Playing for great singers is a major musical career

January 21, 1996|By GLENN McNATT

YEARS OF CHILD- hood movie-watching have made me a soft touch for those show-business sagas in which a terrific young talent creates a sensation after receiving the proverbial last-minute call to fill in for some indisposed star. The story, in any of its various permutations, is one of Hollywood's most durable myths -- that talent will out regardless of the odds.

Yet all myths contain at least a grain of truth, and in real life I am continually surprised by how often things actually turn out that way.

For example, when soprano Jessye Norman performed at Baltimore's Meyerhoff Hall a few seasons back, a young Peabody graduate named Mark Markham counted himself lucky just to be allowed to turn pages for Phillip Moll, the veteran pianist who accompanied Ms. Norman. He never dreamed that in a few years he would be touring Europe himself as Ms. Norman's pianist and musical collaborator. Yet that is exactly what happened.

Though he doesn't particularly like the term accompanist -- "I think of myself as a pianist who can play all sorts of music," he says -- Mr. Markham has been making music with singers almost as long as he has been playing the piano, which he took up at age 8 in his native Pensacola, Fla.

A year later, a teacher who was supposed to accompany his school choir didn't show up for rehearsal one day, and the choir director asked young Markham to fill in at the keyboard. The boy, who had never seen the music before that moment, was so thrilled by the request that he played the score at sight without missing a beat. "I didn't know it was supposed to be hard," he recalls, "so I just did it."

The experience helped build the sort of confidence Mr. Markham would need when, more than two decades later, the esteemed pianist and teacher Ann Schein realized that she wouldn't be able to accompany Ms. Norman on last year's European concert tour (the two had planned a recital of songs by Poulenc, Schoenberg and Berg) and suggested the singer engage Mr. Markham, one of Ms. Schein's pupils, instead.

The resulting collaboration produced rave reviews for the 35-year-old musician. "Here is a pianist with uncommon sensitivity, exquisite taste, and a consummate skill," declared the Luxembourg Tageblatt, whose critic described Mr. Markham "a musician who never follows the singer, but whose pure sense of music and discretion was marvelously adapted for each song."

Paris' Le Figaro noted simply that Mr. Markham was "a fabulous accompanist." And the Bern Zeitung called him "one not to be overlooked. His playing could not have been more intense, more inspired, or more joyful. A true servant to the music, he is a brilliant pianist as well."

Mr. Markham, who has performed widely with soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson -- the first of two albums of music by contemporary composers they have recorded is due out next month -- seems ideally fitted by training and temperament to become one of his generation's great chamber-music players, in the tradition of such pianists as Irwin Gage and Gerald Moore, who have made important careers as musical collaborators with the era's leading singers.

It used to be that musicians who performed primarily in supporting roles were regarded as not being in quite the same class as those whose careers rested on their reputations as soloists. To be a mere "accompanist," no matter how gifted, original or technically brilliant, was to occupy a kind of second-class status in the classical-music pecking order. Unless one were already a famous conductor or composer, to be an "accompanist" was to be, musically, an invisible man.

Aspiring young pianists were admonished to avoid the role, lest it taint their credentials for stardom. Before enrolling at Peabody Institute, Mr. Markham, for example, spent a year at Florida State University, where a teacher warned that he would "ruin" a promising career if he continued to perform publicly with singers.

The advice now seems silly and just plain wrong, but it had its effect. When Mr. Markham arrived at Peabody the next autumn, he waited until nearly the end of his first year -- and until after he had won a major student piano competition at the school -- to reveal his lifelong interest in the song repertoire. At a school where every entering piano major dreamt of becoming the next Horowitz or Kissin, Mr. Markham worried that no one would take him seriously if he were perceived as a mere "accompanist."

The disdain for "accompanying" is hardly justifiable on musical or artistic grounds. Some of the greatest composers -- among them Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Strauss, Wolfe -- have written music for voice and piano in which the two instruments are absolutely equal partners on whose interaction the entire effect of the piece depends.

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