Saturday, July 20, 2013

Improvising a concert

The life of a performing artist is one of highs and lows, routine and surprises. There can be periods in which it feels like you're just repeating something over and over and times when you suddenly need to call on all the special expertise you have to get the job done.

Sometimes it seems like nighttime driving.  Stretches of routine that can be boring are sometimes followed by moments of sheer terror!!

Last Wednesday night could have been one of those moments. While the concert certainly didn't promise to be boring, what ended up happening certainly got everyone's complete attention!

Wednesday was a regularly scheduled faculty concert at the Kent/Blossom Music Festival. On the program were four chamber works that included piano, including the Poulenc Trio (the only piece in which I was involved).

In the middle of the afternoon our pianist, Joela Jones was taken ill and could not play the concert. Danna Sundet, oboist and Festival administrator immediately got on the phone to try and salvage the program.

She called me from the room where I was teaching that day and we consulted.  We both knew another pianist, Elizabeth Demio. Liz is a gifted collaborative pianist with a huge repertoire.  She has played the Poulenc many times before.  In addition, she knows much of the double reed repertoire, being married to Mark Demio, a bassoonist and having played in the Plymouth Trio (with oboist John Mack and soprano Christina Price). 

As it turns out, Liz was free that night and willing to come help out! Danna likened the conversation about repertoire to the TV show, Iron Chef.  We discussed what pieces Liz had under her fingers that included oboe and bassoon and made a program. Here are the ingredients in the refrigerator, now make a great dish!

Danna would do the Poulenc Sonata and I would play the
Saint-Saëns Sonate with Liz.  I hadn't touched the piece since the fall, but have played it many times, as has Liz.

In addition, Ying Fu, the new Associate Concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra (and current member of our violin section) was supposed to play as part of the Elgar Quintet. With that now cancelled, he agreed to play the Beethoven 1st Sonata with Liz. The new program would now be:

Poulenc Oboe Sonata
Saint-Saëns Sonate for Bassoon
Beethoven Sonata #1 for Piano and Violin
Poulenc Trio

So we had a  program!

I think Liz arrived at Ludwig Recital Hall on the KSU campus roughly 2 hours before the 7:30 concert.  I taught until 6:00 and went out for a quick coffee to give me a burst of energy and focus my tired brain cells.  I had been teaching since 9:30 that morning!

Liz and I had about 10 minutes to touch the Saint-Saëns before the performance.  I think the others had about the same amount of time.  The Poulenc Trio got no rehearsal at all!

Perhaps one of the few advantages of being an old guy is that you've had this sort of thing happen before. There's nothing you can do about it, so you just leave your fate up to the gods (reed gods, God, whomever!) and try to enjoy yourself and really give a performance!

Old guys (seasoned veterans, if you prefer!) also have an advantage over young whippersnappers in that they have performed core repertoire like the Saint-Saëns many times.  I have played it numerous times and teach it and demonstrate it in lessons with regularity. So, while it was certainly a stretch to play it on Wednesday night, it wasn't out of the question for me.

The performance went well. It seemed like Liz, Danna and Ying all enjoyed themselves in spite of the pressure. The audience, who had been informed of the program change and last minute arrangements was enthusiastic and sympathetic.

The Collaborative Pianist

Great collaborative pianists are worth their weight in gold! These people have a generous spirit, a thick skin and a joy in making music with others. 

Some pianists are solitary figures who focus on solo careers.  Playing concerti with orchestras is their only interaction with others.

Collaborative pianists love making music with others and often feel a bit lonely playing by themselves. They put up with bad pianos and are expert at making instrumentalists sound their best. They know what to leave out in piano reductions of orchestral scores, are attentive to balance issues, can transpose a part to fit a singer's range and are generally good at coaching.

The discipline and aptitude required in these areas tends to weed out those less able pretty quickly. That leaves people with special skills and personality.

Collaborative Pianists I Have Known

We are blessed with several great collaborative pianists in our area. Liz, who saved our concert is one of the best.

Joela Jones (who recovered quickly, by the way) plays piano, organ, celeste, harpsichord, even accordion. She also accompanies our Cleveland Orchestra Chorus.

Randy Fusco, music professor at Hiram College, has recorded two CDs with me. With his encyclopedic knowledge of repertoire, he can make the piano sound like an orchestra.

Jim Howsmon, music professor at Oberlin College, can read an orchestral score at sight on the piano. He has adapted many bassoon accompaniments to make them sound better than what's printed.

Randy, Jim and another pianist, Jeffrey Gilliam were college classmates of mine.  I learned a great deal from them by performing with them, hearing them play, listening to their favorite recordings, comparing lesson notes, and talking about music.

I'm sure I've left a few out!

If you know someone like this, seek them out, befriend them, buy them dinner, you never know when you'll need to ask for a favor (like this Wednesday)!

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