Accompanists: Unsung Heroes of the Concert Stage

Friday, January 21, 2011 - 10:03 AM

Malcolm Martineau accompanies baritone Christopher Maltman Malcolm Martineau accompanies baritone Christopher Maltman (martineau.info)

Behind every successful man there is a woman, or so the old saying goes. In the music world, behind every brilliant soloist there is his or her accompanist. Jascha Heifetz had his Brooks Smith, Anne-Sophie Mutter has her Lambert Orkis, Midori had her Robert McDonald and among many other things, Benjamin Britten was the reliable accompanist to his Peter Pears.

For decades accompanists have been thought to be less skilled than solo pianists. They get their names on the bill and if they are lucky, a nod on stage from their partners (to this day, a Facebook group exists for "People for the Ethical Treatment of Accompanists").

Yet whether it is the lady who sits behind the organ at your local church every Sunday, the pianist you see twice a week at your daughter’s ballet classes, or Craig Rutenberg, accompanist to renowned American baritone Thomas Hampson, most of us see pianists in non-solo, collaborative acts much more often than we see Lang Lang or Maurizio Pollini at Carnegie Hall.

Somewhere in our subconscious we know we can count on the accompanist in that ballet class so little girls in tutus don’t miss a step. We applaud excitedly after a gut-wrenching performance of Schubert songs at the concert hall but for a moment we forget that half of the drama came from the piano. This is not necessarily the megastar pianist many wanted to be as a little child. This is the pianist in everyday life. He or she is many things: coach, partner, performing artist, moral support, one's best friend on stage, sometimes the main voice of a church choir; the pianist in everyday life focuses on helping others stay focused on stage.

Since the 1980s several top conservatories including The Juilliard School, Manhattan School of Music, New England Conservatory and Eastman School of Music have developed their own accompanying, or collaborative piano departments. People were starting to recognize that good pianists are not always good at accompanying. In the handful of collaborative piano departments across the country today, young pianists are thrown into lessons, classes and sometimes performances playing for all kinds of instruments and voices, often times without much rehearsing at all.

The ability to "sight-read" is a must, though the word itself is misleading. Merely reading music at sight is not enough. Good accompanists read and play music that is new to them with instant interpretation. They are also expected to have learned a vast repertoire and can play anything from concertos to songs to chamber works the moment they sit at the piano bench. Accompanying a range of soloists from sopranos to violinists to tuba players to marimbist, pianists learn how to be supportive but not overpowering. A good, complimentary partner does not simply hide behind the soloists, but they have an equally important voice that is heard when it’s the right time.

Some of the most loved accompanists are also coaches, especially in the field of voice and opera. Graham Johnson, Malcolm Martineau and Warren Jones are just a few names voice students and professional singers alike line up to get a chance to work with. Vocal coaches in many ways are voice teachers and accompanist in one. Often equipped with excellent command of at least two or three European languages, they give valuable advice on everything from diction to interpretation to acting. Vocal coaches are also versatile in multiple styles: From Puccini to Cole Porter, Baroque to Broadway, they are ready to switch from one role to another without missing a beat.

At times the sign of a good accompanist is that the audience doesn't even notice the piano -- the collaboration is so seamless that two artists have become one. But an excellent accompanist won't let the piano simply be buried. After all, Beethoven wrote his cello sonatas for "Pianoforte and Violoncello" and not the other way around.

When was the last time you heard a great accompanist? Leave your comments below.

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Comments [20]

Barbara Sanderson

At the last concert (a musicale) I was at, I said the same thing to my husband, the clarinet player... "The piano accompanist isn't even mentioned! Yet is at least as good and as much a part of it as the other instruments. Doesn't make sense to me." Your article pointed out even more. Thank you.

Sep. 26 2012 09:50 AM
Audre Morrison from Hillsborough, NJ

In reading David's post on 1/30/11 I am reminded of Gerald Moore's wonderful book "Am I Too Loud", an explanation of the challenges of being an accompanist. He was a delight to hear.

Mar. 05 2011 10:00 PM
Kent Tritle from New York New York

I just love that this is running at the same time as the U-Tube clip about Harriet Wingreen, one of my heroes. She and Nancianne Parrella alike embody the grace and brilliance of a class of accompanists that is increasingly hard to find. They read like the wind, can play anything, yet choose to spend their artistic lives in service to others. Truly, they are inspiring colleagues. I believe that accompanists, and particularly in my field, choral accompanists, are deeply under-appreciated and deserve a great deal more credit for their perseverance, musical insight, humility and devotion to a cause that is greater than themselves.

Feb. 03 2011 12:13 AM
Jessica B.

I've turned pages for pianists for years, so I've gotten to see a lot of accompanists' technique up close. One pianist in particular stands out for me, and that is Natalie Zhu, Hilary Hahn's pianist. When I turned for her, she hit every note, every articulation, and every dynamic marking precisely, always making everything part of a seamless, expressive musical whole. She was a great pleasure to work with, and I look forward to hearing her again sometime.

Feb. 01 2011 01:50 PM

remember COSMO MCMOON? Proving the accompanist also needs a sense of humor(he played for Florence Foster Jenkins.)

Feb. 01 2011 09:52 AM
David from NYC

Two words.
Gerald Moore.

Jan. 30 2011 02:43 AM
sunnysider

Excellent article on a much neglected topic!

Jan. 27 2011 02:53 PM
Michael Meltzer

Just so non-pianists know what Mr. Gold and I are talking about, first of all, you never know what you're going to have in the way of a piano, they're all different.
If you have to play softer-than-soft, and the action is at all sluggish, there's a danger you'll make no sound at all. To make sure your soft, slow descent gets to the bottom of the key, you have to make your fingers like steel. If you try to play rapid passagework in that state you can actually hurt yourself, that's how people get tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
Don't forget to smile at the audience.

Jan. 25 2011 01:40 PM
Edward Gold from New York, NY

As a former pianist, accompanist and chamber music player, I've had to put up with all kinds of things.

Michael Meltzer mentions violin teachers but many cello teachers are even more unreasonable! One cellist I performed with was so cowed by performance, I simply couldn't play softly enough for her and the softer I played, the softer she did. Later I was accused of drowning her out but it was a Beethoven Sonata and there wasn't anything I could do. Besides, the piano part was at least as important if not more important than the cello.

In a performance of the first Brahms Clarinet Sonata, the clarinetist knocked over his stand and I had to slow down the tempo a lot till he could recover it. After the poorly attended program, I overheard a comment from a woman praising the "accompanist" (me.) to her friend (Of course, the piano part is not an "accompaniment".).

But one test for a "real" accompanist is an opera excerpt with a piano reduction and especially in one memorable instant where the soprano had no idea of the rhythm (and she was supposedly a professional!) and one had to "fake" to get through it.

Not to mention inept page turners!

Oh the joys of collaborative piano playing!

Jan. 25 2011 11:41 AM
Keith Heimann from Lincroft, NJ

Jon Spong was so much more than just an accompanist: to an entire of young singers in the 80's and 90's he was our inspiration, our guiding light and our friend.

Thank you, dear Jon, for changing my life!

Jan. 25 2011 09:39 AM
Gregg from Astoria Queens

In your blog, you conclude with:
"After all, Beethoven wrote his cello sonatas for "Pianoforte and Violoncello" and not the other way around." I can't count the amount of times I have heard them performed on the station. And of course it amazes me regarding the maestro's talent, (the composer not the musician's), that I normally miss who the performers are.

I also listen with interest to Elliot's "Chamber Music Society" presentations as well. I freely admit that I'm still amazed with regards to the devotion presented to everything. And typically the same problem happens. Now that I know who to listen for, I shall pay better attention.

Incidentally of his works of that sort, those are my favorites.

Jan. 24 2011 09:28 PM
Tim Norris from Kansas City

My wife and I just heard Sam Haywood accompany Joshua Bell at the Folly Theater in Kansas City last Saturday. While Bell's performance was as exceptional as ever, I found, during the Schubert Fantasy in C Major, that I was thinking how remarkable Haywood's playing was. The violin, while lovely or powerful, is a single voice; the piano may be one voice or a hundred.

Jan. 24 2011 11:47 AM
Jonathan Gonzalez

I have been fortunate to have many great accompanist. But one that stands out is Jose Melendez. During my undergraduate studies at Westminster Choir College In Princeton NJ I sang Cilea's È la solita storia del pastore and that Performance could not have been as perfect for me as it was if Jose hadn't some how tapped into the emotion I was feeling. I felt like we were one. For me that makes a great accompanist when you are as one. They sense your feeling and flow with it as you sense there feeling as well. Truly they are unsung heroes!!!

Jan. 24 2011 11:43 AM
Michael Meltzer

Heifetz built his career in a 20-year collaboration with pianist Emmanuel Bay, 1934-1954, except for two WW II years of his USO tour with pianist Milton Kaye. Brooks Smith was his pianist from 1955-1975.

Jan. 23 2011 04:54 AM
Neil Schnall

Upon meeting the late Geoffrey Parsons after a New York recital (after having introduced myself as having coached Lieder accompaniment with one of his disciples in Vienna), he said "Accompaniment is one of the most honorable professions... and one of the least honored."

Jan. 22 2011 01:07 PM
Michael Meltzer

Spelling Error, see the first line of my first post.

Jan. 21 2011 10:39 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane

Collaborative artist is an apt term for our piano colleagues. I have been extremely fortunate in having Paul Meyer, who prepared Marian Anderson for her "Met" Opera debut as Ulrica, as accompanist for my first Carnegie Hall concert, a Joint recital with a dramatic soprano. Otto Herz who accompanied Rosa Raisa and Set Svanholm was my colleague at the piano for my Ten Language Solo Debut, again in the main hall of Carnegie. These and others, mainly conductors from opera houses who can handle the Wagner "rep," have been my artist stalwarts. Their virtuosity, musicality and strong technique "carried the day." I always have the piano lid up fully so that I may have a solid foundation of sound, so that I do not have to "hold back."

Jan. 21 2011 05:44 PM
Philip Hough

Great article! As a violin teacher, I appreciate the sensitivty required by the accompanist to be both support system and equal partner.

It interesting to think of the many great partneships over the years: Oistrakh/Oberin; Oistrackh/Frida Bauer; Grumiaux/Haskill, Yehudi and Hepzibah Menuhin, Francescati/Casadesus, Goldberg/Krauss, Menuhin/ Kempff; Szigeti/Bartok; Szigeti/Magaloff; Milstein/Balsam; /Stern/Zakin.......
Facinating subject!

Jan. 21 2011 02:13 PM
Giuseppe Spoletini

I hear one every week in my studio at MSM and I am so blessed to have her!

Jan. 21 2011 01:16 PM
Michael Meltzer

You only have to hear Robert McDonald (not MacDonald) with Midori in the first St.Saens Sonata to hear some of the best piano playing ever.
Once in a great while there is an opportunity to hear Warren Jones playing solo or chamber music. Don't miss that, he is a super-pianist.
When you are studying piano in a conservatory, you have not truly learned control until you have taken accompanying class and been subjected to the near-impossible demands of a voice or violin teacher. They will demand volume levels lower than what the instrument was regulated and adjusted to provide, no excuses permitted. After that, playing for a regular audience is easy.

Jan. 21 2011 11:25 AM

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