BBC Young Musician is underway on BBC4, and once again the talent and accomplishment of the young players is absolutely admirable. To watch and listen to them is inspiring and gives one great hope for the next generation of classical musicians.
Having said that, I am still vexed by the way that the collaborative pianists are treated. By ‘collaborative’ I mean the pianists who play with the string players, the wind players and the brass players in their respective sections of the competition. A lot of the time they’re performing big sonatas conceived by their composers as equal duos, or indeed as works ‘for piano and violin’ as many composers designated them. Nevertheless in all cases the BBC has chosen to shine an actual spotlight on the string/wind/player and to keep the pianist literally in the shadows. Moreover the pianist is only named in small type at the bottom of the TV screen, their name preceded by the revolting shorthand ‘acc’, meaning ‘accompanist’.
As the American fortepianist Robert Levin brilliantly said when asked on one occasion if he was the accompanist: ‘No, I play the piano and am the pianist. I do not play the accompano.’ All collaborative pianists should memorise this remark and use it when necessary.
Last night I watched the string category final, and I think I’m right in saying that the only pianist whose name was uttered by the presenters was the excellent Isata Kanneh-Mason. That was mainly because she was the sister of cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason (winner of the string category final), and because viewers had seen Isata perform as a solo pianist in a previous competition. The other pianists last night had to be content with their name appearing at the bottom of the TV screen, no matter how important and/or challenging the piano parts were.
Now I understand that this is a tricky issue to resolve in a competition for young musicians still in training. The competition is for individuals, and is to some extent an example of the ‘cult of personality’. These individuals, whose music education has focused so far on their own instrumental mastery, have not yet had time to develop mature working relationships with duo pianists, and in any case the competition is not for duos.
Yet some of the best repertoire for violinists or cellists (for example) comes from the great duo repertoire, often composed by someone who was himself a pianist and who meant the piano part to be central. Musically it makes no sense at all to pick out just one of the players in TV lights while the other plays torrents of arpeggios in the unlit background. For me it’s as if the producers are sticking their hands up and shouting, ‘I don’t get the artistic point!’
The people who wrote this music wanted a give-and-take between the players. Becoming aware of this should be part of musical training. Realising that it is not a ‘soloist’ and ‘accompanist’ situation is essential to artistic maturity. Developing a sensitivity to one’s musical partner and an awareness of how the musical material passes back and forth between the players is a crucial skill for young violinists (etc), yet this skill is rarely referred to in competitions, and does not seem to be a stated requirement. In my view a demonstrable awareness of, and respect for, one’s musical partner should be something the competition is actually looking for.
Music education (and particularly competitions) is full of these unfortunate lopsided examples, and I can see how it happens. But I can’t see how, year after year, despite protests from experienced musicians, nobody addresses the problem. One solution would be for instrumentalists to play either totally solo, or in concertos with orchestra where they are, actually, ‘the soloist’. But that would cut out a vast chunk of fabulous collaborative repertoire. So of course they want to be able to play big duo pieces, and so they should. But they are not ‘the soloist’ in those big duo pieces, and the programme should avoid giving the impression that they are. Because then a whole new generation will go away thinking that only the violinist (or whoever) is ‘the star’, and a new generation of intelligent pianists will decide that collaborative playing is a mug’s game because you never get proper recognition.
The least the BBC should do is to give due credit to the skills of the pianists, highlight the value of their musical contribution, light them properly and speak their names. And stop calling them ‘accompanists’!!