Pianists – it’s all in their hands, or is it?

Sorry it has been such a long time since my last blog post – but here, as promised is my long-awaited post about pianists and the joys and pitfalls of working with them, with an orchestra.
When I first started on this journey to becoming a conductor, I made a conscious effort to programme as many piano concertos as possible. It would have been very easy for me to “ease me way in” by programming endless violin concertos, having the knowledge of either learning the solo part myself or, at the very least, knowing the piece extremely well. It made more sense to me to learn as many concertos for other instruments as possible, broadening my repertoire and knowledge base.
The joys are there for all to see! The piano concerto repertoire is full of great masterpieces, pieces which not only challenge the pianist but also challenge the orchestra, full of solos and great to play. But what are the challenges for the conductor, that only arise when working with pianists?
Firstly, the position of the piano. Unless you are planning on having the piano in front of you, with the lid off, for a Classical concerto, it is always behind you. And this is actually the greatest problem of them all! If you are working with any other concerto soloist, there are usually next to you and you can see them. To be able to see a string players bow is to be able to see when and how they are going to play, how long the note will be etc. To see a wind or brass soloist is to be able to see them breathe, to be able even to see their embouchure and see when they about to play. And with singers to see them breathe and even to watch their lips and throat is a must.
With a pianist, unless they are absurdly flamboyant, you cannot even see their hands! Of course, there is often body language that can be read but, in the main, you get very little help. So we must rely on our ears, almost totally, for all the clues we need to be able to get the orchestra to successfully accompany them.
Easy, surely? Yes, it would be, if it were not for problem number 2.
Problem 2 is chosen what to listen to! Often a piano part can be a bewildering blur of millions of notes in the right hand, whirling around and seeming to try to distract the conductor. Possibly the hardest of all passages is the slow Movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.2.
On first hearing, you might be forgiven to think that it is a bit of a lottery to catch every nuance and every change of harmony, if you listen mainly to the filigree work in the right hand. One conductor famously said ” it can be a little like taking a jellyfish for a walk on a piece of elastic”! But on a second hearing, concentrate hard on the left hand (with an open ear still on the right) and you will find it is much easier. The left hand is your friend when accompanying a pianist with it more often than not giving you the simpler rhythms to follow and discern how the pianist is thinking. But can we practise that before the first rehearsal?
With the advent of Spotify and YouTube, we can. I know some conductors will know sneer at this but the best way of practising is to find a recording you don’t know, put it on and follow it. Actively conduct along with it (What!! Conduct along to recording??? Philistine!).  Why would I advocate this? Well, as I’ve said, you will get very little visual help so we must get used to listening even harder and get used to reacting to every slight change of tempi, every instance of rubato and even every bad musical idea the pianist might have dreamt up in his lonely practice room. The best “accompanist conductors” keep their beat small yet constantly moving, allowing them to react quickly yet be accurate and clear.
Apologies if all of this is old news but to some they might find it interesting and even helpful – in 20 years as a violinist in the CBSO I have seen more conductors make a dogs breakfast of accompanying pianists than any other type of soloist and I’m sure it’s no secret that orchestral musicians spot this immediately!
Until the next time, happy following.
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One comment on “Pianists – it’s all in their hands, or is it?
  1. Actually these Chopin’s concerti, especially f minor, are really a mess when it comes to put them together with the orchestra. When I was practicing this I always tried to make at least the left hand quite straightforward to help conductors. See how pianists are attentive to your well being and try to make your life easier 😀

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