When I was going to work with the orchestra for the first time, this sense of ownership resulting from my co-creative role became particularly clear. The intimate knowledge of the music I had achieved ended up creating a distance between me and the other musicians. I had a stronger connection to the work and the composer than I have ever felt before when playing other piano concerti. The leader or the orchestra referred to my part as ‘Ellen.' My identity was closely linked to the music; I became the voice of the piano, I was the sounds of the children. This was accompanied by a feeling of immense responsibility for the composition and a feeling of being outside the orchestra.
I felt that many in the orchestra had distanced them from me and the music. There may be several reasons for this. Some might have found the recordings of the children ethically dubious. The electronic parameters may have seemed strange and complex. Ensemble Allegria is a young ensemble, and their principal interest is in canonical music. Did they feel alienated by the aesthetics and notation, perhaps? The ensemble also had an external leader/concertmaster for this particular concert, and it was not the ensemble that had commissioned the work. The orchestra’s music may have looked easy to play to each of the musicians, judging by their parts. They did not need to spend much time rehearsing their parts individually and, consequently, did not anticipate needing a great deal of time working on the music in collective rehearsal. The first part of the piano concerto consists, in the orchestral section, of small fragments played using mutes. Unless these fragments are practised together, the incredibly precise, delicate effect will never be achieved. The fragments need sufficient energy for the fainter sounds to travel, and the musicians all need to know exactly where and how their contribution fits into the architecture of the piece as a whole. They also need to know how the fragments and the sounds of the children are intertwined in the creation of the soundscape. Because Thorsen had given each member of the orchestra their part in this piano concerto, they performed virtually as soloists in many passages, not just as members of a group of instruments. Every musician was thus responsible for their part of the fragmented whole. In the event, the fragments were never quite as precise as desired and came across as unstable and incoherent. I wondered whether the allotted rehearsal time for at the tips of my fingers/on the tip of my tongue had been cut because these fragments never really fell perfectly into place.
As a soloist in a piano concerto, I want to ‘extemporise’ together with the orchestra and conductor I am working with at the time. I want us to have the same conception of the music and be ready to respond to each other when we play. I have a vivid memory of a concert given by the pianist Martha Argerich at the Concertgebouw in 1998, while I was studying in Amsterdam. She played Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under the conductor Riccardo Chailly. The Concertgebouw was filled to the rafters, and I had got a seat on the lowest rung of the choir stalls behind the orchestra. From there I could follow Argerich’s raven-black eyes as she challenged every one of the musicians throughout the piano concerto. She looked only rarely at the conductor, concentrating instead on the musicians themselves, requiring by her very presence and unpredictable playing that they had to know the work so well that they could lift their eyes from the notes and play with her directly, letting the work become new on this particular night. Her expression compelled them to give as much as they could during the performance. It was an unusually raw and unforgettable concert that vibrated with energy.
This sort of approach would have been impossible for the soloist in the premiere of the piano concerto at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue. Nobody in the orchestra knew the soloist’s part or, for that matter, knew much more about their position in the musical material. I made several suggestions to the musicians and conductor to add cue notes from the solo part to help them align themselves to the parts played by me. I suggested improvising together over the samples so that everyone had the same aural idea of the children’s sounds. But my suggestions were not given priority and, in consequence, I had to align myself with the orchestra during the performance. The result was the exact opposite of the traditional conception of the soloist’s role as a free and spontaneous.
I had to adopt an accompanying role I know well from working with singers and playing complex chamber pieces where the other musicians are unfamiliar with the piano part. In such cases, the pianist sits with the full score and thus have to adapt, in part, to what the other musicians are playing and make sure the musicians come together again if they get lost by something unpredictable happening along the way. This role can limit the pianist’s contribution. Performances like these are often imprecise and characterised by latency.
I was acutely aware at the premiere of at the tips of my fingers / on the tip of my tongue that I would have to accentuate the solo part and my body language to counter the latency that naturally occurs when not everyone concerned is sufficiently familiar with the work. When I see and listen to the recording of the piano concerto, I think I succeeded to a certain extent, although I remember the sense I had of myself not being able to play freely. The music sounds good, and the composition seems very original and communicative, but it lacks the energy and precision one expects of a performance in which everyone involved helps build a common understanding of the music in that particular setting.