Sunday, January 11, 2009

Those Darned Orchestral Reductions

Cyndee recently left the following comment:
Dear Chris,
FABULOUS Blog. I'm an ex-opera singer, currently a Musik-Bibliothekarin in a big opera house in Germany. This season is the one from hell -- 51 different operas and ballets are being performed. We have 4 or 5 new young pianists on the staff, and they are completely overwhelmed. We've had several embarrassingly poorly played staging rehearsals of Walk├╝re, Cunning Vixen, etc. Our head conductor tells the pianists it would help if they knew the piece and thought of the harmonies instead of trying to read the music and play all the notes. Do you have any suggestions for a better approach to having to play masses of new music?? Thanks!
Thanks for the great comment, Cyndee. First of all, I would like to register my jealousy at the fact that the company you work for has 51 productions going on this season, which would never happen in a North American house!  

That being said, I can imagine that the repetiteur staff must have one hell of a job staying on top of all those scores. Playing orchestra reductions can be extremely challenging, especially since many of them are either under-written or over-written in terms of what the pianist needs to play. If the pianists are buried under a mass of notes in the reductions, the best advice I can give would be to listen to recordings of performances. Many of them. Over and over again. 

What many pianists don't realize is that seemingly complex reductions are often much simpler in terms of which instruments in the orchestra can actually be heard.  For example, with Wagner operas, the huge mess in many reductions is actually not as bad once you listen to the orchestra and realize that there are only a handful of moving parts that are clearly audible.  Finding the structural thread in orchestral textures is one of the hallmarks of great repetiteurs, and what singers really need to hear in the rehearsal process. And pianists should definitely know that they don't need to play every single note in the reduction.  Conversely, they may need to add notes (as in many Schirmer and Henle Mozart reductions).

However, a pianist, especially if they're new on the job, can't achieve mastery of these scores without preparation before staging begins. Listening to loads of recordings can drastically ease the complexity of learning several hundred pages of score. If one already has heard recordings and performances and has a clear idea of the orchestration (and vocal lines), embarking upon the process of learning the notes can be much more rewarding.

So far, I haven't written much here about the art of playing orchestral reductions. Often pianists poo-poo reduction playing in favor of art song and chamber music, not realizing the rewards of playing the concerto and opera repertoire. I know of many pianists who specialize in reductions, and are often very, very secretive about how they achieve their orchestral palette at the piano. So far I've acted in a similar way in forgoing any posts about this subject. Perhaps that may change this year...

Readers: any other comments on how the rep staff at this big German house can become more effective orchestral reduction ninjas?


  1. Play along with the recordings, too... if your piano and your iPod are not in tune with one another (they won't be, trust me) just crank the ipod a little louder and bear with it... It is a terrible din, but it helps a lot, and if you use headphones, it eases the agony...

  2. I don't have any suggestions but, if the COC's new Music Director is any indication, (there's an article about it in yesterday's Globe at

    that job is a heck of an opportunity. Don't waste it!

  3. Jan Grimes8:14 AM

    It would be a great service to all of us if we could hear your views (and secrets) to successful preparation of the orchestral reduction. Will you share?

  4. Anonymous9:13 AM

    I too always listen to recordings and practice along. Using headphones initially really really helps. I also use the app Amazing Slowdowner - that way I can play along at slower speeds while learning, and then gradually increase it to full speed. It's really helpful for finding tricky entrances!