The piano fell off the stage?

When any other musician performs a concerto, the soloist sits or stands near the First Concertmaster and within direct eye view of the conductor and where the podium is only a couple feet away. Why should a piano concerto be any differently?

Hola a todos. Mi amigo/My friend and I watched a piano concerto performance by Marta Argerich recently. (I spell her first name the way it’s pronounced en español. She was born in Buenos Aires. That’s in Argentina for the geographically-stupid people in the US). I pointed out to mi amigo before Marta came on stage that the piano was in the wrong place for a piano concerto. He said, “Yes I see that. Why is it stuck way out there?” Marta was sitting several feet away (towards the audience) from the First Concertmaster rather than directly in front of him.

I have trouble watching performances like that where the piano is mis-positioned. Sometimes I won’t even watch the performance because I find the logistics too annoying, especially if the piano is stuck way out or up on some pedestal because that tells me that this performance is not about the music, but rather about gimmicks and “show-biz.” I’m there for the music and the best musical performance, not theatrics or tacky “show-biz.”

I don’t know why it is, but it seems that for piano concerto performances that the placement of the piano is an afterthought or something. You would think that the proper placement of the piano would be one of the priorities of the conductor to get the best performance. How can the stage crew not have been properly trained where to position the piano? So they roll it out there and put it anywhere and say, “That looks good. It looks centered” It may visually “look good” but it doesn’t make any sense if one’s focus is the music and the best performance rather than it “looking good” in a show-biz sense.

And it’s surprising that more pianos haven’t fallen off or rolled off the stage considering how close to the edge of the stage pianos are placed for a piano concerto. Right on the edge in some performances. I’ve never understood that and it makes no sense musically-speaking. And aren’t most people there for the music rather than for “show-biz” or gimmick? I’m mainly talking about the US here.

Question: For a piano concerto, doesn’t everyone know that the pianist is the soloist? I should think so. If they don’t, I’ve learned that you can’t fix stupid, so don’t bother trying. Therefore, if one wants the best musical performance, position the piano directly beside the conductor, where his jacket can touch the piano.

Ideally and what makes the best sense musically-speaking and for the best performance is to have the piano positioned as follows: If you draw a line across the front of the stage, the string section should be even with that line and the piano should be inside that line as well. The piano should not be outside that line. Therefore, the First and Second Concertmasters are directly behind the pianist. I sometimes refer to this as placing the piano “in” the Orchestra as is often done in the EU where the conductor’s podium is farther in the string section and the piano is right beside the conductor. They are within hand-shaking reach/distance. That’s the way it should be for the best musical performance. Many orchestras in the EU do it correctly. By placing the piano “in” the Orchestra, the pianist is directly beside the conductor so the conductor and pianist can easily communicate with each other throughout the performance. Also, it’s much much easier for the pianist and the Orchestra to hear each other this way, especially in a Concert Hall known for not having the best acoustics.

If I’m not mistaken, I think I remember reading that the members of the National Symphony Orchestra in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall said that they couldn’t hear each other playing. This was before they acoustically-renovated the Concert Hall awhile back.

This is another one of those ill-thought-out traditions in the classical music genre. The traditionalists would likely say, “The piano has to be stuck way out in the lap of the audience. That’s the way we’ve always done it.” So you’ve always done stupid? But it doesn’t make any sense musically speaking, mi amor. As a comparison, for a Piano Quartet or Piano Quintet the other instruments are seated in front of the piano (and not behind the piano) as seen here with the Avalon Quintet:

Image result for piano quintet

For a Piano Quartet/Quintet the piano is not stuck out front like a what-not. Note that the names of those pieces have the word “Piano” first just as in “Piano Concerto” yet with those pieces the piano is in the back of the other instruments even though the name of the piece is a Piano Quartet or Piano Quintet. (I feel like I’m getting rather remedial here, but there so many dense and thick-stupid people out there these days). So why is it that when it becomes a Piano Concerto that some idiots feel they need to stick the piano way out like it’s a special ornament?

The way it should be done and the way many orchestras do it is that before a performance, the stage crew wheels the Steinway & Sons Concert Grand (preferably Hamburg-built) piano to the proper location inside that imaginary line I mentioned earlier that’s drawn across the front of the stage. Then the chairs and desks (music stands) are placed for the string section along that line, so the front of the stage looks very even — and the right side of the piano is inside that line with the border created by the string section — when camera views show a “from ceiling” view. There’s a pathway through the 1st and 2nd violins with white arrows on the floor indicating to the conductor and pianist to walk through the Orchestra to get to the piano and podium from the stage door. It’s quite simple and works beautifully. And the piano stays out there in place the entire performance, so there’s no need for stage crews to come out and move the piano and musicians’ chairs. You could lower the piano lid so that the audience could better see the conductor after the piano concerto performance.

Although ideally, the pianist plays a piano concerto in the first half of the programme, or have two concerti on the same programme. Some piano concert artists like to play the Brahms First and Second on the same programme. They could do that. Or after intermission (if there is an intermission), have the piano and Orchestra play a short piece for piano and Orchestra. Or, here’s an idea: How about performing the rarely performed Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy for Piano, Orchestra and Chorus and bring in a superbly-prepared Symphony Chorus singing with perfect intonation in all voice sections (SATB) and clear diction on stage for the second half. For the Beethoven, the Orchestra and pianist are already there from the first half of the programme. You just need the Symphony Chorus, and use vocal soloists from the Chorus.

A piano did fall off the stage in Deútschland awhile back. For a performance of one of the Brahms’s Piano Concertos, someone who was clearly thinking about something other than the performance being about the music decided the piano should be on a wing stage. That’s just a gimmick. Again, why put the pianist on a wing stage? To “showcase” the pianist? A pianist is perfectly well “showcased” with the piano within inches of the conductor. Because, again, doesn’t everyone know that the pianist is the soloist in a Piano Concerto? Do I need to draw a picture so that the thick people can grasp this? Well, before the performance the wing stage collapsed from the weight of the Steinway Concert Grand. Just think if the pianist had been performing when that happened and if the piano collapsed on the pianist’s legs? A Steinway piano weighs roughly 1,000 pounds (depending upon which one you buy or rent) and since major orchestras use the best pianos, they would be among the heavier pianos. But the performance went on.

Unfortunately, some orchestras stick the piano way out front and away from the Orchestra which, again, makes no sense musically. Some international concert artists don’t like performing in the US because of that. Another reason is that Hamburg-built Steinways are not commonly found in the US. The New York-built Steinway is commonly found in the US. Although I did read awhile back that the two factories — Hamburg and New York — are trying to work more closely with each other, but they didn’t say whether they were going to try to make future pianos more like the Hamburg Steinway or more like the New York Steinway.

But like with many things that the US does that make no logical or rationale sense and too often steeped in outdated traditions, separating the piano from the Orchestra also makes absolutely no sense. If orchestral management feel that the piano should be on the edge of the stage so that people in the audience can see the pianist play, then move the Orchestra to the edge of the stage as well. Is the piano placed on the edge of the stage away from the Orchestra for the benefit of the people in the orchestra seating to see the pianist? The thing with that is that one still has a limited view of the pianist even if one is sitting in the front row of the orchestra seating because some Concert Hall stages are high and one cannot see the top of the keyboard. All you really see is the sides of the keys facing the pianist and the palms of the pianist. Also, over half of the audience — the audience not on the keyboard side — can’t even see the pianist playing to begin with. One wonders why they came to the performance in the first place when they can’t see the pianist play? Or are they the same people who would be quite comfortable sitting at home with a CD of the piece playing in the background while reading a brochure about the luxury carriage trade, Dahling, (or something) instead? This reminds me of the annoying people I see during performances who apparently don’t have the attention span for the performance so they’re sitting there bent over reading the programme, which they could do at home and give their undivided attention to the superb artists on stage, which they apparently take for granted. Did the audience members merely come to the performance “for something to do” and to say they “went to the symphony, Dahling.” (roll eyes) People!

Mi amigo/My friend and I were watching a performance of the Liszt First (Piano Concerto) the other night and he asked me:

Why do camera crews seem obsessed with showing a pianist’s face while s/he is performing rather than focusing on the keyboard?

I told him: I can’t answer that but I, too, find it terribly annoying. I don’t need to see a pianist’s face and the facial contortions made while s/he performs or is engaged in their intense concentration (seeing the score in their head). I don’t need to see the pianist’s limpid eyes or their gazing to the ceiling. What is up there that you find so interesting? Nor do I need to see the quivering lips of the pianist as he or she channels the composer from the grave (or whatever they’re doing), or the sweat rolling down the cheeks. So why on Earth is the camera showing all that rather than the artistry happening on the keyboard? I see enough of a pianist’s face from their profile view. And anyone deliberately choosing to watch the performance of a piano concerto does not have a short attention span so I don’t need frequent camera scene changes to keep my attention which I suspect maybe the reason for quick camera changes.

As a Conservatory-trained pianist (piano major), I want to see the pianist’s keyboard artistry, technique, fingerings. I don’t need to see every mood change on his/her face. Mood changes on an artist’s face was not something that was even talked about at the Conservatory where I trained. I do like it when the cameras show the pianist looking at/working with the Orchestra, so don’t change that aspect. But production seems to say: “Keep the cameras moving to keep the viewer’s attention.” No, the music and performance keeps our attention, not what the cameras are doing.

I remember that Vladimir Horowitz (and yes I know that some people don’t like the mere mention of his name because they didn’t like his playing, but that’s not the point I’m making) said that one would not see him doing any of that stuff that the cameras show when zooming in and parking on the pianist’s face. From what I’ve seen of that generation of pianists — Horowitz’s generation — did not engage in facial theatrics. Artur Rubinstein didn’t. He had a very “quiet” face. As I told mi amigo, I think the reason camera crews park a camera at the cello or viola end of the piano is to “show the feelings that are coming out as the pianist channels the composer and composer’s wishes in a philosophical manner (Dahling).” I also told mi amigo: As well as these artists know the piece they’re playing, they’re probably sick of the piece by now and are struggling just to play it so that it doesn’t sound like they’re playing on automatic pilot. Since they have played the piece hundreds of times, probably. So that too could explain some of their facial expressions, but frankly, I see enough of a pianist’s face from their profile view. Then the camera showed us the First Concertmaster who had a solo in the concerto and mi amigo said: Yet the camera doesn’t park on his face to show us his full emotions as he channels the composer while playing his solo. I said: That’s true. Add that to the double-standards in the classical music tradition, and there are no shortage of double-standards there! Go let me get started on that. That would take up a large chunk of my server space!

There was a video programme produced some years ago called “Concerto!” That was a bad example of gimmick. They even used a fog machine. Yes, the London Symphony Orchestra was sitting there in a “sea of fog.” I guess they thought no one would watch it without using cheap gimmicks. The LSO was sitting in one room and the pianist was stuck way over in another. Damn odd. One of the pianists was Alicia de Larrocha y de la Calle. As I remember from watching that, her back was to the conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas. Ludicrous. How on Earth was she supposed to have any communication with MTT when she couldn’t even see him.

One of my favourite orchestras (the hr-S) does it correctly, as you’ll see in this splendid performance of the Tschaikowsky Piano Concerto No. 2 (don’t miss 48.16 in the video where the conductor and pianist closely look at each other as if to say, “Are you ready?” I always laughed when I see those two:

From what I’ve seen, the San Francisco Symphony places the piano correctly “in” the Orchestra for concerto performances. It looks like the same is true for the Kennedy Center’s National Symphony Orchestra in the District of Columbia. From images I’ve seen, it looks like the Boston Symphony Orchestra does not place the piano “in” the Orchestra.

Most of the orchestras I’ve seen in the EU use the placement of the piano that is the most musically-intelligent, meaning where the pianist and Orchestra and conductors are all partners in the performances and not separated.

I’ve never understood why it’s done any other way, other than as a gimmick. In the dis-United States, I think they still stick the piano way out as if people are too stupid to know that the pianist is the soloist and where the piano looks like it could roll off the stage if the wheels are not locked or turned properly. They don’t put the piano “in” the Orchestra at the BBC Proms. They seem to feel the need to copy anything the stupid-is-in US does.

Some concert pianists ask the conductor if they could move the piano “in” and they explain the reason for that (that the placement of the piano has a bearing on the pianist’s playing and how well s/he can or cannot hear the Orchestra). Some conductors are very accommodating, while others are difficult about it, which really makes no sense whatsoever. Why wouldn’t a conductor want to be right beside — within touching distance — of the piano soloist so that they have close communications to get the best performance? But some conductors are on a power trip and want to make it all about themselves rather than the piano soloist and Orchestra.

I find it a tacky gimmick to stick the piano way out nearly in the lap of the audience and, again, it makes it quite difficult for the pianist and Orchestra to hear each other well. In that case, is the performance about music — which is what it should be about — or about gimmick, “show,” and theatrics? Especially when you have a pianist who enjoys gazing at the ceiling with quivering lips and needless theatric contortions giving the impression that “it’s the most difficult piece I’ve ever played.” The problem with that is that well-trained pianists are trained to make it look easy and effortless, regardless of how difficult the piece is to play.

Which reminds me of the piano students who came to me after seeing some piano concert artist play. Because the pianist made it look easy and effortless, these students who had never studied piano before thought they would be playing the same piece (very advanced level) in a week or so, or in some cases, just because they were sitting down with me on the piano bench. They really thought that. None of them were child prodigies. I didn’t tell them any differently. I just proceeded with the beginning level training. Some came to class for a few weeks but were not dedicated. They were usually late each time or had not studied what I had assigned them. They had various excuses. It was as if they thought I could give them a pill to take that would make them immediately proficient in the piano concerto of their choice without them going through the years of intense training. When they realised it would take years to reach that level of advanced playing, they quit. Just trying to learn to read music was enough to cause them to quit. I kept hearing, “This is really hard.” Well yes, music is the international language and it is like learning a new language, and any new language can be difficult. For some others, it comes more easily. But these students mostly came to me with this instant gratification mindset — too often found in the US — of “I want it now.” Well, you can “want it now,” but it ain’t going to happen now, mi amor. Music training doesn’t work that way. Chau.—el barrio rosa

Related: When I was teaching piano