Musings on the Challenges of Orchestral Playing

Dec 2, 2007

What a strange and wonderful experience it is to stumble upon a new challenge – one which is both in my area of expertise and at the same time quite outside of it. I am referring to my recent forays into orchestral piano playing. As a younger musician I had quite a lot of orchestral experience– but as a cellist. Recently I have been invited to join the Baltimore Symphony and Marin Alsop on several modern works. I have just spent this past week with the orchestra playing a work by Aaron Jay Kernis called Newly Drawn Sky, and I have become very aware of how differently I play my instrument in this setting.

I have long been aware of how fundamentally incompatible the piano is from stringed instruments, the two biggest differences being the kind of attack and the presence (or absence, depending on one’s perspective) of the pedal. When playing chamber music for piano and strings, which I have done a lot of in my life, I take these factors into consideration as a matter of course. But I find it to be even more necessary in the orchestral setting. Take those two differences and multiply them by the amount of physical distance between me and the string section and they increase exponentially.

As a solo artist and chamber musician, I spend much energy trying to create as much lyricism as possible, as much sustain and legato as I can achieve (or create through illusion) on a percussion instrument. Given this context, it is rather surprising to find myself in a situation in which I must embrace the percussive elements of my instrument as my first priority. Combine the generally percussive nature of orchestral piano writing with the need to cushion and delay attacks in order to achieve good ensemble with far away members of the string section and you have… a conundrum! But I’m always up for a good challenge – this week I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the learning process of finding good solutions. As Robert Schumann wisely says, “There is never an end to learning.” And so, on to the next project!

Lura Johnson