Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.
- Oscar Wilde
FOR FOUR days last week, at Penn State University, I enjoyed the rare privilege of being one of the two pianists among 76 string players. We were participants in the fifth amateur chamber music workshop conducted by the Alard String Quartet, which is in residence at Penn State.
An admissions strategy was planned months ago. Back in March, Phil Lesser, first violinist in a quartet with whom I am occasionally allowed to play, said: "If we apply now, I think we can get you in. Rufus [Rufus Smith, the quartet's cellist] and I have been going to Penn State for several years, and we'll put in a good word for you. We may just be able to manage it."
"I see," I said, feeling like an Ellis Island immigrant without papers.
"Well, you understand," said Phil. "It's really for quartets."
"So what's new?" How many paces behind the quartet must I walk?"
"Now, now," scolded Phil.
"We pianists are used to it. We know our place," I said, with some bitterness.
The exchange was typical of what any pianist who aspires to play chamber music must endure. For chamber music, as Phil rightly pointed out, means the string quartet and all else is secondary. Who needs a pianist when he has the Beethoven string quartets?
Literature apart, pianist also are shunned as notoriously bad sight readers. Traditional piano teaching methods encourage stopping at a mistake and going back to repeat the passage correctly, a practice deadly for chamber music. Fortunately, I was cured of the habit by a Scot named George Hay, a fine orthopedic surgeon and generous amateur cellist who introduced me to much of the chamber repertoire during a four-year stay in Scotland.
After a few chamber-music sessions, George took me aside and, with the solemnity of Newton expounding on fall of the apple offered the following wisdom in his gently rasping Scottish brogue: "Joanne, if you're going to play with others, there is one fundamental truth you must understand. When you come to a difficult spot, and you can either come in on time with something or a few beats late with the right notes, there is only once choice to make. Most pianists never understood this principle." It was the best piece of musical advice I ever received.
Balance problems are inevitable, since the piano can so easily over-whelm the strings. The pianist must remember to play at about half strength. Even the most careful pianist will find, however, that he is often made the scapegoat. A comment like, "I'm sorry I flubbed there, but I couldn't hear you over the piano," never fails to evoke clucks of compassion from the other string players.
My first experiences at Penn State were not entirely encouraging. All the participants were given name tags with the crucial data of name, home-town and instrument. "You only play the piano?" asked one man, incredulously. Others, after looking at my tag, moved hastily past without a word.
After my first evening of free-lancing, a term used to cover pick-up chamber groups, I was inflated to the point of incoherence when the cellist asked me if I was on the faculty. Then I realized my possession of a key to the room had inspired the question.
Since pianists could not take their instruments around from room to room, we were each supplied with out own studio, a Steinway and our own key. It was the only favored treatment I have ever received as a chamber-music-playing pianist.
The workshop, which ran from June 7 through the morning of June 10, took over most of the space in the modern, air-conditioned music building at Penn State. For four days, doctor, lawyer, chemist, secretary, meteorologist, farmer, nun and other equally diverse people, ranging in age from 20 to 70, squeezed into tiny practice rooms or spread out on the recital hall stage and in classrooms to play and be coached by members of the Alard Quartet.
Each day included an hour's group session with the Alard Quartet, which would discuss and play one of the quartets designated for study during the workshop. Then there were two-and three-hour sessions in small, assigned groups. Evenings were devoted to free-lancing, a chamber music free-for-all in which people were able to realize their fondest playing dreams by calling upon the large pool of players at hand.
As with most people there, my anxiety stopped when the playing started. I learned that even string players experienced self doubt.
"When I first came two years ago I was petrified," Margaret Kovle, a violinist from State College, told me after we had played together one morning. "Then I realized this fear is something everybody has to work through. I know that sometimes people may expect more of me than I can give and they may get upset but I feel now that's more their problem to deal with than mine."
And string players, like pianists, have their pet peeves. "If you play something that turns out really well, there's always someone who comes up and says, 'Gee, that's a great fiddle,'" said violinist David Coren. He threw up his hands in exasperation. "Great fiddle?"
One of my most gratifying moments came after reading through a Mozart piano quartet. I was musing to myself about the notes missed when the violist said: "You know, I could come over and kiss you for not stopping every time you make a mistake. There's none of this fussing around with the pianist. We can go ahead and play."
Curious praise for a pianist, but it was music to the ears of this aspirant ensemble player. I felt as if I had passed an unwritten test. Maybe I did because more people came to play the piano chamber-music literature than there was time for during the four days.
With violinist David Coren, I experienced the special joy of introducing a young cellist to the beauties of Schubert's B-Flat Piano Trio. During an evening's free-lancing, four of us shared the exhileration of getting through Brahms' ravishing G Minor Piano Quartet, including its Fiendish Zingarese finale, a presto piece of Hungarian madness. There may have been more madness than presto in our performance, but the sense of achievement was no less real.
As the days of non-stop playing went on, the good-natured teasing that takes place when musicians feel comfortable with one another began to emerge.
"You're a sensitive player," said a violist, adding after a perfectly timed pause, "for a pianist."
Confronted one evening by a Dvorak piano quartet with two movements in six flats, the string players groaned and shouted, "Unplayable!"
"Great! Let's do it then," I replied, adding, "This work is subtitled, 'The Pianist's Revenge.'"
And the magic happened. Five strangers playing the Dvorak piano quintet together for the first time suddenly, somewhere in the second movement, began to respond as one to the flow of the music. The communnication was unmistakeable and intense, beyong the limitations of time or words.
It is the possibility of penetrating that mystery that keeps all chamber musicians, regardless of ability, struggling to break the code embedded in those little black notes.
Even pianists. CAPTION: Picture 1, For the pianist, the anxiety stopped when the playing started. By Dave Shelly; Picture 2, Donald Hopkins of the Alard Quartet coaching participants. By Dave Shelly