Pianos that work hard for a living

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The 2015 Annual Fund Appeal will raise money for three Steinway grand pianos for the orchestra pit, the Peter Hall Studio and the Jerwood Studio, as our present workhorses are tired out.

Duncan Williams explains why replacement pianos are now necessary.

What is a répétiteur?

When asked about my profession most people have never heard of it. So in a nutshell, a répétiteur is a musician who helps opera singers learn their parts.

The main purpose is to start the rehearsals off and be the orchestra until it physically arrives later in the rehearsal period. This takes the form of two or three days of music alone, when singers, conductor and pianist meet for the first time.

The first rehearsals

The first few hours of the first rehearsals are most nerve-racking for all involved as everybody tries to work each other out! The conductor may never have conducted the opera before, and this will be the first time they realise what previously has only been practised privately.

It’s therefore imperative the pianist knows the score intimately. The score should be so well studied that one need only take a cursory glance at the music whilst eyes are permanently fixed on the baton so that a kind of telepathy takes place and not one nuance is missed.

Creating an orchestral sound

As there are so many instruments in the orchestra, it’s the duty of the répétiteur to play like a full orchestra. What does it mean to play orchestrally? A piano obviously sounds like a piano, but in the hands of a skilled répétiteur it should transcend itself and transform into an instrument of great sonority and wonderful orchestral colour.

The pianist, having the whole orchestral palette in his head, can achieve this, using the piano to create a velvet cushion of sonority to represent a big string section or portentous trombones, a brassy exuberance to depict horns (in maybe a Wagner- or Weber-type hunting scene), a brilliance to show a screamingly high-pitched piccolo, and with an imagination even the triangle can be conveyed!

It’s of vital importance, to both conductor and singer, that they feel this wall of sound so when faced with the real thing it isn’t a shock.

Photo: Andy Orwell

To play like an orchestra also means focusing on where the sound happens in relation to the conductor’s beat. Often in the case of a large Wagnerian/Straussian sound it will happen late, i.e. behind the beat or, in the case of a fast virtuosic section, directly on the beat. This is often difficult to achieve if the piano has a shallow, immediate action for the former or a resistance muddy action for the latter.

One of the répétiteur’s most important roles is to create atmosphere in the rehearsal room –the piano becomes the ‘hearth’ where singers feel safe and can talk through any vocal issues.

Three new Steinways

Glyndebourne has always insisted on the highest standards, and for this the music staff need to work with the greatest instruments.

As the piano is a warhorse – as great as Brünhilde’s Grane – it has to cope fearlessly with the demands of a typical Festival working week; nine hours a day, six days a week.

It is my opinion that the Steinway has the best action of any piano in the world, the ability to create all the colours of a painter’s palette, and the stamina to deal with all the demands put upon it.

Steinways at Glyndebourne will enhance the musical standards immeasurably, producing sounds that not only make the final product of what we see on stage better, but also changing forever the lives of those who hear them.

If you would like to help us replace our pianos, or make a donation to help us in any of our other work, you can find out more about opportunities to support us here. You can also contact the Development Office on +44 (0)1273 815400.