Ravel: Concerto pour piano en sol majeur (Ingo Metzmacher/Francesco Piemontesi)

Hola a todos. Ravel Piano Concerto in G with pianist Francesco Piemontesi and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. The Ravel Piano Concerto in G is one of my favourites. It’s Maurice Ravel’s heavily jazz-influenced piano concerto for both hands, and not his other piano concerto for the left hand only. For those who don’t know the piece — I won’t spoil it for you so all I’ll say is that — the second movement is nothing like the first and third movements. The concerto is relatively short by piano concerto standards. It’s about 30 minutes. (The Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is approximately 40-50 minutes long). In the second movement of the Ravel, after the initial solo passage by the piano, the pianist takes the role of accompanist and accompanies the Orchestra, particularly the principal oboist who has a rather lengthy solo. In this performance from Paris, the second chair oboist nods, smiles and gives her approval to the principal oboist’s solo. Was the second chair oboists thinking, “That’s my solo you’re playing?” thinking that she should be principal?

Which brought up this topic and a brief detour: Mi amigo/my friend asked me about possible friction/jealousy between players/musicians in orchestras and choral ensembles, and does that exist? Well yes, it can exist. It depends upon the personalities. I’ve read comments about it in orchestras, but I sense that with the major symphony orchestras that they’re more mature about it. I have on the odd occasion seen a string musician give a questioning look to his desk partner as to say, “What did you just play?” In a performance of the Brahms’s First PC from Paris, the violas had the melody at one point and I saw the principal violist glance over at the second chair and smile. Then the second chair smiled back and they both covertly started laughing. I take it that the second chair had made a mistake with a note or two and the principal heard it, but no one else did. They seemed like they were good friends so they were nice about the mistake. And musicians audition for a particular chair/opening and its the conductor who selects them, so if anyone has any resentment or jealousy it seems to me that it should be directed at the conductor. Of course there’s some politics involved in it since there’s politics of some sort in nearly everything I can think of. But from what I’ve seen in performances from the major ensembles particularly in the EU, most musicians warmly support each other. That can be seen during the bows. I’ve especially seen that with the hr-Sinfonieorchester (Frankfurt Radio Symphony) when the conductor asks each section to take a bow and the humble and modest musicians in one section motion to give the attention to their fellow musicians and have them stand rather than taking all the credit. Mi amigo then asked me about friction between choristers and my experience in Orchestra Choruses. I wasn’t aware of any friction — in a musical sense — between choristers in the three Orchestra Choruses I was in. We all went through the same audition to get in the Chorus, so it’s not like there was someone in the Chorus who shouldn’t have been there. We were all selected by the Chorus Director. So if someone had a problem with a chorister (musically-speaking; not personality-wise), they could go ask the Chorus Director how he happened to choose that chorister, but that never happened to my knowledge. Everyone seemed to get along well in that regard. There may have been some resentment between some choristers who served as soloists and why the Chorus Director didn’t choose someone else, but again, that had to do with the Chorus Director and not another chorister. And to serve as a chorister-soloist one had to go through a special audition to be soloist. All the musicians I worked with were very mature and I wasn’t left with the “I never want to be in another Orchestra Chorus (or Orchestra) again” way of thinking. That thinking seems extreme and trite to me as if all orchestras are the same, which they’re not. Even if one had a bad experience with one ensemble, the intelligent person doesn’t let that bad experience tarnish all other ensembles as if they’re all the same. Now I did have burn-out after awhile due to the busy performance schedule which I’ve written about before, in part, because I came to realise that it was only the Chorus Director that got any respect, and not the choristers. I never saw anyone from the audience run over to any chorister in the hall or lobby of the Kennedy Center or Davies Symphony Hall and tell them how much they enjoyed the Chorus. No one ever said a word to me and everyone knew who the choristers were by the way we were dressed in our concert attire. Although most of the audience wouldn’t know who the Chorus Director was either except when he took his bows and had the Chorus stand. Now I should say that whenever the Chorus stood to take our bows there was this loud roar of approval from the audience thanking the Chorus, which we all really appreciated. And there was an especially loud roar from the audience whenever the superb University of Maryland Chorus bowed (we rehearsed our synchronised bow) and that was very impressive for the audience to see — seeing a Chorus of 150 voices bowing all at one time — which no other Orchestra Chorus did. But aside from the loud applause during our bow in both the Kennedy Center and San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, my perception from the audience was that the Chorus was seen as “they’re just the Chorus” which I came to resent considering the tremendous amount of work and weeks of preparation — that most of the audience probably had no concept or understanding of — we put into our performances.

I enjoyed this performance from Paris. The pianist, Francesco Piemontesi and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France are splendid. And this performance is extremely well recorded and the camera work was good. When the performance began, I asked: Are they going to show the glissandi in the piano at the beginning? Some camera crews only half-way or barely show that which I find very annoying. But this camera crew showed the glissandi from two angles: From above and from Francesco’s left side. And listen closely to the treble and bass registers of the Hamburg Steinway Model D. It’s a beautiful piano, and Steinway is now making them available with a matte-finish lid for studio lighting as used in some Concert Halls in the EU. Some Concert Hall stages are essentially recording studios.

Although with the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s great concern as to whether Orchestras and Choruses will perform again. Some orchestral musicians have said they are concerned that this is the end of their career. I read that the Nashville Symphony Orchestra has cancelled their 2020-21 season. One orchestral musician not connected with Nashville said that string musicians can wear facial masks and are already sorta social-distanced, but wind and brass musicians can’t wear facial masks and their situation would be more like choristers. The virus is spread through singing. In the US, due to absolute incompetence and denial of the medical sciences, the orange thug and international bully in the white house is taking a failed herd-immunity approach for the nation. These people are absolutely basura and they all have the attitude of a thug.

I’ve heard/seen this Orchestra a couple of times before and always enjoy them. This performance of the Ravel is conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. Francesco performed awhile back with the hr-S (Frankfurt) where he played the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2.

And I think a little music education in order, which speaks to the lack of music education in the US public schools in particular: A piano concerto is not “a song.” No one sings in a piano concerto. It’s a work for piano and orchestra. Someone may be asking, “Then what should I call it.” Answer: Call it the name of the piece: A piano concerto. A song is sung, usually by one person or sometimes in a duet (two voices). I point this out because too often in U-toob comments, the musically-ignorant refer any piece of music as “a song” when they’re really a piano concerto, a (Beethoven) symphony, or a symphonic choral work.

With this performance, I couldn’t help but notice the audience in the orchestra seating. What is it about this audience? Most of them with stone-cold facial expressions, minus the woman on the — is that the second row back? — who seems to find the piece funny (what’s funny about it?) as she talks during the performance (another one of those!) to the guy with her. She, too, is ignorant of Concert Hall etiquette which says one brings a pen with one and write anything you’d like to say to the person you came to the performance with in the margins of the programme for them to read. This is called being considerate of others — I know that’s not fashionable these days; rude and obnoxious seems to be fashionable these days especially in the US — and no one is disturbed using the pen and paper method. This woman in camera view shakes her head as if disgusted, puts her hand over her mouth between the first and second movement as if she’s about to laugh. Who knows what’s going on with her and in her head! Where did these people come from? Then there’s the female sitting in the front row directly below the pianist. According to the camera, she never looked at the pianist or the stage once during the performance. I just find it odd that one would buy a front row seat immediately below the pianist (within a foot of touching him) and constantly look down at the floor. Then there was the guy who was sleeping on the front row with his head tilted towards the right next to the guy sitting behind him.

But upon reflection, during the bows and looking at the audience, I think most of the front row were young students who came to the performance, and it’s good that they were there to hear a superb classical music performance. Although, again — yes, I’m repeating myself because it feels worth repeating — the girl sitting right across from Francesco never looked at him the entire time that I saw. She was looking down the entire time. Mi amigo/My friend asked: Is she on her phone or something. How odd to have a front row seat sitting right next to the pianist and First Concertmaster and never (or rarely) look up.

A commenter remarked about how close the piano was to the audience. Yes, I noticed that too. It was too close for comfort/safety, in my opinion. And I’m not one who is obsessed with “safe” and “safety” these days the way many others seem to be. The stage in the hall looks about 12″ high and the first row is right at the stage. There was nothing stopping some nut from walking up on the stage and messing with the pianist or other musicians, and there are nuts like that out there. I was once at a local performance in a church and two women walked by the piano during the middle of the performance drinking out of cups as if they thought they were at a picnic. They were oblivious that a performance was taking place, so the pianist had to hold his concentration and continue playing while two women stared at him next to him. After a few moments, they slowly walked away.

Mi amigo/My friend commented on how fast Francesco played parts of the first movement. He was referring to the passages that require repeated-type notes, ideally played on a Hamburg Steinway & Sons’s Model D, which I suspect is what Francesco was playing, and they’re used throughout the EU. Mi amigo said: You wouldn’t play this piece on a spinet. I said: Well no, I don’t think you could. The action on a spinet would not allow for fast repeated notes like in the Ravel. He asked: It does have a damper pedal doesn’t it? Well yes, all pianos — even the most podunk pianos — have a damper pedal. It may be stuck in the down position lying on the floor and useless, but there is one there!

The first thing I looked for with a piano concerto is “where is the piano placed? Do they have it correct? Is it ‘inside’ the Orchestra or wrongly stuck way out from the Orchestra making it difficult for the pianist and Orchestra to hear each other. In this case, it was okay, but it could have been better. The piano could have still been moved in about 2 feet towards the podium. The piano was placed much too close to the edge of the stage and the front wheel of the piano was positioned so that it would roll off the stage. I noticed that the right front wheel was positioned (was it locked?) so that it would roll sort of back and towards the audience. The piano could be farther in a bit so that the First Concertmaster is sitting directly behind the pianist, rather than to his left. But it mostly forms that invisible line across the front of the stage where the right side of the piano is within that line. Someone in the comments did remark about the piano being so close to the audience. Yes, it looks like it could easily roll of the stage if the wheels are not locked. Why is the piano so close to the audience? If I were the pianist, I would feel that comfortable being so close to the audience, although Francesco didn’t seem to be aware that they were even there. Also, in this concerto where the pianist accompanies the oboist in the second movement, that makes the placement of the piano — “inside” the Orchestra — even more critical because the pianist has to hear the oboist, as opposed to being far away from the oboist where the pianist can hardly hear the instrument he’s accompanying.

It has become obvious to me from watching performances of piano concerti that some stage crews have no training on the placement of the piano for a piano concerto. They don’t even have the wheels positioned correctly. And having helped move a few Steinway & Sons pianos at the Conservatory where I trained, they are difficult to move using the piano’s wheels. I remember that — because of the piano’s weight — it felt like the piano’s wheels were digging into the wood of the stage. A Steinway Model D (which is used throughout the EU) weighs approximately 449 kilograms/990 pounds. Sometimes the piano will be put on a 3-wheel dolly that has large easily-moveable wheels. But the problem with that is the height of the dolly itself raises the level of the keyboard and the pedals too high so the pianist has to try to quickly adjust to this height difference and that can be difficult for the pianist. Also, the dolly’s roughly 4″ wheels — whereas a Steinway’s wheels are about 1.75″ in size — move very easily especially on a varnished stage floor (carpet and soft wood is hard to move small wheels on), so the dolly’s wheels most assuredly have to be locked because the piano can start rolling some direction in that situation.

As for the correct placement of the piano for a piano concerto to achieve the finest musical performance, at the Conservatory where I trained there was a map for the stage crew on the back stage wall showing that invisible line at the front of the stage where the string section and the right side of the piano were all supposed to be within that invisible line. The piano was not supposed to be stuck outside that invisible line. In other words, the piano was placed “inside” the Orchestra along with the podium so that the pianist and conductor were side-by-side — to have close communication throughout the performance — and within handshaking distance. The First and Second Concertmasters were seated directly behind the pianist. That’s the way it’s supposed to be done for the best performance. Anyone who does it differently than that — particularly where they isolate the pianist or put the piano on some “wing stage” or practically in another room far from the Orchestra — is more about tacky gimmicks and “show biz” and “theatrics” rather than the best musical performance. In the video image below, you can see that the First Concertmaster is slightly to Francesco’s left. That’s okay, but he could still be in a couple of feet more ideally. Concert pianist Cristina Ortiz — I’ve always enjoyed her superb playing — has had a few rounds with conductors in this regard. She asks some conductors if they could move the piano more “inside” the Orchestra — insipid stage crew again? — as the placement of the piano has a bearing on her playing. Understandably so. She said that some conductors are quite accommodating, where others are not.

This performance — with its Hamburg Steinway — superb pianist, Orchestra and conductor, and the way it was recorded is one of the finest I’ve seen. Chau.—el barrio rosa