Art song, in the tradition of European cultivation that began at the end of the 18th century, involves an intimate interaction between a singer and a pianist. The singer may depict many an imaginary role on stage, but the pianist must be grounded in reality to monitor his singer even as he creates her supporting atmospherics. Empathy is a key virtue. Also deference. But never servitude. Though it may have been expected from certain singers of yore, it is no longer a legitimate requirement, in either the musical or psychological sense. Therein lies a tale.
The most nerve-wracking experience I ever had was not the intensity of live-fire military training I endured in the summer of 1968. It was a job I had shortly before graduating months before from UC Santa Barbara. One fine morning I was asked to turn pages that evening for a pianist at a lieder recital. Replacing a suddenly ailing colleague, Samuel Sanders had flown from New York at the last minute to accompany the eminent soprano Evelyn Lear.
I picked up a fatigued and slightly nauseous Sanders at the airport after his exhausting flight from the East Coast and a bumpy puddle-jumper out of LAX to Santa Barbara. We drove to an abbreviated 20-minute rehearsal with Lear on the stage of the university's Campbell Hall. Sanders and I were briefed on which verses of several strophic songs Lear was to sing and the tempos she expected. I flipped pages back and forth for an accompanist sight-reading in various keys the scores he may just have received. After a blur of orders on our cues (Lear never sang more than a few bars of any song) I drove Sanders to his hotel for a short rest and a bite to eat. Almost immediately thereafter it was show time.
The evening had gone well. I was amazed at Sanders' agility at partnering Lear hand and glove throughout the program. Also impressive was his ability to adjust at sight to the keys that fit Lear's voice and in so polished a manner it seemed they had performed together regularly.
Quite unexpectedly at the end of the evening, however, the soprano's memory lapsed in the middle of a Mendelssohn song spinning with piano arpeggios. She maintained a frozen smile, bravura hiding her bluff, and stood regally. Not missing a beat, Sanders furiously vamped ersatz Mendelssohn as he quietly signaled me to take it da capo so he could bring her in on the last verse. I did so. He repeated the intro and whispered an initial phrase at Lear. She came in on cue, and the song, with the evening, concluded in fine style.
None in the audience seemed aware of the lapse that almost blemished the recital. We walked off stage to a round of applause. Sanders and I exhaled a sigh of relief. Lear remained regal as she pivoted on the ready for a final bow. The two artists took to the stage one last time, Mendelssohn's score clasped firmly at Sanders' side.
Offstage soon after, Lear suddenly snapped at Sanders, dressing him down as a school marm might an errant pupil; why had he not dropped his music off backstage at the FIRST exit? Whether from shock or tact, whatever Sanders felt at that moment went unexpressed.
My jaw dropped. This venom was coming from the soprano he had just saved from public embarrassment? Was she power tripping, playing a mind-game? I may never know what possessed Lear to strike out in this manner, but I will never forget her rude behavior.
One sees the odd story here and there of rescues not being appreciated; a lifeguard pulls a drowning swimmer out of the ocean, only to be chewed out as they reach the safety of sand. Gratitude in such cases can apparently be trumped by wounded pride. That psychology is a study for the couch of another commentary.
The point is not to pass judgment on a singer who needed to let off steam after a nerve-wracking night. It's to emphasize the sudden awareness and respect I had gained in one hyper-charged encounter for the under appreciated skills and forbearance of the piano accompanist. The days of such a gaping inequality between a singer and her pianist are long gone, even if behaviors like this now and again erupt. The era of hissing divas (of both sexes) was to undergo a transformation with the general democratization of American society.
It may have been experiences such as that Santa Barbara evening that prompted Sanders to become one of his profession's most celebrated change-agents. He insisted his name be credited with the singer on all concert promotions, not always the case before. He was among the first to employ the term "piano collaborator" as preferable to "piano accompanist." As a faculty member at the Juilliard School from 1963, he established a master's degree program for accompanists and insisted that women be admitted to what had once been an all boys' club.
In his distinguished career Sanders would partner with the greatest vocal and instrumental musicians of his time, among them violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and tenor Robert White. Thanks to Sanders and others of his stamp, piano collaborators in the modern era have achieved prominence. The field has even attracted soloists like Leif Ove Andsnes and the just retired Alfred Brendel, among others, to engage with singers. But I find it is pianists who make a specialty of partnering with singers on a regular basis who catch the most consistent magic in the elusive blend of voice and piano that is song.
I never encountered Sanders in person after that evening in the fateful year of 1968. I had asked him a question on our way to the hotel earlier that day. Who of the great composers did he find the most challenging in song partnership? His answer was Schubert, but at that moment he told me he was too tired to explain why. I was never to find out from him. But in a roundabout way, I eventually discovered some answers from another great pianist and lieder specialist. These insights will be the subject of a later entry on the art of song collaboration.
Sanders' death in 1999 at the relatively young age of 62 was a great loss. A lengthy New York Times obituary summarized the pianist's pioneering contributions to the art and craft of piano collaboration. It's worth your attention.
Rodney Punt may be reached at Rodney@ArtsPacifica.net