Monday, July 26, 2010

You're Cutting How Many Bars?

Earlier today, East Hampton-based pianist and teacher Ellen Johansen sent along a hilarious story about playing a concert for cantors and choir. I too play in a reform synagogue (although only for High Holy Days), and can attest to the high level of sight reading, score reading, chart reading, and transposition that is required. What remains so fascinating for me as a non-Jewish pianist working in this setting is not just learning the music, figuring out the order and style of the service, nor for that matter remembering to read the machzorim (prayer books) from back to front, but the experience of learning a living tradition that goes back thousands of years.

Here is Ellen's letter in its entirety, reprinted with her kind permission:
Dear Chris,
I have been reading your blog for a few months now and I remember you were sharing stories about accompanying experiences that no one would want. I just finished one in this category and it has many elements of horror! I was hired to accompany a landmark event. This concert would be a cantorial concert including an orthodox male choir, an orthodox male cantor and, never ever had this happened before, a female reformed cantor, who is my regular cantor. It is taboo for the orthodox to hear her sing, let alone share a piece with her. So I was the unwitting accompanist for this event.
A month before the concert, my Cantor was emailing the conductor asking for their music, but the emails were not being acknowledged Day after day we received no music until one week before the concert. Then it came in drips and drabs, some faxed (I call this dirty music) and some pdfs (they were not much better - most cantorial music is barely written out and the piano is more of a concept, but that's another story.) I was planning to use my airturn and Music Reader so as the music came in I would add them to my Music Reader playlist. I often had to rewrite the piano parts (and figure out the music in the haze of fax world) using my PrintMusic program. Adding the Hebrew lyrics was taking too much time and I was told it not to spend the time because often the words for the prayer do not quite fit the rhythm of the part so the music is altered to make the words fit better.
This Friday I suddenly got 7 more pieces, arias, a chorus with a complicated piano part and I had lots of practicing along with the other 20 pieces. There was no set order yet. The rehearsal was booked on the day of the concert.
Day of the concert, the choir was 40 minutes late and the other cantor didn't arrive. When we started the first piece, the conductor said, "you do have the piano part for this?" Of course I didn't. I had re-written the dirty score (with no words) that was emailed with only vocal parts and my cantor and I figured I would just play the vocal parts. He gave me the piano part. It was in a totally different key from the score he sent me. My Cantor was singing the high part and I was concerned the higher key would be difficult. Not to worry, he would give the high notes to a member of the choir. So I sight read it. My Cantor seemed comfortable so we moved on. Of course the music was now not on my computer so I would have to turn the pages manually and because it was a two sided copy I was turning and slapping them onto a pile. Suddenly I was lost...oh, there was a repeat from page 11 back to page 5! Sure I can do this without a page turner! Uh, oh, a coda somewhere, but don't worry I can find this. I do often wonder if we pianists should come to rehearsals dressed as a super hero.
We began another piece that was with the other choir and the not yet arrived cantor. I was asked to create a two measure opening. As the choir began to sing I realized my score wasn't matching what the choir and missing cantor would be singing. I stopped and asked and the choir answered that each member had a different score! The conductor said that was not a problem. As we resumed the conductor would sort of sing the cantor part. The conductor kept stopping to correct what I was doing including removing measures because the canter tended to ignore those measures. "OK," I said and made what ever annotations I could. When he would begin the conductor would say go to... and then say something in Hebrew. I didn't have the words in my score so I kept asking for measure numbers. This really annoyed him. I asked when the Cantor would arrive so we could rehearse with him. The choir laughed and asked when does the concert start. "4:00", I answered, "5:30" was their responses. Ha, ha. We continued this way through the rehearsal (or non-rehearsal I am not sure what it was) adding notes on tempo changes and dynamic changes that may or may not happen depending on the mood of the absent cantor. It was 30 minutes before the concert and then I insisted that I needed to change. The conductor ran to the piano and asked me if I could play just two more pieces I had not yet seen. They had no piano part. I was to improvise with the choir. I said I could but I wouldn't!
I was finally given order of the program and most of the pieces were cut including all of the last minute arias!
Five minutes before the concert the male cantor came striding in. I was introduced and he said he "couldn't make it to the rehearsal because he was taking a walk in the woods, ha, ha." I said, "I hope you don't continue to walk in the woods when I am accompanying you." He actually didn't hear me, he was too far into his arrogance but the choir heard and were snidely laughing behind him.
During the concert he decided to pay attention to some of measures that were "cut" by the conductor. He would glare at me as if I had missed something. It became quite a game. I decided to just follow him and let him sing. He did not vocalize before the concert so you could imagine the first piece was quite skreechy and flat. ( I wonder if the walk in the woods was with wine). Of course the concert was a huge success (I even found all the turn backs in my manual music) and my air turn worked like a charm (the last minute shuffling of the pieces on the playlist was great) although I learned that "new" batteries from a large pack of batteries offered by the Synagogue concert coordinator does not mean new. My airturn did not work too well for the first piece so I manually turned the first piece and then switched back to my re-chargeables.
At the end of the concert the cantors and conductors got flowers. The Male cantor gave me his flowers.
At least my dress looked gorgeous. Oh, I foolishly added a performance of Un Sospiro in the middle as a break for the singers. I had also decided to change my biography and mention that I teach an adult piano class and had many old ladies come to me after the concert and slip me their telephone numbers.
There, my concert that no one would want to accompany. I have a feeling they are going to ask me again next year.....until they get my bill.

(Thanks, Ellen!)

1 comment:

  1. Ellen, are you saving this for your book? It's hysterical, but I'm glad I didn't have to play the event!

    Super Pianist costumes would be entirely appropriate. Let's decide on a style and order them.

    The whole time I was reading, I was hoping you were going to be paid...

    And, I have a story to add... not mine. The former senior organist at The Riverside Church in NY was previously the associate, which is a part-time position. So he had a synagogue job on the side.

    He has perfect pitch, which is an important detail for the story.

    The synagogue's organ was a Rogers electronic model with a transposition feature.

    So, during one service, he decided to have a little fun. He programmed a piece to be transposed, began playing, and when he heard the music in the new key...

    his hands moved over!