Six…Eight…Ten…HOURS! I remember practicing the piano for THAT many hours in a day when I was studying. Always alone with my microscopic-analytical-obsessive-compulsive brain as my companion, I practiced Mozart, Brahms and, especially for me, a lot of Debussy. There was so much at stake as it was not just my individual goal to nail the piece technically, but I had to “say something” with the piece. For me this was a very lonely existence. So much time alone.
A transformational moment for me occurred when I was in high school in Long Lake, MN. I won the Young People’s Symphony Concert Association Competition and the first prize was the honor of playing a concerto, in my case the Ravel G Major, on a series of concerts with The Minnesota Orchestra. The anxiety mixed with joy was mind numbing.
At my first orchestra rehearsal I was petrified thinking that everybody would be judging me, that the entire performance rested on my shoulders. I could not breathe. The conductor Henry Charles Smith signaled that it was time to begin, the whip cracked (the first movement of the Ravel G Major begins with a whip crack), and we were off.
I played the first statement frozen with fear and then the orchestra took over for a bit until my next entrance. Oh the sound…I was in a sea of magnificent sound. I was overwhelmed. My eye caught the principal oboe, Basil Revees, who looked at me and gave me a reassuring smile and I suddenly realized that I was not alone. It was not just me on that stage immersed in the music of Ravel but there were 50 other souls sharing in this experience. We were doing this together and I was going to be OK.
After that life changing experience, I became addicted to discovering musical nuance WITH others whether it be a Faure Piano Quartet, Brahms Violin Sonata or a Schubert Lieder. The collaborative rehearsals revolved around not only the details of phrasing, dynamics, articulations, tempi, and emotion associated with the piece but more importantly it was discovering the connective energy and trust and between us. I was obsessed with finding as many opportunities to have this intimate musical dialogue.
Fast forward a few decades and I am an opera conductor. Sure, there remain endless hours of independent study as I tackle these mammoth scores, but most of the time I am sharing in the creative process with singers, instrumentalists, stage directors, etc. The musical dialogue exists but with an enormous group of people.
Currently I am in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, specifically the Keweenaw Peninsula, and back to playing the piano with others on a small scale at the Pine Mountain Music Festival. This “smaller” scale version of collaborative playing had been missing from my musical life for too many years. These past two weeks I have been working with singers on programs that include Grieg, Sibelius, Strauss, Hoiby, Handel and Sondheim. After almost 10 years of conducting so many glorious operas, it is joy to bring my fingers back into shape and immerse myself in this amazing repertoire. I still have to practice a multitude of hours alone but then I get savor in the process of “musical discovery” with my gifted colleagues. There is such an intimacy in art song. It is truly just the text, music, you and the singer.
The theme of this year’s Pine Mountain Music Festival is “In the Company of Friends.” Well here I am with a few of my lovely friends: Josh Major, Lucy Thrasher and Holly Janz.