Every other Tuesday at 12:15, most of the music department and its students and faculty gather for another departmental recital, and almost always if someone needs a piano accompanist, I’m the shnook they call upon. Partly it’s because, like Ado Annie in the musical Oklahoma, I Can’t Say No. But it’s also because I’m good at it. If you need a Beethoven Piano Sonata dashed off, I am definitely not your man- but if you want something put together on one single rehearsal and want an accompanist who will follow you like smell on a skunk, I am a good choice. And for whatever reason, piano accompanying does not make me nervous. I feel like I am squarely in my element and able to handle just about anything that could conceivably go wrong.
But at yesterday’s recital, I was probably more nervous playing that I have ever been in my whole life. The reason is that sitting in the front row of the audience was a man by the name of Stephen Swedish. That is not a name that most people would recognize, but he is a very well-known and highly-regarded piano accompanist in the classical world. I have several recordings at the radio station which feature him at the keyboard and he has a lengthy resume which includes collaborations with plenty of famous people plus coaching stints at places like the Paris Opera. The guy is a master at what he does.
I’m not sure exactly how or why, but Mr. Swedish was at Carthage yesterday – and at our departmental recital – to make an announcement about a special music study program in Prague with which he is associated. He gave his sales pitch right at the top of the program, and then – much to my amazement / chagrin / shock . . . instead of hustling out of there to his next appointment, he settled into the front row next to the head of our piano faculty, Jane Livingston, to listen to our recital.
Which meant that I would be playing five piano accompaniments with one of the world’s finest piano accompanists sitting scarcely ten feet away, watching my every move and hearing every botched note. Actually, it wasn’t so much that I was fearful of making horrible mistakes, but rather that I tend to take a bit of poetic license when it comes to playing accompaniments. I tend to add whatever notes will undergird the soloist and leave out whatever notes I can’t quite get in my fingers. . . and 99 times out of 100 or for 99 people out of 100 it does not matter one bit. But here was someone who knows music thoroughly and especially knows the art of accompanying the way Meryl Streep knows acting or Tiger Woods knows golf – and next to his Schroeder, I am equal parts Charlie Brown and Pig Pen. So I felt intense pressure to play especially well and especially accurately . . . and I hoped also to do so without peeing in my pants. Forgive me for speaking bluntly here, but we are talking about those kind of nerves!
And wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, I managed to play quite well – even though the first thing I played was a really difficult 20th century piece for saxophone and piano with accidentals sprinkled on the page like poppy seeds in a muffin. . . and the third of the five accompaniments was Franz Schubert’s amazing song “Gretchen am Spinnrade” which is a handful in almost every way. . . and the fifth was a very fast-moving, highly syncopated musical theater piece which poses quite a different challenge for as straight an arrow as me. I somehow managed to put Mr. Swedish out of my mind, even though he managed to seat himself directly in my line of vision. Fortunately, he managed to resist any urge he might have had to wrinkle his nose in distaste or dismay and even looked halfway please a time or two.
Which is not to say that he went running up afterwards to shower me with breathless compliments. He was busy talking to students afterwards – and even when our paths sort of crossed afterwards outside, he didn’t seem to notice who I was or otherwise felt no inclination to say anything to me. But that’s okay- all that matters to me is that I managed to play without sounding like I had mittens on. . . and kept my bodily functions in tight control, save for my intensely overactive sweat glands, which were nearly out of fluid halfway through “Gretchen.”
And by the way, the only other person who performed on the recital besides the five people I accompanied was a young pianist who opened the program playing a Bach Fantasie. She did just fine and seemed not the least bit phased by the presence of Mr. Swedish in the front row of the audience. On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that none of the students there, including this young pianist, really knew just how big a cheese this guy actually is, Talk about a textbook case of “Ignorance is Bliss.”