Pianist, composer, tenor and conductor – when it comes to music, Robert Pherigo does it all.
Close your eyes and imagine a musical virtuoso. Who are you seeing? Mozart, with his powdered wigs? Liszt, with his aquiline nose? The Beatles, with their mop haircuts? Prince, with his velvet jackets? Toscanini? Bach? Elvis? Pavarotti? Sting?
You probably didn’t see a middle-aged man in a pullover sweater named Robert Pherigo. But if you ask a musician in Kansas City to name a virtuoso, Robert’s name usually tops the list.
— composer Ingrid Stölzel
Robert Pherigo is quiet. He has a shy smile and an unassuming demeanor. Then he sits down at the piano and magic happens.
Pherigo is not just a pianist; he’s a composer, tenor and conductor, too. He was a member of newEar Contemporary Music Ensemble for 15 years, a tenor in the Kansas City Chorale for 10 years, and has composed works for many local ensembles. Many say his greatest strength lies in his ability as an accompanist. Indeed, his resume reflects this; he has worked as a collaborative pianist for newEar Contemporary Music, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Kansas City Symphony, Kansas City Chorale, Chicago Symphony, University of Missouri Kansas City, William Baker Singers and Northwestern University.
“Robert is so intuitively musical,” says Sarah Tannehill Anderson, a local soprano. “There’s not a lot of discussion necessary — he just understands how the music should sound and what a singer might need from him. It’s so easy.”
But Pherigo wears many other hats.
“I met Robert as a pianist and quickly learned he can also sing, conduct and compose, and he does them all incredibly well,” says composer Ingrid Stölzel. “Working with Robert as a composer is a dream. I could go on about his incredible piano skills and rhythmic precision, and that alone would make him a dream to work with. But to all of that he adds his overall musicianship and a deep understanding of the inner workings of music. I know my music is in good hands when Robert performs it.”
Pherigo’s first exposure to music came from his father, who had an extensive classical record collection.
“He had 20-plus versions of each Brahms symphony, and he would play music at night after I’d gone to bed,” Pherigo says. “So, while going to sleep I’d be hearing Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler symphonies. Or lieder by Schubert or Schumann. When I was around six or seven he gave me a set of 45s with excerpts of famous classical works, and if I could identify the work he’d buy me a 33-long-play of the complete work! I remember standing in front of his large McIntosh speakers and pretending I was a last-minute substitute conductor conducting Wagner, saving the day!”
Raised in Kansas City, Robert left the area to attend college at Arizona State University, where he studied piano performance under Robert Hamilton and met his wife, Lyra.
“We met in a 20th-century music theory class our sophomore year,” Lyra Pherigo recalls. “Since then, much of our relationship has been centered in music. We began by performing recitals together when we were 20, and we still do to this day.”
Robert and Lyra don’t only collaborate musically, of course.
“Our best collaboration has been our son, Lucas,” says Robert.
Lucas Pherigo, 25, is a talented musician in his own right. He sings with Central Standard, an a capella ensemble, and conducts the Cody Choraliers Barbershop Chorus in Leavenworth. Growing up in the Pherigo household, with his parents as his first teachers, prepared him well for an active musical life.
“I always tell my students to practice, but practice smart,” Robert Pherigo says. “And never ever believe that you’re good enough. But on the other hand, don’t sweat it too much.”
Coleen Dieker, a go-to musician in the Kansas City community who studied piano with Pherigo when she was a teenager, knows this advice well.
“When I was a student of Robert’s he always challenged me and believed in me,” she says. “He has high standards, and he really motivated me to practice, especially when we picked out ‘Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 my senior year. It was intense.”
“Intense” might not be a word you’d use to describe Robert Pherigo if you just sat down to have coffee with him. Or go on a bike ride with him. But it is a fitting word. Sometimes his zen personality zeros in on the music and buzzes with something that can only be called intensity. That intensity is something Pherigo searches for in every musical experience and treasures when he finds it.
“I was singing with the Kansas City Chorale, and we were recording Jean Belmont’s wonderful multi-movement ‘Nativitas,’” Pherigo said. “Charles Bruffy decided to do a straight run through without stopping. I have no idea if any of that take made it onto the final recording, but I remember feeling like I was going to leave my body afterwards because of the intensity and laser-like focus during the music making. I had to go outside and decompress when we were done. I never know when music making will rise to that exalted level where the flow of it becomes effortless and it seems as if something else has taken control, but I am always so grateful when it does.”
Perhaps “focus” is a better word to describe Pherigo’s approach to music. Several years ago, he decided to learn and memorize the “Concord Sonata” by Charles Ives, a 45-minute long series of meditations in four movements celebrating great Transcendentalist writers: Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau.”
“He had loved the piece and Charles Ives for a long time,” Lyra Pherigo recalls. “So he read articles about how to memorize and decided to memorize as he learned the piece. I think it took him about a year.”
Pherigo did not have a place to perform the piece when he started his project. He just wanted to create a challenge for himself.
“I love that Robert always challenges himself to new experiences in music, be it writing about music, or listening to a new composer every week for a year or memorizing the extremely difficult Concord Sonata,” Stölzel says.
Pherigo eventually performed the “Concord” at Missouri Western State University in conjunction with a lecture by Dr. Kyle Gann, the former new-music critic of “The Village Voice” and author of “Charles Ives’s Concord: Essays after a Sonata.”
But you’d be hard-pressed to get him to talk about the experience. For him, the work was done when he completed it, not when he presented it in front of an admiring audience.
“He has a peacefulness about him that makes for an amazing place to play music from,” Dieker says.
“Although Robert is absolutely a musical genius and serious virtuoso, he is laid back, peaceful, unassuming and sweet,” Anderson says. “He is living proof that you can be a master at your craft — and also be nice.”
“And his laugh,” Anderson adds. “You have to hear Robert’s laugh. It’s amazing.