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'If all you do is follow, you’ll always be behind'

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Malcolm Martineau, one of today’s most sought-after pianists, gave a masterclass at Weill Hall on Friday evening. The program had a mostly French theme, with six fantastic young singers and pianists presenting Debussy, Poulenc, Weill, Liszt, Chausson and Ravel.

An experienced vocal accompanist is often also a coach for singers. Such is the case with Martineau. HHe mostly focused on the singers throughout the evening. From finessing their French vowels, to creating vivid images from the texts, to shaping the architecture of their phrases, Martineau was able to coax some truly breathtaking lush sound out of the accomplished young singers.

Occasionally, he gave a few tips to the two impressive pianists as well. “The relationship between piano and voice is a circle of energy being passed back and forth,” he said. "It never stops, and is constantly changing." Similarly, he emphasized that it is not necessary for singers to always lead. One of the most common compliments an accompanist hears is how well he or she is able to follow the soloists. "But I tell pianists: if all you do is follow, you’ll always be behind!” Martineau said.

A good accompanist must be a little clairvoyant and predict where the singers are going. It involves risk. The accompanist may not always be right but that’s what makes it so exciting. Often times the piano must act as the rhythmic motor and allows the voice to float above freely.

In a particularly sensual passage in Chausson’s Le colibri, Martineau instructed mezzo-soprano Liza Forrester to imagine her French vowels as part of the piano’s figurations. “It’s as if two souls are mixed together but at the same time they are still, two different souls.” The voice and piano are together singing the same text, but they each have an individual role in presenting the material. While providing support for each other, the singer and pianist must each have their unique expressive contribution.


When asked if he thought accompanists should translate and understand the text of the songs they are playing Martineau replied, “absolutely." He then added that not only should pianists know the meaning of every single word, they should also have a certain level of understanding of vocal technique. “I send all my students in London to singing lessons.” Martineau said. A good accompanist needs to have some sense of how the voice works and be ready to help with technical problems that might stand in the way of singing expressively.

It was an extraordinary evening. In many ways it was more informative and intriguing than a concert. A fascinating view from the other side of the piano.