American Concert Pianist, Steinway Artist, Susan Merdinger

Preparing a concerto for performance with orchestra

As I get ready to perform Brahms' monumental Piano Concerto No.2 on May 5th with the Northbrook Symphony, I figured my fans might want some insight into the process that I go through to prepare a concerto for performance. 

I will tell you first that it is at once a challenge and a pleasure to play a concerto with an orchestra. The Van Cliburn Silver Medalist Santiago Rodriguez once told me backstage after one of his concerts that "concertos are the bread and butter" of a pianist's career. So, what exactly did he mean by that?, I wondered..

What he went on to explain is that playing concertos with an orchestra is the best way to get known and perform, get paid a lot but play a little. In other words- it's a lot easier and better to play a 35-minute concerto, than a 75-minute solo recital- assuming the artistic fee might be the same. When a pianist plays a solo recital, all eyes and ears are on them for a 70-90 minute program, and when one is not so well-known, it can be difficult to draw a sizable audience. Performing with an orchestra, therefore, seems like a much better way to build a career and become more widely known, and get even more engagements- because orchestras generally have their own subscribers and regular attendees, so a good audience is generally assured.  But is performing a concerto easier merely because it is shorter and a pianist does not have to "carry the show" the entire time?

Well, the answer to that question is a resounding "NO". Performing a concerto with orchestra is places huge demands on the soloist, the conductor and the entire orchestra. A piano concerto is generally performed by memory by the soloist, yet demands the gift of being a fine chamber musician- being able to follow or take the lead as the case may be, and being an exceptional listener. Also, with a concerto, one must have strength and stamina to match the sound of a 40-80 person orchestra- not always an easy feat - even with a Steinway D 9-foot piano! Additionally, with so many musicians performing in an orchestra, if anything goes wrong, which happens even to the best orchestras and soloists, the conductor, soloist and entire orchestra must react and adjust together. This is what makes performing a concerto a tremendous challenge- one must know the score inside and out, forward and backward and be totally flexible with tempi and responsive to changes in dynamics- real or perceived. Often there is but one rehearsal in the concert hall prior to a performance- which means empty seats and a lively reverb during the rehearsal- and then a totally different sound from what one hears during the concert when the hall is full with people.

All of these sonic adjustments and judgments one must make in the "heat of the moment".  Even the ensemble playing is affected by the distance the soloist is from the various sections of the orchestra. Oftentimes, the winds and brass sound like they are behind or too soft, compared to the first violin sitting right by your ( the piano soloist's) ear. As for the orchestra players' perspective- they get a very muffled version of the pianist's playing- because with the lid of the piano facing outwards, the piano sound is not nearly as bright or loud to their ears. Often they react to this by playing too softly- when in fact, they are not in any danger of being too loud at all.

But, yes, the opposite problem does often happen, where an orchestra plays so loud that they completely drown out the soloist. SO, balance, ensemble issues, phrasing and articulation consistency, intonation with the piano, and tempo variations all play a huge part in the success of a concerto performance with an orchestra.

So, that now leads to the question which I will strive to answer for anyone who cares to know: What do I do, specifically,  to prepare a concerto for rehearsal and performance? Here are the steps: 1. Study and learn to physically play score, annotating liberally, writing in fingerings, markings, reminders- and changing them as needed- This step could have taken place at any point in your life- but re-learning, reevaluating and refreshing one's interpretation is essential. 2. Memorize the score, testing one's memory in each phase of the learning process 3. rehearse with a second piano as often as possible 4. Use a metronome consistently, and decide what are the optimal tempos which are integral to one's interpretation, yet, practice in many different tempos so as to be somewhat flexible 5. Practice with eyes closed or looking anywhere else besides the keyboard - since one must be able to look at the conductor at certain critical moments  6. Listen to many different recordings of the concerto- after one has learned it sufficiently to have formulated one's own ideas- to hear what works, what doesn't. With a critical ear, one will notice very distinct differences in interpretative details from one pianist to another, from one performance to another.

Lastly, as a soloist, it is wonderful if an orchestra can actually follow you- but that is not what we really want or need because it implies that the orchestra might actually lag behind a bit- which is not ideal. We just need to be TOGETHER- and that means it is easier and often incumbent upon the single solo pianist to move with the orchestra and the conductor leading the orchestra, rather than expecting 65 musicians to be moved by the conductor and soloist. That being said- most pianists spend hundreds if not thousands of hours practicing some of the most difficult concertos in the repertoire- so our preferences and ingrained habits can be much more difficult to change- therefore, we do need the orchestra to actually listen to us and hear us. But, the orchestra may not respond or even anticipate a conductors baton, as well as the soloist can- due to physical proximity, or limitations of the various instruments, which can also lead to confusion. Nothing can solve these issues and challenges better than sufficient and efficient rehearsal time- the most essential element in bringing it all together for a satisfying and exemplary performance.

 Concertos hold a special place in the symphonic repertoire. Soloists and audiences love them- but orchestra members don't always love playing them. Certainly, for an orchestra musician, performing a symphony would seem much more fun and interesting. But, in the case of the finest piano concerti- the orchestra parts are equal in importance and difficulty for the orchestra- with the only bonus that they get to rest a bit more when the pianist plays lengthy solos. For me, performing Brahms' Piano Concerti, or any piano concerti for that matter- must certainly be considered as a passion and highpoint of my concert career. 

So, it is my sincere wish that entire communities will support and attend the performances of their local orchestras and the soloists who play with them! So much training, rehearsal and energy goes into bringing great music to the concert stage right in your neighborhood!

I hope to see many of my local Chicago friends at my Brahms No.2 performance in Northbrook on Sunday May 5th. Click on this link to purchase tickets if you like:

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