Young classical pianists who start to dream about a career performing music in public usually imagine themselves playing inspired programs of powerful Beethoven sonatas, intricate preludes and fugues by Bach, or spikey suites by Debussy, Bartok, or Vivaldi. Very few imagine a career as an accompanist. Yet, if they want to make a living...
The reality is that The World needs only so many solo piano recitalists, yet every featured singer, string or wind recitalist needs the on-stage company of a keyboard player. (When did you last hear a recital consisting only of music for a single violinist or flutist or tubaist? How about a solo singer?) No matter how skilled, no matter how artistic, no matter how unique, the solo performer benefits from the harmonic, rhythmic and contrapuntal accompaniment of a piano (or organ or harp). Can you imagine Schubert’s Die Erlkonig without the desperately galloping piano? Won’t work. Simply won’t work.
In the paragraph above, the word ‘featured’ identifies the biggest snag for the pianist. His/her part contains more actual notes, sets the defining harmony, and is usually technically as difficult as, or more so, than the music for the featured “soloist”. So where is the glory in that for the accompanist? The answer to that question is found at the end of the first paragraph: ‘...if they want to make a living...’ Yes, every “soloist” needs an accompanist, so the job opportunities multiply rapidly for the skilled pianist who also likes to eat. Thus it is that a Gerald Moore, an Amy Wang, a Barbara Roth-Donaldson, or a Lee Dougherty-Ross is on stage far more frequently as a collaborator than as a solo performer. Their skills as an accompanist are as great or greater, but they rarely wear the red dress or the spangles, or get the lion’s share of the applause.
The program for the Sarasota Music Club’s January meeting was typical. A fine flutist, an equally fine pianist. Professionally they are listed as the Lyric Duo, a duet of equals, both faculty members of the well-respected Ohio University Music School. But in the promo photo, which one wears the red dress, and which one stands, half-hidden, to the back? You got it. Well, it has been this way for a long time and my ranting about it isn’t going to change the musical world. But, I implore you, next time you hear a so-called “solo recital,” pay attention to the very skilled, self-effacing person at the piano. In my book, they are often the real star.
The Lyric Duo, Alison Sincoff and Gail Berenson, gave a varied and interesting program. The familiar music of Bach and Poulenc were carefully played, expressive and satisfying. The unfamiliar pieces, Ian Clarke’s Hypnosis (1995), and Daniel Kelley’s Passage (1995) were also satisfying. The Kelley piece is for piccolo and piano. Not often employed as a solo instrument due to its extreme range, the piccolo proved quite listenable in Ms. Sincoff’s hands. She promised no “ear distress,” and only a few people near me plugged their ears as the small flute soared into the range two octaves above the treble staff. Of special interest to me (a sometime flute/piccolo player) was that the piccolo did not veer sharp, as piccolos so often do. Ms. Sincoff’s flute-playing, on the other hand, was consistently a little sharp to the piano. I found this strange, because it is so often the reverse that is true – that we flutists play the larger instrument in tune and the smaller one sharp. Violinists do the same thing; they play nicely in tune in the bottom two octaves of their range, and then progressively sharper as they ascend in range. Piano technicians, as they tune a piano, will likewise roll the top two octaves slightly higher in pitch, relative to the rest of the piano, which somehow makes the piano sound better "in tune."
Ms. Sincoff’s introductory remarks about the individual pieces were excellent, not condescending as they so easily can be when one is addressing an unfamiliar audience. She is a scholar, and she knows well the history of the flute and its repertoire. She spoke briefly of her flute, a top-quality contemporary model from the Brannen Brothers shop in Boston, which has a beautiful body of 10karat rose gold, with keywork of silver. Why silver, you ask? It has a slight “grainy-ness” to the touch that helps keep sweaty fingers from slipping. A little on-site security, if you please.
Ms. Berenson is now retired from Ohio University, and has made her home in Sarasota. Ms. Sincoff remains in Athens, but promises to return, finding our (terrible, awful, no good) temperatures of circa 50 degrees Fahrenheit preferable to Ohio’s below-zero clime. Smart lady.