Chapter 1 – I’m Playing As Fast as I Can

For context on this post, go here.

My first full Così was at Washington National Opera in 1989 (then The Washington Opera, a.k.a. TWO, when I was a proud member of the TWOTWO’s – The Women of The Washington Opera). I was the only pianist/coach assigned to the show, and the conductor was one of the best Mozart pianists of our time. I was terrified.

I had recently survived a confusing and misguided struggle with carpal tunnel syndrome, and it had left me with a lingering lack of confidence in my keyboard technique. (Misguided because I spent two years deconstructing and reconstructing my technique, only to find out that the whole thing was hormonally induced, then undergoing carpal tunnel surgery.) Playing Mozart for this conductor had me so intimidated that I retreated inside my physical technique in a way I nevber had before.

I had never trained to be a solo pianist, and I had developed curious ways of approaching things that had more to do with recreating an orchestral sound at the piano than they did with building a pristine keyboard technique. The conductor used to come around behind my shoulder, watch my “nervous repetition” and alternately shake his head in wonder and cluck his disapproval. (“Nervous” in this case not having anything to do with my terror; it just means banging out a single note or chord in quick succession by kind of hammering at it, instead of using finger-substitution. Sorry – no more pianist jargon, I promise.)

In that way, this was my kinesthetic Così. I was so preoccupied with my own body and its relationship to the piano that I missed many other things. But it was still an important gateway to the piece. I still remember the hours of trying to make what was on the printed page for “Soave sia il vento” (which kind of looks like a Hanon exercise in E Major) reconcile with the shimmering sound the orchestra made when it played it. And, this being my first big experience with playing technical rehearsals on both the piano and the harpsichord (for recits), I was finding my sea legs on how to move my hands to the harpsichord in a split second and have it not sound like I was playing it with oven mitts on.

I had also retreated inside my body because I was in the first trimester of my second pregnancy, and I spent long 4-hour staging sessions wondering if I could wait until the next break to throw up.)

This Così also was a mathematical one. Gardner calls this intelligence “mathematical/logical.” In music, it has everything to do with architecture and structure. Understanding Mozart as a pianist is a challenging and rewarding thing, but it barely prepares you for wrapping your mind around what it takes to create an overall structure for a 3.5-hour Mozart opera. The pacing, the way that the small moments need to stack up as building blocks for the entire evening – that’s a left-brain task in the extreme. 20 years later I am still in awe of conductors who can do it, and I first became aware of its terrifying significance in my first Così at the Kennedy Center.

Next: Chapter 2 – Guns? Really?

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