It’s the summer recess and school’s out – but not always for musicians. All over the world there are places where young performers can continue their studies. I was at the Aspen Music Festival and School a couple of weeks ago playing and teaching, and I’ve just arrived in Santa Barbara to spend a few days at the Music Academy of the West doing the same thing. Both of these institutions have long, illustrious histories and their lists of alumni contain many of the names which appear on major international concert stages. (They are also both in glorious locations!)
But then comes September and a new school year and these scattered students will return to or begin new lives at hundreds of music colleges, academies, conservatories and universities across the world. They arrive with hopes and objectives: to immerse themselves in music, to play their instruments better, to prepare for a future career, to gain performance experience, even sometimes to become rich and famous. Many will leave disappointed and still more will leave with different jobs than they expected at the start of their education, but that is another discussion. What about those very few who are truly destined for major solo careers? Nothing is ever guaranteed, but there are some musicians who you know within a few bars have something special which at least gives them a stab at success.
Thinking particularly about pianists, what advice would I give to the few, most talented (and ambitious) ones entering music college? I would say ‘learn concertos’. Almost every career is started with concerto appearances. Even if a solo debut creates a initial stir the building up of a solid reputation will come with orchestras and conductors. It’s partly the decline of the piano recital – I’m told that there are fewer recital presenters curating series as every year passes; but it’s also that the opportunity to play on important stages and within earshot of important managers will happen with an orchestra sitting on one’s left. No unknown young pianist will get to play recitals in large halls but many have had the chance to stand in at the last minute for an indisposed artist in a concerto. Such an opportunity (at the Ravinia Festival with Christoph Eschenbach and the Chicago Symphony in 1999) launched the sky rocket which is Lang Lang; and ironically the career of the pianist he flew in to replace, Andre Watts, burst into brilliance in a similar way some decades earlier.
Because conservatory exams and auditions normally require solo repertoire students tend only to crack open the scores of piano and orchestra works when they have a date in the diary for which they are preparing – whether a concerto competition or a public performance. But by the time a career is beginning, and the contracts are being signed, and the travel agent is busy booking flights, it’s almost too late – unless you learn phenomenally quickly, or drive yourself to the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Even a casual music lover could probably name thirty piano concertos at the drop of a hat, each lasting an average of half an hour. That’s almost a day of complicated, demanding notes, often rehearsed with too little time, usually performed under great pressure, frequently with jet lag. Whilst you’re still at college and have the time prepare at least a handful of the most familiar ones and a few unfamiliar ones too. I’ve been asked over the years to play the 5th Saint-Saens concerto at least as much as the 5th Beethoven – and my own baptism of fire aged 22 was to have to play them both in the same week and both for the first time, at the Barbican Centre with the London Symphony Orchestra. I certainly felt older if not wiser in the days which followed.
Learn concertos before you have to, and learn them well. They will become part of your life as you play them with different orchestras and conductors throughout your career. And as you stand in the wings with the orchestra tuning and the lights dimming they will await you at the keyboard like old, intimate friends.