THE PIANIST MAR TIN Katz remembers a particularly stinging comment at a dress rehearsal
several years ago. Hours before the start of a
twelve-concert tour, a violinist whom he was
accompanying stopped to berate Katz for his
interpretation. “You just play. I’ll handle the
expression,” the violinist said.
“I played the first concert and cancelled
the other eleven,” said Katz. “And that
was it. I never heard from him again and
he never heard from me. That was so
demeaning to me.”
Katz, who has worked with everyone
from Marilyn Horne and Cecilia Bartoli
to José Carreras and Frederica von Stade,
admits that there are divas in every profession
and says he’s rarely the recipient of overt
condescension. But the episode underscores
a hard-to-shake notion that accompanists
toil at the low end of the musical totem pole,
underappreciated, underpaid and lurking
in the shadows while soloists bask in the
adulation of their fans.
Katz’s experience isn’t unique. “You’re
playing too loud” is a common complaint, say
accompanists. Some have been asked to tone
down their attire because they’re upstaging a
singer. Others have seen their names relegated
to small typeface on programs and advertisements, somewhere beneath the boldfaced star.
But the tables are turning. More than
a hundred colleges and conservatories
worldwide offer training programs in
accompanying, according to a recent tally by
the Collaborative Piano Blog, a website that
covers the field. Typically, these programs
are offered at a graduate level, for pianists
uninterested in a full-blown solo career.
A growing number of song competi-
tions — including the Wigmore Hall Song
Competition and the Montreal International
Musical Competition — have added prizes for
accompanists or duos. In November,
the inaugural Art of Duo competition in
Boulder, Colorado, attracted twenty-four
semifinalists, including violin–piano and
clarinet–piano teams. And superstar pianists
including Yuja Wang, Lang Lang and Leif Ove
Andsnes frequently tour as duo partners to
singers or violinists.
Above all, accompanists are commanding
respect in a field that values the hustle,
learning several languages and being able to
sight-read on a moment’s notice.
“The pianist, I feel, has to be the rock,”
said Brian Zeger, a collaborative pianist and
the artistic director of vocal arts at Juilliard.
“You have to be ready for anything — a
singer’s personal health, their level of fatigue,
their level of concentration. The pianist is
responsible, in some cases, to be a kind of
gentle prompter,” especially when a singer is
performing from memory.
The accompanist must also be able to
transpose a song into several keys, and
know where, and for how long, a singer
needs to breathe.
“I’ve never performed anything that I can’t
sing and play simultaneously,” said Katz, who
requires the same skill from his accompanying
students at the University of Michigan. “Some
students hate it, some of them adore it. I
don’t know how else I can make sure I know
that piece inside and out, every nook and
cranny.” Because a portion of collaborative
piano students are from Asia, they must not
only adapt to English but also learn art song
languages of French, German and Italian.
Besides technical skills, great accompanists
possess a kind of sixth sense when it comes to
anticipating collaborators’ on-stage tendencies. Katz remembers rescuing a famous
soprano who became lost in a Strauss song.
“The song is about 41 bars long,” he said.
“She skipped from the third bar to the 38th
bar. Those two places kind of sound alike.”
REVENGE OF THE
The accompanist as equal partner
BY BRIAN WISE
MUSIC + LIFE