How Not To Play Rach 3

Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Chicago, Ill

First of all, Rach 3 is just a terrible summer piece. I am never asked to play this in the summer. Orchestras have very minimal rehearsal time in the summer (I’ll never forget my 17-minute single dress rehearsal of the Ravel Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Vail a few summers ago…) and Rach 3 is filled with rehearsal-time-sucking rubati. There’s also something about the structural ambition of the piece – it’s a little long for a summer audience’s attention span.

But here I am in Chicago playing Rach 3 with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Festival Orchestra, which has kept its famous name (it’s their 75th anniversary) but has physically moved to the spectacular new outdoor Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

It wasn’t a good sign that I arrived the other day in a rainstorm. I am staying with friends who live on the 58th floor of an apartment building and when I arrived I wondered why all the windows were covered. “Oh no,” my host said. “We’re just in a cloud at the moment.”

Yesterday’s rehearsal was a bit disappointing – the second half of the program is a world premiere (another oddity for a summer orchestra festival, again because of rehearsal needs) so I had to make do with a 30-minute rehearsal. (Rach 3 takes about 42 minutes to play through.) Of course, since we are outdoors, there is no question of how good the acoustics are: there are NO acoustics. Everything is dependent on mikes and a massive array of speakers dangling all over. It is incredibly difficult to play a concerto on ‘faith’ – that is, when you cannot hear the strings and winds onstage. (As I expected, hearing the brass and percussion did not present a problem.) I also seemed to be producing no sound. So I made the classic mistake of forcing my sound in a desperate bid to hear myself, and spent the rest of the day taking painkillers.

This morning’s rehearsal was when all the fun happened. It was pouring rain, and screaming thunder, making all concerns about acoustics irrelevant. I could see drops of water traveling on the wind and landing on the piano. The outside violins and celli had already stopped playing and were protecting their instruments. I asked if we could spread out the risers further, thus pushing the orchestra back, so that we could push the piano upstage ‘into’ the orchestra. “No, we can’t do that, because the riser movers are a separate union and we would have to call them in and it’s a minimum 6-hour call.” (I am not making this up.)

Finally, Maestro Kalmar relieved a few players off the back and the string sections moved back, and we shoved the piano into the middle. Then they closed enormous metal/glass doors which protected the entire stage from the elements. You cannot imagine how impressive these doors are (think James Bond movie finale…) This also turned the entire stage into a hot house. We asked about air conditioning. “Sure, we can do that,” said the stage manager, “if you don’t mind that the condensation will cause random water drops will fall on the orchestra.” We opted to stay hot.

At this point I could barely remember what note the Rachmaninoff starts on. We rehearsed, with a false sense of acoustical security caused by the large closed door, which bounced all the sound around so that we could actually hear each other.

Today’s concert was at 6:30pm, a very odd time for a concert (however, this is a common recital time in Japan) which doesn’t allow for a really full day to practice, rest, etc. Despite having intentionally dehydrated myself all day so that I wouldn’t sweat too much, I was already dripping backstage before playing. I asked about their weather backup plan. “We don’t really have one,” they said. “It never really rains in June.” Huh.

I talked to the sound guy, and asked him for a stage monitor, just like the rock musicians always use. I asked him to specifically push the piano and winds forward in the mix, so I could hear them, and hear myself.

I made the mistake of peeking out from stage right. From stage right all you can see are the seats way up front in front of the celli, and those seats are always the empty ones, because you can’t see the keyboard from there. So I thought nobody had showed up. Imagine my surprise when we walked out and there were several thousand people sitting on plastic bags on wet chairs.

Performing outdoors in summer festivals out in the countryside requires a certain patience with random sounds: a bird chirping, a distant plane overhead, a baby crying out on the lawn area. But playing outdoors in a summer festival downtown is another thing entirely. The second theme of the 1st movement was completely obliterated by a passing siren. The sounds of kids whooping it up at a nearby wading pool were clearly audible throughout. Camera flashes popped in a rhythmic counterpoint to the music.

And then there was the thunder. Orchestra players told me afterwards how much they enjoyed watching the black sky roll in during the 2nd movement. (So much for watching the conductor…) I was only aware that by the time I had started the 3rd movement the piano keys were slick with humidity and sweat, the sky had darkened considerably, and peripherally the audience had turned into a sea of bright umbrellas. Being the deeply thoughtful artist that I am, my first reaction to this was “How will everyone clap loudly enough if they are holding up umbrellas?”

This turned out to be a splendid exercise in selective focus. I forced my mind to stay relentlessly with the music, glued my ears to the beautiful sound of the Grant Park Festival Orchestra, and tried to block everything else out. It might have worked except that in the 2nd movement I got really hungry, and then all I could think about was how much I really wanted Thai food.

I find that with every work that I perform, there’s a moment, usually near the end, where the hardest bit is over. At that point I allow myself a slight smile, knowing that I can handle the ending without fear of disaster. In Rach 3 that moment happens for me at rehearsal number 68 which, if you don’t have a score handy, is right before the final coda. It’s incredibly satisfying to play the big chordal melodies at the end of the piece, and in the fast stuff, I can rationalize that nobody is really listening for the right notes anymore, and that it’s all about gestures.

We finished in a blaze of well-intentioned octaves, and I enjoyed the peculiar sight of seeing an ‘umbrella ovation.’ I was completely drenched. In fact, I’m considering throwing out my whole concert outfit and just buying a new one in the morning. The forecast for tomorrow’s concert? 84 degrees and partly cloudy. It’s almost going to seem dull.


"Fantasy is not just a technical showcase, but a big, clear picture window of a musician with a rich soul and great artistic depth. It is also a fantastic example of programming that entertains as well as edifies.”
-Musical Toronto

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