From a Pianist’s Working Diary

Beth Levin

[November 2009.]

Emily Howard comes tomorrow to rehearse her recital: Schumann, Brahms and Frank E. Warren. (The E. remains a mystery.)

I have read through Liederkreis, Brahms’ songs for alto and viola, and Frank’s song cycle, but only fleetingly. Mostly I’ve been working on the Diabelli Variations. The music demands a cult-like allegiance. One doesn’t dabble in the Diabellis. One pays serious homage.

Our chamber ensemble, Vista Lirica, gave a program at Noble Art Pianos in Easton, PA over the weekend, another consuming project. Pleasurable, of course! We prepared Brahms, Zemlinsky, Simic, Khachaturian and Schubert for a Sunday afternoon performance in a lovely Victorian home.

The Schubert Notturno worried me. I had never played it before. What looks like a simple ten pages or so is in fact a minefield of moments requiring the ineffable tenderness only Schubert can invoke. The Brahms trio has been rehearsed and performed over the course of several years. The Khachaturian, while newer to us, was accessible, earthy, and frolicsome. Its rhythmic dynamism sweeps one along. All well and good, but in our pre-concert warm-up the Schubert revealed some insecure patches. Not a good omen.

Rehearsing and performing are different animals. Confidence comes easy in a warm living room, coffee and snacks on the table, humor abounding. Details are discussed, tried and retried. One can play a movement several times and reach a keen synchronicity with one’s colleagues. By the fifth try, subtleties emanate from your instrument, expression freely flowing. You and the score are one.

And then you reach the hall. Everything is a little bit wrong. The sound of the violin and the cello, so transparent before, is not the same. Furrowed brows replace smiles. The piano has become a stranger with whom you must strike up a quick friendship. Your relationship to the other instruments, once so intimate, acquires a chill in this foreign place.

In performance things happen. One must be open to changes, to a succession of moments so different from what we developed in rehearsal. Don’t get me wrong, I love them. In the Schubert, the music took off — a nuance here, more rubato there, an extreme pianissimo. An audience member’s sigh summarized the effect.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be elbow-deep in the vocal repertoire. Perhaps Emily won’t notice that I’ll practically be sight-reading.


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