 by Tom and Tania Cronin in the midst of Tom’s term as Whitman’s President (1993-2005). The concerts have featured everything from flute, saxophone and sitar to classical piano. Indeed, the only constant of the series is its 50-minute length and consistent 4:00 p.m. time, which, says Wood, contributes to the event’s “charm.”

Through advertising in local newspapers, the Fridays at Four series has attracted the attention of many community members, many of whom have been going to the event for years,

“I’ve been attending these concerts forever,” said Robert Flemming, a Walla Walla community member and Whitman alum from the class of ‘77. 

Due to this longevity and cultural stability, Fridays at Four has also become well-known among the regional musical community. From alumni such as Ethan Maier ‘14, a specialist in Cuban music, to the Oregon Symphony concertmaster, Sarah Kwak, acclaimed musicians from across the Northwest stop in Walla Walla for the recital series.

“More often, people come to me,” Wood said of scheduling musicians. She only occasionally has to reach out to performers herself.

More recently, Wood has been making an effort to involve students with the event. For students, Fridays at Four is an opportunity to see faculty members and alumni from across the Whitman community perform up-close at the intimate venue of Kimball Theatre. A 120-seat recital hall, the size of Kimball is also important for performers like McVey.

“I love to play in a more intimate space like this, where I can look and see the faces of the people I’m playing for,” he said. 

Moreover, the physicality of the room is an important factor in creating improvisations with tone and texture, something McVey likes to do in each of his performances.

“Mostly you have an idea of what you want to do, but there’s always a little room for spontaneity or for adjusting to the situation: the instruments, the hall, the acoustics, how you’re feeling,” McVey said.

As McVey loomed over the Steinway-B piano, his floating, ephemeral lyric inflections harmonized with the jagged, deep chord progression, creating something both dissonant and beautiful. McVey contorted and released the muscles in his face, responding to the music’s ebb and flow. He was conveying something intensely emotional through performance; the tension was evident in the audience’s collective posture. 

McVey may be leaving soon, but Fridays at Four somehow seems to have captured and preserved his aura here at Whitman.