Alban's Blog

Compromise – Negotiating: Collaboration in Music

A few days ago I received a question in the blog about conductors which I answered immediately, but then, out of laziness, I am going to recycle it right now for writing a new one. Here is the question:

How do you negotiate the tricky subject of “your” versus “the conductors” interpretation of a piece? Do you find you “give in” to some views and then wished you hadn’t?

This was my answer: “It is not so much about negotiating but compromising. And like every good compromise one has to be convinced at the end. And since I know that there are many ways which lead to Rome (that’s a German saying; many interpretations possible) I am open to suggestions of conductors. Often conductors agree to what I am trying to do, but then have a hard time to get the orchestra convinced as well – often they don’t have the strenght/stamina/rehearsal time to make certain ideas work, and it is my responsability to give in, since otherwise it would be a disaster…. No, I never regret a performance – I don’t like every single one, but no remorse, because I am always giving it all and trying my best (which sometimes just ain’t enough…) “- but I had some more thoughts about it in the meanwhile…

The question has definitely much more “blog”-potential than my answer, but I thought it could interest more people to hear about the dilemma of concertizing musicians. In the next few weeks I play 8 recitals with three different pianists. The advantage of this is that with Markus Becker, Cecile Licad and Steven Osborne I have played already a fair amount of concerts, I know and love their musicianship. When we work together we sometimes disagree on how certain things could be played, but we take the hours and days of rehearsal as a chance to come up with much more than a compromise but our version of the piece. Not his/hers and mine, but ours.

The Beethoven A-Major Sonata, which I have played with the three of them, is with every pianist a different interpretation. I love this about being able to work with a handful of wonderful but different pianists – it enriches my musical horizon immensely, especially since I don’t have a teacher for more than 15 years anymore. But these people tell me when I start doing mannered things, or if what I am trying to do just doesn’t come out or doesn’t work at all (yes, it happens even to the bravest of all 🙂 ). Do I abuse my colleagues as teachers? At the end of the day you can learn from every musician – how to do or how not to do things, just by listening.

But this is the joy and luxury of chambermusic, and Clare’s question was about the collaboration with conductors which poses a completely different challenge; every concert with orchestra I have a different conductor, often people I have never met or heard of before, and while having often days of rehearsals with the pianists (not next week though, only 6 hours – but we played the stuff before…), with a conductor we meet half hour before the orchestra rehearsal, play or just talk through the piece, and then we have one single rehearsal, varying in length. When I played the Dvorak Concerto in Philadelphia, the conductor allowed only 45 minutes for the 40 minute piece – Thielemann in comparison took the full second half of his last rehearsal with Berlin Phil (about 75 minutes) for the 22 minute Schumann concerto. The day of the concert one normally has the so-called dress rehearsal in which the concerto is played once through.

I am being so specific because it gives you a frame of how little time there is for real musical work. I like the confrontation with a conductor who has a strong idea, but for this one needs time. More often the conductor sees his role in following, accompanying, which is much less fulfilling but is the only chance if one has absolutely no time – I prefer collaborators, who take own initiatives and risks, who surprise me and show me something new in the concerto, short: conductors, who take the concerto almost as serious as “their” symphony. Well, next week I have the pleasure to go back to the Scottish BBC to perform Shostakovich’s First Concerto – with a conductor I heard wonderful things about, but don’t know him at all. I’ll report…


  • David Hartel

    So, who’s interpretation was your performance of Haydn’s
    cello Concerto in C major at the Los Angeles Philharmonic on June 16th of 2006?. It has left an indelible impression upon me to this day. How much of a compromise was that performance?

    Seems like you should have collapsed of exhaustion after that performance based on this reviewers experience. I may be of little experience, however I found it very difficult to find the compromise in that performance.


    DW Hartel

  • Alban

    Hi David,

    oh, that wasn’t me, must have been another cellist 🙂 I played the Haydn in November 2005 in LA. But if indeed you are referring to my performance, thanks for liking it, and I remember of being very exhausted afterwards. It’s a very tiring last movement.

    This is exactly the point I am trying to make: for the audience, even a trained one, a compromise won’t be audible as a compromise, and even though it wasn’t what I had in mind before I arrived in LA, this performance was still “my” interpretation – the conductor can want me to change many things, but at the end I have to not only sell it but feel it as mine.
    Best wishes,

  • Opera Clare

    Thank you for detailing the specifics of the orchestral rehearsal times – I had no idea they were so short. Are you able to explain why this is? Is it down to orchestral contracts and specified rehearsal times and/or is this “just the way its done” now? Did the soloists of the past have more time set aside for collaborative rehearsal I wonder ?

    Enjoy the Shostakovich.

  • David Hartel

    Oops! Thats right, November in LA. And it was you, frankly I am surprised I got the year right 🙂
    Looking forward to your next LA visit.

  • Thomaaas

    is the last movement of haydn c major tiring because of being difficult? (i hate this many fast scales which come all ten seconds)

  • Alban

    A propos rehearsal time: why there is so little? Because it is possible to pull off good concerts on hardly, I guess, and yes, also because every rehearsal costs money, and there is less and less to spend – but at the end it is the conductor who decides for which piece he wants to spend how much time. Most of the time the concerto gets the least…

    Haydn C Major is tiring because of the many quick notes, not much rest in between, and yes, it can get boring!

    Best wishes from Glasgow,


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