Weekend Chops Builder: Master Class - Playing with Orchestra

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[This article first appeared in 1977 in Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

This month I think I will take the liberty of writing about what at first glance might seem a more obvious topic of discussion than usual. It is to readers who have never played with orchestra, or who have done so very little, that I address myself. Also, the person who has played a great deal of chamber music need read no further; that person has presumably learned to bend his or her playing to conform with that of others. But there are those who have played a great deal of solo music and have little concern for the ensemble aspects of concerto playing. Indeed, I am reminded of an old edition of the Tchaikovsky Concerto in which a footnote on page one explains that the second-piano reduction has been included "so that the soloist may complete his part"! This is certainly an extreme example of catering to an arrogant soloist. Let us consider a more moderate attitude toward ensemble playing.

The mere mention of any Mozart Concerto should bring to mind the ideal realization of the interrelationship of solo and tutti. In fact, looking at the slow movement of K. 482, it seems that by the middle of the movement, Mozart has forgotten that the keyboard player is the soloist—he has given the most glorious variations to the winds. In the real world, we are faced with conductors who, at best, will realize the delicacy of the interchange of timbres between keyboard and orchestra, but who, at worst, will do what one incompetent man tried with me in a first rehearsal of a Mozart Concerto: I arrived to find eight double basses and a full string section ready to rehearse the fragile K. 453! His incompetence was matched by his insensitivity to public relations: When I requested that we thin the strings down to a 10-8-6-4-2 group, he pointed to players and said, "Mr. Dichter would like you, you, and you to leave."

The conductor is obviously in a position to make your performance a memorable one or destroy it completely. Had I let this man employ the full string section, Mozart would have been the loser. How could the piano possibly have matched the sonority of the full string section? Or, for that matter, why would one even want to have a Bruckner sonority in a Mozart concerto? We must defend our ideals!

For some less obvious observations, let's look at some passages that depend on the "soloist's" awareness of the other parts. The following example, from the fourth movement of Brahms' Concerto No. 2 in Bb, Op. 83, is a mere detail, but the same principle can be applied to the entire piece—or to any concerto.

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This example is an illustration of what the experienced chamber player already knows (i.e., to build into his part phrasings that will coincide with the parts of the other players). In this case, the pianist would listen for the violin entrance in bar 180 before continuing. Notice that Brahms has even dropped out the left-hand part to facilitate this transition.

More important musically is the soloist's understanding of his or her role in a given movement. In the slow movement of the same Concerto, the 'celli state the theme:

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When the pianist "comments" on what has just been heard, it is really an improvisation—

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and must sound like one. The piano entrance in the same movement begins in the last two measures of the 'cello solo; how many times does one hear a pianist enter here as though it were the beginning of a new passage, rather than the closing of an old one? Brahms makes this very clear by marking the piano entrance ritard, but many pianists simply begin meno mosso, thereby revealing a lack of understanding of the larger "chamber music" scope of the music.

A piece that, as far as I am concerned, stands alone, as a chamber music problem is the Schumann Piano Concerto. It has always seemed to me that what Schumann wrote was a chamber piece for piano quintet with additional parts for winds. Indeed, except for the tutti section at the close of the first-movement exposition, the passage before the cadenza, the statements of the last-movement theme in A and D major, and the very last page, the entire Concerto would seem better suited to a Mozart-size chamber orchestra. I have certainly found the reduced string sections a great advantage in realizing the otherwise delicate nature of the work, and have not missed the added strings even in the tutti sections. But to my mind, the most successful approach to this problem was an experiment in which we had a full-size string section that played only the above-mentioned tuttis, while for the other sections we used the reduced strings. That was indeed marvelous.

Perhaps the most important thing I can convey to the player who is inexperienced in concerto playing is that incompetent conductors far outnumber incompetent soloists. If a pianist came out to play a piece as unprepared as some conductors I have seen, they couldn't get away with it! It is our responsibility to make our intentions clear to these incompetents. If a conductor has gone through an entire Rachmaninoff Concerto rehearsal (of any of the five) and not once told the brass players that they are playing too loudly, it is your job to do so. Stand up for your rights!

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