Allowing the soloist to shine

Accompanist Robert McDonald may sit in the background, but his talents are very much in evidence


Violinist Midori stood on the stage at Peabody's Friedberg Concert Hall, slender, youthful and completely focused on the music she was creating. Just behind her, Robert McDonald sat at a grand piano.

The program the duo performed last fall included Mozart's Sonata in A Major and Franck's Sonata in A Major; the music made by each performer fit together like tightly clasped hands. Midori's playing was first fiery then serene then fiery again. McDonald's piano music filled and shaped the spaces between the violinist's notes. Toward the end of Franck's slow movement, Midori decreased the tempo until each note she played reverberated, seemingly suspended in mid-air.

Midori's ability to take such risks springs, of course, from extraordinary talent and vision. But a musician's willingness to make musical leaps also has roots in a particular kind of trust: An assurance that the person with whom she is playing not only fully understands the music, but also understands her as performer.

Accompanying -- musical collaboration -- is an intimate and nuanced art. One must have technical expertise, expressiveness, and the ability to intuit where your partner is heading musically, and sometimes to get there first.

To accompany is far more than simply to play softly. It is not merely putting aside your ego long enough to allow another player to soar (though it may include this). It is to know both music and musical partner. To be able to respond instantaneously to the tone, the mood, the color of another's imagination -- wherever it may go. And to have the talent and foresight to lead when the music demands.

McDonald, who is accompanist to both Midori and Isaac Stern, describes the art of collaborating as "a little like the aural equivalent of having eyes in the back of your head."

He is considered one of the finest pianists of his generation and is much sought after as a collaborating artist. A New York resident, McDonald is a member of the piano faculties of both Peabody Institute and Juilliard. A 1983 gold medalist at the F. Busoni International Piano Competition in Bolzano, Italy, he also has performed with a range of artists including violinists Elmar Oliveira, Joshua Bell, Martin Beaver and as a soloist. This month, he is traveling with Midori for a European tour that will take them to Munich, Berlin, Milan, Florence, Madrid and London. Later this spring, the artists will tour the Midwest and parts of Asia. "I do a lot of things when I am playing with him that I wouldn't normally think of because he frees me up in terms of imagination," Midori says. "He lets me do what I want. I hear him responding to me and because he responds, I respond. Musically, it is a great sort of feeling."

McDonald grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a small town just across the river from Omaha. He attended Lawrence University, then Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music. He then lived for several years in New York and built a reputation as an excellent pianist.

He was teaching piano at the North Carolina School for the Arts in January 1987 when he received an unexpected call. "Isaac Stern literally called me out of the blue. He was looking for a new partner, and he had a concert at Carnegie in April," recalls McDonald. "I remember thinking it was a joke. But he had been asking around, and I think if your name comes up a number of times, people listen."

In something of an anticipatory daze, McDonald went to New York, auditioned and was offered the job. "Isaac sort of said, `Well, if you will put up with me, I will put up with you.' "

The pianist first played with Midori 13 years ago, when she was 15. The two performed together in Germany -- then went their separate ways. A few years later, Midori asked McDonald to commit to an entire season and a long-term partnership was born.

Now McDonald collaborates with two extraordinary artists in two very different stages of their careers. The 79-year-old Stern has been an international star for nearly five decades, but his approach to music -- even to works that he has performed myriad times -- is as inventive as ever. "Take the Brahms Sonata. It is always evergreen in the freshness of his approach," McDonald says. "He is always in the moment. He always has a sense of searching no matter how many times he has played it. Understandably, he is an inspiration, a guide for any younger musician. It is something that I will always hold as a tenet in my playing."

The experience of playing with the 28-year-old Midori is entirely different. "The sense of discovery is very much there in somebody coming to the music for the first time. There is a kind of open-book quality."

Midori describes her relationship with McDonald this way: "I think it's a little bit like the relationship one has to an instrument: My violin is my partner. You trust it completely and you know what you can do with it and at the same time, you are always exploring and discovering new things. And this is how I feel about playing with Bob."

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