Following the lead of composers

Music: Seated at the piano, Andras Schiff keeps a firm hand on the BSO's performance.

February 17, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Usually, when the soloist walks onto the stage to perform a concerto, the conductor is already at the podium, waiting.

But when pianist Andras Schiff takes the stage with the Baltimore Symphony this evening, to perform concertos by Beethoven and Bach, there will be no one waiting at the podium. In fact, there won't even be a podium, because Schiff will be conducting the orchestra himself, from the keyboard.

"It is uncommon, yes," says the pianist. At least, it's uncommon today. But when these pieces were written, it was expected that the orchestra leader would also be the soloist. "The keyboard concertos by Mozart and Beethoven ... were played by the composers, who were great pianists," he says. "They were leading [the orchestra] from the keyboard, in a chamber music-like manner."

At 46, the Hungarian-born Schiff is considered one of the foremost pianists of our age, a musician as celebrated for his ideas and insight as for his tone and technique. He is keenly aware of history, and quite adamant about doing what he feels is right. It isn't just a matter of conducting while playing the concertos of Beethoven and Mozart; he is also a great advocate for the music of Bach, and not long ago published an essay arguing that Bach needs to be brought back into the pianistic repertoire.

Schiff also made headlines last week when he canceled a recital at the Austrian Embassy in Washington to protest the inclusion of right-winger Joerg Haider -- a man whose public statements and political agenda seem to many to smack of anti-Semitism and fascism -- in Austria's new governing coalition.

"I'm not saying that Mr. Haider is a parallel to Hitler," says Schiff. "But it's a sinister thing, and it could get much worse. We have to speak up before it's too late."

As with conducting from the keyboard, the pianist's action is to a certain extent informed by history. As Schiff points out, when the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, there was a similar reaction from many musicians. "People like Arturo Toscanini said, `We don't want to come to the Salzburg Festival any longer.' And they started a beautiful festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, which was like an anti-Salzburg, for people who refused to go over there.

"At the same time, there were people who were very happy to continue to go to Salzburg, or fill in those places vacated by Toscanini, Bruno Walter, Otto von Klemperer. There were always the [Herbert von] Karajans and Karl Boehms, et cetera, who were very happy to fill in.

"But I think there comes a time when you have to clear the page. And if we look back on those times, I think Toscanini has a much better page than Karl Boehm."

Schiff, by the way, doesn't mean to single out conductors, nor does he object to working under another musician's baton. "There is always room to play these pieces with excellent conductors," he says. "But there is something very different to be achieved when you are doing it yourself.

"Certainly, I would be happy to play certain Beethoven concerti with excellent conductors," he adds. "But Mozart? Not any more. I'm now really spoiled."

Besides, he thinks playing these pieces without a conductor is better for the orchestra.

With a conductor, the piano is set up with the lid opened so that the sound is reflected out to the audience. Unfortunately, that means the sound is being directed away from the other musicians. "They really don't hear anything that you play," says Schiff of the orchestra. "That's why they need the direction and the beat of the conductor, because it's the only thing they can play on. But it's not how the music was conceived."

So Schiff has the piano lid removed entirely, and sits facing the orchestra. He listens to them, they listen to him, and the concerto becomes less a matter of soloist and accompanist than a piece played by a group of musicians in concert with one another. "It's a give-and-take, an interacting between partners," he says.

Schiff also feels that conducting while playing affords him a better opportunity to present the work as he conceives it.

"Because most concerti, they start with an orchestral introduction, which takes about five to eight minutes, depending. Something like Brahms' first concerto takes 10 minutes before the piano plays the first note. So if you have no influence on those first 10 minutes, and they are [played] not according to your conception, then it's very difficult to do something."

He laughs. "It's a lost cause."


What: Andras Schiff plays and conducts the Baltimore Symphony

When: 8 tonight and tomorrow night; 11 a.m. Saturday; (tomorrow's concert will be preceded by a 7 p.m. lecture)

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall

Tickets: $16-$57

Call: 410-783-8000

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.