Many of the victims of Russia’s attack on Ukraine are children. So many have been traumatized and left homeless, emotionally and sometimes physically injured – even killed. Because he is of Ukrainian descent, trumpeter Paul Merkelo feels especially strongly about helping children who are suffering during this war.
A Benefit for the Children of Ukraine
So he has organized a concert on 2 April to benefit UNICEF’s efforts to provide aid for the children of Ukraine. The nonprofit is working to ensure these young victims of Russian aggression have access to safe water, nutrition, health care, education, and protection.
Mr. Merkelo has held the seat of principal trumpet at the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM) since 1995. I recently reviewed his January concert with the English Chamber Orchestra (ECO) at Cadogan Hall in London.
But the upcoming UNICEF concert feels much more urgent. It will be recorded and broadcast on social media.
Mr. Merkelo spoke with us about the benefit concert and other topics, including his recent project performing Russian music with a Russian orchestra. Read on to learn what he had to say, and watch the video of the benefit concert and make a donation here.
Thank you for taking some time to speak with us. Before we talk about the benefit concert and your other projects, since Ukraine is so much in the news, would you tell us a little about your background?
I am first generation American, born in Champaign, Illinois. My family heritage is from Ukraine. I started playing music at age 10 and never stopped.
Tell us about the UNICEF concert. Where does it take place, and what’s on the program?
I organized this concert [taking place] at the Ritz Carlton Montréal. They have a concert stage and beautiful facilities. I have done several events there, including a fundraising concert for my Sony recording project in the UK, and we have developed a good relationship.
Twenty of my colleagues from the OSM are donating their time and talent. We are playing music from Mahler, Barber, Fauré, Mozart and Lysenko.
A Tradition of Musical Dissent
Back in 2019 you recorded an album of Russian trumpet concertos with the Russian National Orchestra conducted by Hans Graf. Naxos will be releasing it in summer 2022. What are your feelings about this Russian project in the present context?
I’m very sensitive to the situation as a Ukrainian descendant. The biggest issue is that we should not help the Russian economy at this time until they withdraw troops and give up on this criminal invasion.
This recording has been subsidized by Canadian donors with no ties to Russia. Naxos UK is releasing it and any royalties I receive I will donate to Ukraine.
It’s important to highlight the composers on this album – Shostakovich, Weinberg, and Arutunian – as all of them defied the political regime. Shostakovich [for example] wrote in code in rebellion [against] Stalin.
Music and arts in general will play a powerful role in healing and inspiring through this conflict.
Even sooner, in May 2022 Medici TV will release “Gershwin’s World,” a classical/jazz hybrid concert documentary. What is this project all about, and what was your involvement? You’ve engaged with Gershwin’s music before.
I’ve been working on this project for a long time, and I’m thrilled that Medici TV will release it worldwide. It’s my first commercial recording where I’m improvising within the structure of the great music of Gershwin, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel and Florence Price.
Matt Herskowitz, the pianist, also created the arrangements. After much trial and error, we came up with what I believe is a new perspective on these works and how they are so relevant today, as they were at their original premieres.
Another project that’s fascinating to me is “Balkan Brass,” which I understand is the first time traditional Balkan gypsy music has been explored from a classical music perspective with improvisation. It’s to be broadcast from a soundstage in Montreal on 10 June. How did you get involved with this project?
I came up with this idea when I went down the “rabbit hole” of Balkan Gypsy music and discovered that the trumpet is a dominant instrument in the texture. It’s so virtuosic and entertaining and I had to explore it more. I approached the Orchestre Nouvelle Génération with the idea of a collaboration with strings and four soloists riffing on this music. We are narrowing down the pieces now and I’m very excited about this show!
The Gershwin and Balkan projects both involve improvisation. Tell us about your background in improvisatory styles like jazz.
My first job was principal trumpet in the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. I spent a lot of time going to hear live music and really became intrigued with the art of improvisation. At that time I felt it would be impossible for me to ever see myself as an improviser. There has been much trial (and even more error!). I’m just now (27 years late) feeling more and more free to let go into that world.
An International Career
Your international musical interests go beyond Europe and North America. According to your bio, back in 1999, you were appointed Canadian musical ambassador to China for the inauguration of the Montreal Park in Shanghai, and performed as a soloist with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Have you continued this association with classical music in China? If so, how have you seen the tradition there develop over the past 20-plus years?
I have returned on tour with the OSM and given recital and masterclasses there, but not yet returned with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. I’ve been teaching a lot more Chinese students on trumpet and the level has really gone up. I look forward to returning there as soloist and clinician whenever the opportunity might arise.
You’re on the faculty at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara and at McGill University in Montreal. We all know how the pandemic decimated concert schedules. How has it affected your work as an educator?
I have been teaching on Zoom almost exclusively since the pandemic. It has been an interesting experience because it’s challenging for me to be able to explain precisely what I’m looking for in the sound. The compressed sound on Zoom, even with a good mic, makes teaching much more challenging.
I think it can be very effective and efficient though, because I’ve been teaching many more international students this way that I would not normally see.
After so much time without live performances, I could feel, even via video, the positive energy at your concert with the English Chamber Orchestra in January. Has your touring schedule filled up again?
I’m just now starting my touring schedule again. Coming up I have engagements as soloist in Montreal, Texas, Korea, California, Mexico and Europe in the fall. Please follow me on Instagram or Facebook to see!
The music world had to make many pandemic adaptations, like an increased number of livestreams. Are there some changes that you think will persist into the post-pandemic world?
Yes, I think livestream is the new reality and brings a new dimension to live performances. I hope people will adapt to this and keep on making great music in spite of the recording atmosphere that this creates.