Mac cellist to honor dying friend's wish
Back in the 1970s, cellists Sherill Roberts and Madalena Burle Marx met in music classes at Yale University. They soon became close friends and kept in touch with each other as their professional careers soared.
On Sunday, Roberts will join other musicians in honoring her friend at a special concert in McMinnville. The free program will start at 3 p.m. at McMinnville First Baptist Church.
When they met, the two young women were among students of Aldo Parisot, a famous Brazilian-born cellist who taught young players and professionals alike.
Roberts felt lucky to be accepted into his classes. She wasn’t even a student at Yale, though her husband, Mike, was teaching there.
“There was a feeling of camaraderie in Parisot’s studio,” she said.
She and Burle Marx exchanged letters and calls as they moved from place to place.
Roberts lived in Europe, then in Connecticut, before settling in McMinnville in 1981. Burle Marx lived in Ohio and Louisiana before eventually moving to Portland.
Roberts became principal cellist with the Portland Opera Orchestra, played with the Linfield Chamber Orchestra and other groups, and worked as a guest artist and soloist. She teaches cello at Linfield College and offers private lessons.
Burle Marx spent years as principal cellist of the Akron Symphony in Ohio. She also toured with her own group, the Burle Marx Trio, with violinist Barbara Westphal and pianist James Swisher.
In addition to other classical music, she played the work of her late father, composer Walter Burle Marx.
Roberts heard about her friend’s successes over the years. “She had a good career,” the McMinnville cellist said.
But about seven years ago, information about the Burle Marx Trio and personal contact suddenly stopped. Roberts wasn’t sure why until a couple months ago, when Burle Marx called her unexpectedly.
She gave Roberts some bad news: She had been diagnosed with a rare condition, progressive supranuclear palsy, that had robbed her of the ability to play.
“I think when we lost touch was when she was starting to get ill,” Roberts said. “She was reluctant to let people know.”
Burle Marx now resides in an assisted living facility in Portland. She has entered hospice care.
“When I visited her, I was unprepared,” Roberts said, her voice breaking. “But it was so good to see her again. She has trouble moving and speaking, but she’s still the same person inside.”
Her friend had a special request. She wanted Roberts, still an active professional musician, to organize a concert of her father’s compositions.
Burle Marx has always been an advocate for her father, Roberts said. She has always felt that the more people hear them, the better.
Three of the elder Burle Marx’s pieces will be featured in Sunday’s concert. Roberts and her daughter, professional cellist and music teacher Amelia Bierly of McMinnville, will team up on one of them,“Casanova Fantasy.”
This will be the first time Roberts has played a Burle Marx composition, although she’s long been familiar with his work.
“I’m really enjoying it,” she said. “The music is beautiful, easy to listen to and very cleverly crafted.”
Several other professional musicians quickly agreed to take part in the concert, to honor both Madalena and her father. Ronni Lacroute of Willakenzie Estate offered to sponsor the event.
Roberts said she’s honored to be part of it. “I’m so happy to be able to do this for my dear friend, to fulfill her last wish,” she said.