THE PIANIST MARTIN Katz remembers a particularly stinging comment at a dress rehearsal several years ago. Hours before the start of a twelve-concert tour, a violinist whom he was accompanying stopped to berate Katz for his interpretation. “You just play. I’ll handle the expression,” the violinist said.
“I played the first concert and cancelled the other eleven,” said Katz. “And that was it. I never heard from him again and he never heard from me. That was so demeaning to me.”
Katz, who has worked with everyone from Marilyn Horne and Cecilia Bartoli to José Carreras and Frederica von Stade, admits that there are divas in every profession and says he’s rarely the recipient of overt condescension. But the episode underscores a hard-to-shake notion that accompanists toil at the low end of the musical totem pole, underappreciated, underpaid and lurking in the shadows while soloists bask in the adulation of their fans.
Katz’s experience isn’t unique. “You’re playing too loud” is a common complaint, say accompanists. Some have been asked to tone down their attire because they’re upstaging a singer. Others have seen their names relegated to small typeface on programs and advertisements, somewhere beneath the boldfaced star.
But the tables are turning. More than a hundred colleges and conservatories worldwide offer training programs in accompanying, according to a recent tally by the Collaborative Piano Blog, a website that covers the field. Typically, these programs are offered at a graduate level, for pianists uninterested in a full-blown solo career.
A growing number of song competitions — including the Wigmore Hall Song Competition and the Montreal International Musical Competition — have added prizes for accompanists or duos. In November, the inaugural Art of Duo competition in Boulder, Colorado, attracted twenty-four semifinalists, including violin–piano and clarinet–piano teams. And superstar pianists including Yuja Wang, Lang Lang and Leif Ove Andsnes frequently tour as duo partners to singers or violinists.
Above all, accompanists are commanding respect in a field that values the hustle, learning several languages and being able to sightread on moment’s notice.
“The pianist, I feel, has to be the rock,” said Brian Zeger, a collaborative pianist and the artistic director of vocal arts at Juilliard. “You have to be ready for anything — a singer’s personal health, their level of fatigue, their level of concentration. The pianist is responsible, in some cases, to be a kind of gentle prompter,” especially when a singer is performing from memory.
The accompanist must also be able to transpose a song into several keys, and know where, and for how long, a singer needs to breathe.
“I’ve never performed anything that I can’t sing and play simultaneously,” said Katz, who requires the same skill from his accompanying students at the University of Michigan. “Some students hate it, some of them adore it. I don’t know how else I can make sure I know that piece inside and out, every nook and cranny.” Because a portion of collaborative piano students are from Asia, they must not only adapt to English but also learn art song languages of French, German and Italian.
‘[T]he pianist must play with conviction and imagination and individual expression. They shouldn’t just follow. They need to have their own musical voice, not in contradiction to their colleague, but in union.’
Besides technical skills, great accompanists possess a kind of sixth sense when it comes to anticipating collaborators’ on-stage tendencies. Katz remembers rescuing a famous soprano who became lost in a Strauss song. “The song is about 41 bars long,” he said. “She skipped from the third bar to the 38th bar. Those two places kind of sound alike.” Katz quickly found her place and seamlessly covered up the error.
Offstage working relationships vary considerably. Sometimes accompanists act as repertoire coaches for on-the-go singers, researching and proposing songs or programs. Jean Barr, the director of the piano accompanying and chamber music program at the Eastman School of Music, says that accompanists must be clear that they don’t exist as a rental service to other artists.
“There’s an old adage,” she said. “‘If you can’t play, you can always teach, and if you can’t do either, you can accompany.’ So it is important that the pianist must play with conviction and imagination and individual expression. They shouldn’t just follow. They need to have their own musical voice, not in contradiction to their colleague, but in union.”
One of the most persistent holdovers from the past involves the way duos are paid: a singer gives a portion of their recital fee to the pianist. This automatically establishes an imbalance, even a boss-employee relationship. “I hate the notion of negotiating with my colleague for my fee, but that is the reality of the way it normally works in the States,” said Zeger. (In Europe and Asia, singers and pianists usually have separate contracts and are paid directly by the venue.)
“The downgrading of pianists to accompanists would shock the composers,” writes pianist and author Susan Tomes in her 2004 book Beyond the Notes: Journey with Chamber Music. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, composers were pianists themselves and conceived art songs as duos. Beethoven and Schumann similarly wrote sonatas “for piano and violin” — not the reverse. Tomes attributes the modern hierarchy to the rise of celebrity soloists such as Paganini, who stood out front and moved about theatrically while the pianist sat in profile to the audience.
But in the last two decades, new professional norms developed and the lexicon shifted: “accompanist” increasingly gave way to “collaborative pianist,” or occasionally, “associative artist.” Not everyone believes these semantic changes affect public opinion. “I actually prefer ‘pianist’ — not ‘collaborative pianist’ and not ‘accompanist,’” says Warren Jones, who collaborates with Stephanie Blythe, Eric Owens and other noted singers. “We don’t think about, for example, whether someone is an opera soprano or recital baritone.”
Jones believes that a rewarding career comes down to mutually respecting the “ego and self-respect and self-worth of our partners.” He cites a 1998 Chicago recital with bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, in which both artists saved each other mid-song. “I was playing those recitals by memory, which I do sometimes,” he recalled. “About a third of the way into the song, I got off. He kept singing and I found my way back to where he was. “No sooner than I’d found him than he got off. I kept playing and he found his way back. We ended the song together.”
The Chicago Tribune review didn’t mention the gaffes, and deemed the performance a success: “Ramey and Jones are a fine team, and their collaboration produced a pleasurably memorable recital.”
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, an award-winning magazine published by Steinway & Sons.