Performing any piano concerto is a challenge on its own. But some keyboardists raise the stakes and conduct at the same time. Currently prominent artists who have taken on both roles include Piotr Anderszewski, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Barry Douglas, Andrew Litton and André Previn.
Although this practice remains rare for some symphony orchestras, it has been common at Orchestra Hall. Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1991 through 2006, and a renowned pianist, routinely led Mozart’s piano concertos from the keyboard. In recent seasons, pianist Mitsuko Uchida has regularly done both, and Jeffrey Kahane has joined the CSO in the two capacities several times, including conducting Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue from the keyboard at the Ravinia Festival in 2016.
“It still raises eyebrows,” said Kahane, 61, who began to do both when he was in 30s, learning through experience. Now it just seems completely natural to him. “There are places where I go where people who haven’t seen it say, ‘Oh, my goodness, how do you do that?’ My response is always the same. I’ve been doing it for half of my life and it’s just as natural as breathing. And I always point out that the music I conduct form the piano, with a few exceptions, was intended to be conducted from the piano.”
Celebrated soloist Sir András Schiff first joined Chicago Symphony as pianist and conductor in 1991, and he will return for concerts Nov. 2-5, taking on both roles in Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F Minor and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. In 1999, Schiff formed the chamber orchestra, Cappella Andrea Barca, and he has appeared regularly as pianist-conductor with such other ensembles as the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
Although Bach, Mozart and Beethoven routinely led accompanying ensembles from the keyboard (Vivaldi and Corelli did the same from the violin), such a dual role largely disappeared in the 19th century with the rise of dedicated conductors and ever-larger symphonic orchestras. Concertos by composers like Schumann and Brahms contained tempo changes and complicated rhythms that are tough if not almost impossible to negotiate without a conductor. “It no longer made musical or logistical sense for someone to conduct from the keyboard,” Kahane said. “What was totally organic and natural at the time of Bach and Mozart and early Beethoven became entirely superfluous and basically impossible for a lot of the repertoire.”
The practice returned in the early 20th century. Noted Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer, for example, formed a chamber orchestra in 1932 and sought to perform music of the Baroque and Classical periods in what was seen then as a historically accurate way, an approach that meant conducting Bach and Mozart concertos from the keyboard. Harpsichordist Nicholas Kraemer, principal guest conductor of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque and a regular guest conductor of the CSO, recalls seeing Raymond Leppard lead the English Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard in the 1960s. “He was a total inspiration to me, to see how easy he made it look,” Kraemer said. “He was so expressive, and it was always described to me by the players that you’d just watch his right shoulder, and you’d get so much from it.”
Conducting from the keyboard got a particularly big boost in the 1960s and ’70s with the emergence of the period-instrument movement and its attention to historically authentic music-making. Harpischordist Trevor Pinnock founded the English Concert in 1972 and another first-rate exponent of the instrument, Christopher Hogwood, formed the Academy of Ancient Music a year later — ensembles that would prove pivotal to promulgating this new-old approach to Baroque music.
Beyond taking on both tasks just in keyboard concertos, keyboardist-conductors in virtually all kinds of Baroque orchestral music also contribute to what is known as the continuo, an accompanying bass line and harmonic support. “I like to make a sound, a sound that is part of the ensemble,” said Kraemer, who has appeared in both roles several times with the CSO, most recently in December 2016. “You do feel very much part of it. You don’t feel aloof or removed from it or separated in any way. It’s this collegial feeling, really.”
While serving as soloist and conductor presents its challenges, it also offers some noteworthy advantages to the performer, orchestra and audience. The biggest hurdle for the performer is splitting his or her attention between playing the solo part and leading the orchestra — each a big task on its own. “You have to be so completely confident with what you are doing with the instrument that you can actually divide your brain, and this is what gives a lot of people pause,” Kahane said.
Kahane estimates he led at least 150 performances from the keyboard with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra during a 20-year tenure as music director that concluded at the end of the 2016-17 season. For that ensemble, performing a Mozart piano concerto with a maestro on the podium would almost feel strange. “And then, there are orchestras, including some very fine ones, that are not comfortable with it, and it takes some sort of coaxing,” Kahane said. “It feels unnatural to them at least initially, and then they usually end up enjoying it a lot.”
Conducting from the keyboard allows Kahane to communicate with an orchestra in a way that isn’t possible by standing on a podium. At least 90 percent of the time when he begins a series of rehearsals during a guest-conducting stint, especially if it’s his first time with an orchestra, he breaks with custom and starts with the concerto. This allows him to sit down with the ensemble, and they can become acquainted not just as conductor and musicians but also as fellow musicians. “The orchestra really has to adopt a different psychological attitude to the whole process,” he said. “They can’t do what they would normally do, which is rely exclusively on visual clues. They have to listen carefully. They have to watch. They have to become much more participatory and less like they are just following.”
The result is more of a chamber-music approach, the kind of intimate give-and-take common to a string quartet or piano trio. “That’s a tremendously beneficial thing, and it’s an exciting way to make music,” said organist, harpsichordist and conductor Stephen Alltop, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music and music director of Chicago’s Apollo Chorus.
Another benefit of a pianist-conductor, Alltop points out, is that it gives the audience a different and arguably better vantage point to see both the piano and orchestra. During a typical concerto performance, the piano is placed sideways on the stage with the lid raised. That means that only about half of the hall can see the soloist’s fingers on the keyboard, and the raised lid blocks the view of some of the orchestra. For a pianist-conductor, the instrument is placed so that the keys are parallel to the stage, making the artist much more visible to everyone in the hall. In addition, the lid is typically removed, eliminating any visual barriers.
“So it’s a much more open view of the music-making,” Alltop said. “The lid isn’t obscuring a large part of the orchestra. [The audience] can see the pianist playing on the keyboard more easily. They can see the communication between the conductor and the wind players and string players. So I think it sets a really different performance context.”
Although there are apparently no statistics on this practice, Kahane and Alltop are convinced that concerts with pianist-conductors are more common now than at any time in recent decades. But as previously suggested, such practice isn’t possible with every concerto. Kahane is one of the rare pianists who takes on a dual role with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, because of its accommodating chamber-like sensibility, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, using Ferde Grofe’s original 1924 orchestration, which consists essentially of a big band, along with banjo, violins and a percussion section.
But as Schiff is doing in his CSO concerts, most pianists choose not to conduct from the keyboard any works later than those by Mozart and the early ones by Beethoven that call for chamber-sized orchestras. “Once you get into the middle of the 19th-century [repertoire], it’s not only impractical, but why would you want to? The aesthetic of the concerto changed so dramatically,” Kahane said. “The idea of conducting a Brahms or Rachmaninov concerto, even assuming you could do it, makes no musical sense.”
TOP: Jeffrey Kahane conducts from the keyboard: “I’ve been doing it for half of my life and it’s just as natural as breathing.” | Photo: Jamie Pham