Young musician exhibits more than extreme talent
Every once in a while a student comes along with so much talent, intelligence, and promise that even the word “exceptional” feels small.
“‘Exceptional’ is an understatement,” Music Professor Gerald Berthiaumesaid of Eric McElroy, a senior in piano performance, Regents scholar, and 2013 recipient of the Presser Award, the School of Music’s most prestigious scholarship.
“He’s exceptional and unusual in many different ways—from his piano performance to his knowledge of music history. His ability to conduct is at an unbelievable level for someone his age, and he’s also a terrific composer,” Berthiaume said.
For more than 35 years, Berthiaume has enjoyed working with students whose musical talents range from modest to amazing. But working with McElroy—“with his breadth of knowledge about so many things in so many areas—is something new and different,” he said.
And Berthiaume isn’t alone in his appreciation of this outstanding young musician and scholar.
“Intellectually, he approaches topics from a variety of perspectives and to a depth that is more common in doctoral candidates than undergraduates,” said Jeffrey Savage, associate professor of music and keyboard area coordinator. “He is a very well-rounded musician—even before he has finished a bachelor’s degree,” Savage said.
“I attended his junior recital in the fall and was completely blown away,” said Libby Walker, former dean of the Honors College, McElroy’s second college. “The complexity of the pieces he had memorized and his passion for the piano” especially impressed her, as do his stellar GPA, mastery of English, and proficiency in German. “He is a super student and overall wonderful young man!”
With faculty throughout the College of Arts and Sciences, Honors College, and School of Music singing his praises (as it were), McElroy was honored last spring with a scholarship to study at one of the most renowned music conservatories in Vienna, Austria, the world capital of classical music.
A life-changing experience
His six months of intensive music education and training at the Vienna Conservatory “proved invaluable,” Berthiaume said. “I think his educational experience there, studying piano with two top-notch teachers, Viennese and English, will be transformative to his life and future career as a musician.”
McElroy agrees. “It was a life-changing experience and only for the better,” he said. “To say that I feel ‘expanded’ intellectually and musically is really just another way of saying that I feel even more curious and more excited about the things that I’ve always been interested in. The stimulating musical atmosphere and the importance of the arts to the Viennese struck me emotionally. I was also affected by the impressive number of museums and historical sites.
“As a pianist, my experiences abroad can be heard in my playing. While studying with new teachers, I developed new ideas and perspectives on the craft both technically and expressively. I am excited to share these discoveries with my colleagues and with Dr. Berthiaume during the school year. Because of Vienna, I have that rejuvenated feeling that people often get when they’ve just had a huge experience and feel ready for everything. I am approaching my last year at WSU not as an ending but as a beginning.”
As McElroy readies himself for graduation from WSU in December, he’s also preparing to audition for master’s degree programs at three major conservatories in Vienna.
New horizons on a distinguished musical journey
“My goal has always been to go as far as my talents can take me. Because of Vienna, I’m hoping that what I have learned will make it possible for me to go back to Europe,” he said. “Leaving WSU and the teachers here will be a struggle, but WSU has given me the opportunity to go abroad and see that there’s so much more to learn, which is exactly what should be expected of a great university: not only to teach students how to think, but, more importantly, to teach students to always want to learn.”
A pianist since the age of three, McElroy has earned numerous awards at state and local levels, especially when performing work of the early twentiethcentury, his favorite period in music history. He began composing in the second grade and has been recognized at local, state, regional, and national competitions for his compositions which include solo, chamber, and large ensemble works.
At age 15, he won his first concerto contest with the Everett Symphony Orchestra performing Francis Poulenc’s piano concerto. He was a national finalist for the Music Teachers National Association composition competition in 2008 and won the National Association for Music Education’s National Composition Contest at age 16. His mother also is an accomplished pianist.
While a student at Arlington (Wash.) High School, he was a top singles player on the varsity tennis team and played with the jazz band. Although he misses some aspects of ensemble performance, McElroy has narrowed his focus strictly to advancing his piano virtuosity, conducting occasionally, and composing music only as a hobby.
Flourishing in a ‘healthy environment for learning’
McElroy said he chose the music program at WSU because “the piano faculty at WSU is unique in the considerable amount of time it spends working directly with its students. I have daily access to my professors and this establishes strong relationships which in turn creates a healthy environment for learning. Other institutions, especially larger ones, often lack this degree of interaction.”
At WSU, McElroy studied conducting with Danh Pham, assistant professor of music and director of bands, and French horn with Matthew Aubin, assistant professor of music and director of orchestras. He was active in student ensembles and co-founded the WSU Wind Octet. He received the Presser Award in recognition of his outstanding musicality, academic achievement, and participation in activities in the School of Music.
McElroy says he sought to study primarily with Berthiaume “based on the enormous respect I hold for his musicianship and character. He is a remarkable pianist with a generous personality.”
Berthiaume demurs. “It was an honor and quite thrilling that he did select to study with me. Four years slide by so fast—it’s hard to believe that it’s coming to an end. I’ll miss working with him. He’s a terrific young person and just such a gentleman.”
McElroy recently sat down for the first time at the new Steinway grand piano in Bryan Hall Auditorium. The elegant black instrument was brought to the hall last spring while he was in Vienna. “I’ve heard it’s pretty mellow,” he said, embarking on a colorful melody. Suddenly, he gave the keys two solid attacks. “It’s got a little bite,” he noted with appreciation and resumed yet another exceptional performance.
Editor’s note: In November, Eric McElroy won the 2013 Music Teachers National Association state competition, prelude to the Northwest Region competition.
Eric McElroy performs “Harmonies poétiques et religieuses: VII Funérailles” by Franz Liszt
Eric McElroy will perform his senior year recital on Friday, Nov. 8, at 4:10 p.m. in Kimbrough Concert Hall. His musical selections include Ginastera’s Sonata #1, Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, Beethoven’s Sonata #26 (“Les Adieux”) in E flat major, and Bach’sPrelude and Fugue in G major. The concert is free and open to the public.