Why one should go to every single service

…aside from that’s how to get paid, of course.

I missed the rehearsal last Thursday afternoon on account of having to leave town for a day. So of course that was the rehearsal that my colleagues will be talking about for the next decade or so.

On the agenda was the Chopin first concerto with a Canadian pianist by the name of Louis Lortie. The conductor was Vasily Petrenko, our guest for the week. The only thing out of the ordinary was the orchestral accompaniment.

A few years ago we commissioned Paul Chihara to re-arrange the accompaniment for a performance we did with Bill Wolfram. As most orchestra musicians know, Chopin’s version is massively tedious to play (and, to my mind, to listen to as well). He only wrote a handful of works for anything except solo piano, so it’s not surprising that his writing for orchestra is undistinguished. I remember the Chihara version (which changes not a note in the piano part, by the way) as an improvement, at least from the point of view of getting from one end to the other without dying either of boredom or of pain.

Back to Thursday. It was an open rehearsal, with a number of donors invited to attend. As well, Paul Chihara was in the audience, having flown in from LA for the occasion. The rehearsal began with a run-through of the first movement. Then things began to go off the rails with  Lortie standing up and telling the orchestra: “I have an announcement.”

Indeed he did. Reportedly, his announcement (delivered, I’m told, in a very accusatory tone at a group of people whose only sin was to play what was on their stands) was that he, Louis Lortie, had been engaged to perform the Chopin first concerto, that this was not the Chopin first concerto, that we (!?) were free to find another pianist to play what was not the Chopin first concerto, but that, if we (!?) were to do that, of course we (!?) would still have to pay him. He also made it clear that he was not aware in advance that we (!?)  were not going to be doing the Chopin first concerto. Petrenko, rather surprised at this turn of events, suggested the orchestra take a break.

When the orchestra returned, there was a different set of parts on the stand, Chihara had headed back to the airport, and the principal strings had a homework bowing assignment to occupy their previously free evening.

I am told that his assertion that he was unaware that we (!?)  were not doing the Chopin first concerto was not entirely accurate, although it does appear that he was not aware of the existence of the Chihara arrangement until his arrival in Milwaukee.

I can understand why someone might object to an alternate version of the accompaniment of a concerto that he/she was engaged to perform. It shows a certain insensitivity to the suffering of others to insist on the original Chopin parts, but I don’t expect pianists to get that playing a string instrument can hurt.

What I can’t understand is choosing to make a fuss about it in front of the orchestra’s donors, or blaming the whole thing on the orchestra. Did he think that he was on tour with Orpheus? Did he think that the money to pay his fee was coming from the Society for the Preservation of Lousy Original Orchestrations rather than from the people who were out in the hall listening? Did he think that the number of orchestras looking for piano soloists is greater than the number of piano soloists looking for orchestras? Did he think he was living in pianist nirvana?

It sounded very reminiscent of the old joke (slightly re-worked for this occasion): what’s the difference between God and a piano soloist? God doesn’t think he can play the piano.

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4 Responses to “Why one should go to every single service”

  1. Seldy Cramer Says:

    Dear Mr. Levine, I am Louis Lortie’s manager, and wanted you to know that we were never informed about this new arrangement of the Chopin E minor Concerto until Louis found out about it quite by accident the day before his first rehearsal with the Milwaukee Symphony. The MSO’s artistic assistant was driving Louis to his hotel and mentioned that she was looking forward to the composer coming to his performances of the Chopin. Louis, wondering whether Chopin had risen from the dead, asked her what she meant, and she said that she thought there was a new arrangement of the Chopin orchestral score, but that she might be mistaken.

    Louis, was of course alarmed and called me right away. I then called my contact at the MSO, Larry Tucker, who admitted that we had not been informed about this in advance, and who then said that the alterations to the score by this composer were insignificant, “a few doublings of the horns in the second movement”. I told this to Louis, and he then tried to get together with Mr. Petrenko that evening, and also to have the MSO librarian send over the altered score to his hotel room, both to no avail.

    The next morning, after 10 minutes of going through the work, Louis could tell that the alterations were not insignificant at all..it sounded very different and it was very strange and disturbing to him. He decided not to waste any more time with this score and so made his announcement. He had every right not to continue with the altered score. He was hired to play the Chopin E minor Concerto the way it was originally composed. If the MSO wanted to use this altered score, they should have gotten the score to Louis months ago to consider it and get used to it. It is outrageous that they did not do so.

    I don’t blame Louis for doing what he did. He was mistreated by the MSO He should not be maligned for what happened. I am happy to say that at his performances the audience loved his Chopin so much, (played the way Chopin composed it), that he played a Chopin Etude as an encore.

  2. Robert Levine Says:

    For me, the issue is far less whether or not the Chihara is a good arrangement, or even whether Mr. Lortie knew about it in advance. Of course he should have been informed in advance. I suspect what happened is that he was engaged by staff that are no longer here, and that our current staffers may simply have assumed that he was informed by those who did the paperwork when he was engaged.

    And of course he had the right to ask for the original accompaniment. But I think that making a scene about it in front of the orchestra’s donors, and behaving as if the whole thing was the fault of the musicians, was unfortunate. No one would have faulted Mr. Lortie had he, at the end of the first movement read-through, quietly asked the conductor for the other version, or even asked to see management at that point and made the exact same speech to them, out of earshot of the invited audience.

    What he chose to do instead embarrassed the orchestra, was rude to Paul Chihara (who was also not guilty of anything except doing what he’d been asked to do), and certainly had the potential to damage the institution’s relationship with its funders. Especially in a time of economic crisis (and one in which much of the staff’s time the past month or so has been spent figuring out how to get to the end of the season without incurring a crippling deficit), such behavior is not acceptable.

  3. KF Says:

    I write a blog, so I’m all too aware of the pros and pitfalls of the internet. As a pianist myself, I’ve often worked with divas and arrogant people with bad attitude – usually opera singers. I agree that Chopin’s concerti always present problems – I’m reluctant to perform those myself because I think the orchestral parts are so bloody awkward and sometimes just unplayable. All in favour of the reworked orchestral part for this concerto (though like one poster stated, I feel the bloody concerto should not be played…period!).

    In fairness to Louis Lortie, a pianist who shows up expecting to perform a concerto with the orchestral accompaniment as he knows it, and not a reworked version of it has the right to be pissed off. Yes, he might have overreacted a bit (its hard to tell if he did, or if the original poster is just a little miffed) but enough people throw a strop everyday, and nobody goes blogging about it, so I think its a little harsh to single out Lortie in this instance. I mean if an opera singer throws a strop (which they do every day usually) its not considered a big deal, but a piano soloist is not allowed to get a little cheesed off. If Christian Bale is allowed to behave like a twit and scream at someone (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrvMTv_r8sA) why can’t Louis Lortie air his displeasure at having to play something he’s not familiar with/used ti. And WHY on earth were public/donors present in the first place? That in itself was unprofessional and its not Lortie’s problem if amateurish artistic administration can’t get the basics right. Of course he was wrong to throw a tantrum, but somehow painting him as a villian is a bit ridiculous and childish. All this fuss over a VERY mediocre piece of music as well. Not surprised that Lortie played an Etude as an encore…MUCH better!!

  4. Robert Levine Says:

    “Yes, he might have overreacted a bit (its hard to tell if he did, or if the original poster is just a little miffed)…”

    I’ll admit to being miffed, but I’ve checked my account with several people who were present and verified it was accurate – and who also felt that he “overreacted” (although they used stronger language than that).

    “…but enough people throw a strop everyday, and nobody goes blogging about it, so I think its a little harsh to single out Lortie in this instance. I mean if an opera singer throws a strop (which they do every day usually) its not considered a big deal, but a piano soloist is not allowed to get a little cheesed off.”

    If this was an everyday occurrence, obviously I wouldn’t have written about it. But I’ve been in this business for close to 35 years and had never seen anything like this before.

    “…why can’t Louis Lortie air his displeasure at having to play something he’s not familiar with/used.”

    Why did he chew out the orchestra? What did we do wrong? Why didn’t he go backstage and throw a tantrum there? We’d all understand that.

    “And WHY on earth were public/donors present in the first place? ”

    Because it was an open rehearsal. Like most orchestras, we’re dependent on the goodwill of donors, and development departments frequently use such events to build relationships with donors. Nothing “amateurish” about that at all.

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