Friday, March 27, 2009

Keystrokes with the Maestro

About a month ago, we HGO Studio pianists received some exciting and slightly scary news. We were going to get three conducting coachings with HGO Music Director Patrick Summers. We had only a few weeks to come in ready to conduct, play, and sing through Acts II and III of Rigoletto. It was an enormous amount of music to learn amidst other major projects, such as learning an entirely new opera, Previn’s Brief Encounter. But there was no question it would be worth it and somehow we crammed it all in. We used every bit of extra free time we could manage to be prepared for the Maestro—I know I managed to amuse some kids in the Boston airport, waving my pencil at an imaginary orchestra. Hours before our first sessions, we were still at it, pounding and caterwauling Rigoletto simultaneously from three practice rooms. After getting together to do a little preliminary conducting of each other, we went off to meet the Maestro.
It was no surprise that the sessions were great. We covered many topics such as “to subdivide or not to subdivide”, how much rubato (a fluctuation of tempo within a musical phrase often against a rhythmically steady accompaniment) can one use and where, and Verdi’s frequently ignored metronome markings. We also explored the crucial issue of exactly what our ear should focus on while conducting. For instance, at the beginning of Rigoletto’s “Cortigiani” our impulse was to listen to the fast and furious violin lines, and to shape them through our conducting. Yet when the Maestro urged us to turn our ear and baton to the sparse bass line, the piece opened up, breathed, and even became easier to play.
Now that we are in rehearsals for Brief Encounter, which Maestro Summers is also conducting, I feel that the lessons continue. As I respond as a player to his beat, I’m also analyzing it in light of all that we discussed during our Rigoletto sessions. It’s inspiring. Every beat has a clarity that not only indicates “make sound here” but what the quality of that sound should be.
That these continuing “lessons” are part of my daily work at the opera make me feel very fortunate to be a part of one of the best professional arts organizations around.