On Jan. 27, the world of music will celebrate the 250th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In his honor, a yearlong calendar of events is taking place, centering on his birthplace, Salzburg in Austria.
“Mozart certainly poured out an inexhaustible stream of instrumental music. Amongst the many concerts of Mozart music worldwide this year, the one at the Tokyo Masonic Center is actually on his birthday,” said music director and conductor Robert Ryker.
Ryker counts this year as the 50th anniversary of his own career. He and Mozart share an early initiation into music, and continuing, unswerving passion for it. In Ryker’s case, he was engaged as principal tuba of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra at the age of 17. The tuba had been his instrument since he was too little to handle a full-size one and, to his chagrin, had to make do with a scaled-down version.
Born in Indianapolis, Ryker belonged to a family that frequently moved. He settled into music school in Indiana, and some years after turning professional at Fort Wayne graduated from Indiana University. Having two degrees in music education and performance, he took his tuba and began his engagement with the Montreal Symphony orchestra.
Even then as a young man, he said, he knew he wanted still to be playing beyond retirement age. That precocious realization propelled him in his career. He stayed with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra for 13 years, performing in about 2,000 concerts under the batons of world-famous conductors. He learned to play other instruments and taught as he went along. “My greatest teacher was the Montreal Symphony,” he said. “I had a long association with maestro Zubin Mehta, and consider that as the most seminal influence upon my own later formation as an orchestra conductor and interpretive musician.”
Ryker left Montreal in order to undertake studies in conducting in Europe, and to follow doctoral studies in America at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. First prizes went his way, from the Baltimore Symphony Conducting Competition and from the National Symphonic Conducting Competition. He was chosen for advanced conducting programs with the Cleveland Orchestra and St. Louis Symphony.
Ryker received grants and introductions that allowed him to follow his bent, not only to conduct in other countries but also to build up orchestras. He founded the North Bay Symphony in Canada and the National Philharmonic of India, which as music director he still serves. He said, “The work was stimulating and showed results. When I was given a year’s salary to do something of my own choice, I chose Japan.”
He wasted no time in assessing the musical scene here and in finding his place in it. “There is always something to do in Japan,” he said. “I have projects stacked up just waiting for me to find time for them.” He founded the Tokyo Sinfonia, and set up “an audience development program for symphony orchestras to support and enrich ongoing programs, to focus on the techniques and characteristics of orchestral instruments.” As well as presenting mini-concerts, midi-concerts and maxi-concerts, he became senior music critic of The Japan Times. Three years ago he lectured on style in conducting for the Midwest Orchestra Conference in Chicago.
Ryker has shown himself tireless in his passion for music. He became honorary music director of the Tokyo International Association of Artistes, comprising several opera companies. He appeared with orchestras he describes as world class: the Japan Philharmonic, the New Japan Philharmonic, the Tokyo Philharmonic and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony. He has written some 250 musical arrangements, compositions, orchestrations and performing editions “to fill the need for repertoire to build sustaining audiences.” He has received awards. A listener once told him, “You do not speak down to the audience, and that makes us feel you really know what you are doing.” On a side note, he is a knight of the Knights Templar of Jerusalem.
Ryker said, “I had an unique opportunity to play when I was so young. I know I was gifted, but not uniquely. Now I try to do something for young people. I’d like to do more teaching. My mission is to pass on what I know to the next generation, yet as a conductor I am always teaching. Conducting is not the final stage. I need to be writing.”