My younger brother is a drummer. Despite that fact, he’s actually a good musician who’s had a notable career mostly in the jazz/pop world. Barely into his 20s, one of his first gigs was in a trio with the pianist Michel Camilo. Years ago they played at a prominent festival in Japan a few days after Miles Davis had been there with his band (this would’ve been late 80s or so), and people were still talking about the concert, but not so much because of the playing.
As the story goes, Mr. Davis had a contract rider that called for 150 hand towels onstage for he and the musicians to use during the show. At this particular location (evidently fairly remote), they could only find about 75 towels. And Miles Davis decided he wouldn’t play until they found the rest. So all these Japanese roadies ran around looking for hand towels until they found an acceptable number (Japanese presenters are not known for their inefficiency), and the band finally went on. I thought of this story last week when working with a piano soloist who distinguished himself for various reasons other than his playing. I’ll just call him The Soloist, which seems appropriate.
Our program included a re-orchestration of the Chopin e minor piano concerto by the composer Paul Chihara. It is purely a re-orchestration, not an alteration of the solo part in any way. In my view Mr. Chihara’s revisions are a vast improvement, and address what some perceive to be inherent problems with the original version. Of course there are varying opinions regarding Chopin’s abilities as a symphonist/orchestrator, and there is certainly room for debate. This version was premiered by the MSO several years ago with William Wolfram, and subsequently performed numerous times with many pianists, including multiple concerts by Garrick Ohlsson with both the MSO and Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (the latter both on tour and at at Carnegie Hall).
For whatever reasons, The Soloist was not informed that we would be doing Mr. Chihara’s orchestration instead of Mr. Chopin’s. It now seems highly probable that his management simply failed to tell him before he arrived. We had a rehearsal that started at 2 pm; by 2:10 The Soloist had enough and decided to ascend the podium and state the following to the orchestra (actual quotes):
“I have an announcement to make. I was hired to play the Chopin Concerto, as per my contract. Not this, which is not Chopin, and has wrong notes, wrong instruments, and many other wrong things, and this is totally unacceptable. The orchestra is welcome to hire another pianist, but it would cost a great deal of money since they would have to pay me as well either way. So you have some decisions to make.”
This was odd for many reasons. First, the orchestra musicians had no say or influence regarding which version would ultimately be performed; with rare exceptions, we basically play what we are told to, so it was unclear why he was bleating to us at this particular juncture. Second, during this diatribe Mr. Chihara was sitting about 25 feet away, having flown in to observe the rehearsals and concerts (at his own expense). Third, this was an open rehearsal, with several hundred invited donors in attendance. As those perplexed donors looked on, we took a break and found the librarian along with some senior staff to try and figure it out. Our (very patient) guest conductor stood by. Eventually it was agreed Chopin’s version would be performed, with The Soloist as the soloist.
But really, the whole atmosphere was sort of poisoned by this time. Honestly, I just couldn’t figure it out- why alienate the orchestra, the donors, and the management by channeling Kathleen Battle in the face of such a manageable issue? In Japan they eventually found more towels; we could certainly play the other version. What exactly was the big problem, and why it was so overwhelming to the artist in each case that a sensible solution was not even conceivable?
The Soloist is a fine musician, and played both Friday and Saturday nights to much audience response, despite largely ignoring the orchestra and the guest conductor both artistically and literally (including walking offstage alone while the conductor had the orchestra stand for a bow).
In my experience this sort of behavior is increasingly rare, for reasons probably obvious to everyone but The Soloist (and maybe The Manager). For starters, a news flash: there are lots of great pianists out there who are actually very pleasant to work with. Yet here’s another incident in which an artist was immortalized by his behavior rather than his performance, and that’s unfortunate.
Maybe Ms. Battle needs a pianist?
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