I judged a university Concerto Competition recently and heard some great playing. But I was disappointed to hear some contestants play their concerto like an etude. An etude they had been assigned, one they didn’t especially like, one they had practiced only to ask for someone else’s approval. All sort of at a middle dynamic, all a little pitchy, no real variety of color or articulation, and often no musical line at all. I was shocked. Playing concertos is probably my favorite thing EVER to do in the world, and I consider it a serious responsibility.
When you are playing a concerto, your job is to be the Hero. If you are playing loud, play heroically loud. Softs should be heroically soft, should make the audience lean in and take notice. No matter what you do, it should be done with intent, with ownership, with design.
Sometimes we look at superheroes and we want to peek in to discern the simple humans underneath the mask. We look at some of our political figureheads and we see only fraudulence. We grownups know the truth, that heroes are not real, that no one can really be wholly admirable, deserving of our amazement, worth looking up to.
And yet. When you are out in front of the orchestra, in your tailcoat or your sparkly dress and strapless bra, the attention is all on you. Are you going to mumble? Going to apologize? Going to try to play safe so you don’t make a mistake?
No. That’s not your job. Superman wouldn’t do that. Siegfried wouldn’t do that.
In your preparation, take your piece apart into little bits if necessary. Study it so deeply that you understand exactly where you are going and how to get there. Translate the musical line and the gestures into simple thoughts with strong verbs. If there are passages you have to fake technically, make your faking COMPELLING. Make the through-line of your phrase so amazing that the fakery is completely beside the point. Better yet, have all of those compelling phrases and ALSO all of the strong, clean, honest technique that you can muster.
Performing a concerto – whether it be for a jury, on a recital with piano, the naked exposition for a blind audition, or a full-on orchestral performance in front of a full house – is always a brave and heroic act. It’s not some little orchestra solo in which someone else is creating the interpretation and the sonic picture and you just have to fit yourself to what’s going on for a few bars. It’s not some etude or excerpt in which your job is to play as correctly and perfectly as possible.
No, this is something else. It’s YOU, actually putting yourself out there doing something that is hard. It’s YOU, creating the interpretation, leading the orchestra, believing in the piece you’re playing and in your ability to present it. It’s YOU, standing alone on the stage. You can just pray for the luck to get through it, or you can be the Hero.
Be the Hero.