Tag Archives: performing piano concertos

One stick or more? Piano concertos for conductors and soloists

5f3e69_e385f87332164cdbbb4075d6aa12adf3Guest post by conductor and artistic director Tom Hammond

Two of my ambitions as a conductor are to maximise communication within ensembles (sounds simple, but isn’t), and to make concerto soloists feel like they are being accompanied by their own musical shadow.

If I can see the eyes, face, bows and fingers of the soloist I and the orchestra are accompanying, I can go with breath, speed of bow, a nod of a head or other subtle physical gesture… but when it’s a piano concerto, this is often impossible.

Nine times out of ten there’s no chance to see the fingers on the keyboard, I’m not close enough to hear inbreaths (which not every pianist makes audibly anyway) and if I try to lock on to eyes for an extra mode of communication – I can lose the connection with the orchestra. Basically – it’s all behind me!

In a recent performance of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ I even had the acoustic challenge of a piano that was (on the biggest stick) projecting beautifully into the hall, but away from my ears and couldn’t necessarily hear every note. Quite scary when picking up ends of cadenzas, I can tell you….

My solution is often simply not to even try more than a little eye contact for starts and ends of movements, and then rely totally on my ears. That’s sometimes harder than it might sound, as piano concerti often contain the trickiest technical moments for conducting; bringing in a tutti or a solo instrument off the back of a cascade of rapid notes when, with a string concerto for example, you can also use visual contact as well as aural. Moments in the Rachmaninov Paganini Variations and indeed ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ can really sort the men and women from the boys and girls in conducting terms…

All this led to me wondering how pianists feel about working with orchestras and conductors, and what factors might help make a performance comfortable at the very least, and something special at best. Two pianists I am accompanying in the coming weeks – Stephen Hough and Alissa Firsova – took time out of their hectic schedules to answer a few questions.

 

May0031407 Stephen Hough for DT ArtStephen Hough

What worries you most before a new concerto project? Is it the instrument, the orchestra, the conductor or the piece of music?
I never worry about the instrument until I see it. But with a new piece there is the uncertainty of how it will actually sound (or rather feel) in that first rehearsal. No amount of preparation prepares you for the oboe or horn or violas coming at you from that particular angle on stage. And because a collaboration with a conductor is like a blind date well … when the mask comes off who knows what to expect!
Have you ever found the ‘perfect’ position on stage for being able to communicate with a conductor during performance? How much is eye contact desirable?
I normally have a good view of the conductor’s buttocks which doesn’t help much … No, but seriously I don’t need eye to eye contact but out of the corner of my eye I’m taking in body language all the time and at certain crucial moments THE STICK!

How much rehearsal time do you like to have?
As much as we need is nice, but not more. I don’t like thrashing the details out until everyone’s exhausted. A little spontaneity is essential. But with certain pieces decisions have to be made, especially with the great works, the Brahms and Beethoven concertos for example.

Which concerti would you like to direct from the keyboard, but have never had the chance?
I’d be curious to try the two Brahms sometime, if only to decide that it didn’t work.

 

5f3e69_d3be6bedc9d64af0897015aab598ebdcmv2-1Alissa Firsova

What worries you most before a new concerto project? Is it the instrument, the orchestra, the conductor or the piece of music?
“Worry” is not a feeling that comes to mind when embarking on a new concerto project, but rather “excitement”, “curiosity”, “joy” and “gratitude” for the opportunity to take on a challenge and join forces with the conductor and orchestra to explore a remarkable piece of music. However out of the 4, the greatest achievement and dedicated work lies in the process of learning the piece and trying to master it to the best possible ability. Then when meeting the conductor and orchestra for the first time, it becomes a celebration. A bit like a process of making a cake: taking good care of all the ingredients, cooking it at the right temperature and for the right amount time, and then, eating it – the party begins! What I love about musical interpretation is that it is endless. It is so interesting to be able to get to know a new conductor and their personality and see what their ideas are about the piece, when there is a chance to play though sections and explore different ideas, this is gold-dust. I think it’s always important to have an open approach, to try new things, to be flexible in being able to adapt to a different acoustic or instrument or time of day.

Have you ever found the ‘perfect’ position on stage for being able to communicate with a conductor during performance? How much is eye contact desirable?
I think it is ideal to have the opportunity for eye-contact, for those few “magic moments”. Other than that, the most important thing is the listening. When that is completely in sync and focus with everyone, then we might as well be blind-folded. But sometimes it’s nice to be able to communicate visually, to bring that other dimension and to respond to each other. I’ve always felt at home having the orchestra around me. It gives a great support and warmth, a feeling of being all in it together, and the conductor marries the soloist with the orchestra. The priceless moments are those spontaneous ones during the concert, where everyone suddenly takes time or creates a new nuance that didn’t happen in the rehearsals. Thats when you know total ‘oneness’ has been reached.

How much rehearsal time do you like to have?
Even though ideally one would like to have as much rehearsal time as possible, in order to keep trying different things and perfecting corners as well as getting used to the overall structure and pacing of the piece, it’s also important to leave room for the spontaneity and freshness for the concert. I like to have one rehearsal before the day of the concert, and one on the day, an extra rehearsal could be a bonus.

Which concerti would you like to direct from the keyboard, but have never had the chance?
 Mozart Piano Concertos No. 21 in C and No. 27 in B flat
Tom Hammond conducts piano concerti by Beethoven and Brahms, with Stephen Hough and Alissa Firsova respectively, on 18th March and 6th May. Full details here