Chopin Pranks the Ushers
(Or, How To Make An Unsuspecting Executive Director Faint)

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Frédéric Chopin composed his Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1830. He composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1829.

Got that?

So when you tell a conductor that you’ve engaged the amazing pianist Orion Weiss for one of the season’s dates that you’re planning, and the conductor says “Great! Let’s have him play Chopin’s second concerto!” you hop on the phone and say “Hi Orion, how about ‘Chopin’s second concerto?’” He says “Awesome!” and that’s that.

You can see where this is going.

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Chopin, age 20 at the time, composed and performed his concerto in F minor to great acclaim. With that triumph, he sat down to compose a new concerto in E minor. When he performed the E minor concerto, a publisher was on hand who raced backstage afterward, and offered to publish it. Young Fred quickly agreed, and the publisher printed the title page of this fabulous new work: “Piano Concerto No. 1.” A newly flush Chopin later went back to the publisher and said he had another concerto, this one in F minor, and the publisher instantly agreed to publish it: “Piano Concerto No. 2.” So the numbering is opposite the compositional chronology. Of the more than 200 works for piano that Chopin composed over his lifetime, those are the only two concertos.

The planning process for setting a concert season’s dates, engaging the soloists, determining the repertoire, and engaging the orchestra musicians, begins more than a year before the season is to begin. The engagement of Orion Weiss, for a performance in May 2011, was “finalized” in January 2010. A month later the “Westchester Philharmonic’s 2010-11 Season” was officially announced. The press releases were released. The brochures and postcards were printed and mailed. The e-blasts were pushed. The website was updated. The subscription renewal campaign began in March 2010. Over the course of that summer, the program notes were written, edited, and revised, and the program books were designed and printed.

And every one of those items indicated

Saturday, May 14, 2011 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, May 15, 2011 at 3:00 pm
Itzhak Perlman, conducting
Orion Weiss, piano
Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor

The orchestra librarian typically sends the conductor’s score to the conductor three or four months before an engagement, so the conductor can begin their own preparations, and sometimes so they can tell the librarian about some interpretive markings to be entered into the individual instrument parts, which saves precious time during rehearsals. Depending on the conductor, the extent of their own library, and their performing schedule leading up to our dates, some like to receive the score sooner, some tell us not to even bother, they know the work inside and out. In that case it often boils down to a choice of editions. The question of various editions has nothing to do with different notes but how the parts and the conductor’s score are organized. It is disastrous when a conductor is working from one edition, the orchestra is reading from another edition, and the sections are not marked the same way, so when the conductor says “let’s start at letter D” and the orchestra says “we don’t have letters, just measure numbers,” it again eats up precious rehearsal time because everyone is literally not on the same page.

In this case, Perlman told the librarian he had his own score for the Chopin, so the librarian didn’t need to send one to him in advance. Wonderful, we just saved some postage. But Perlman did want to give a few directional notes to the librarian, to be entered into the individual musicians’ parts…an “up bow” here, a staccato there, so as the musicians practiced their parts in advance of rehearsals, they already had some of the conductor’s interpretive direction.

Except while they were on the phone together, the librarian couldn’t seem to find any of the sections that Perlman was indicating. “You said to mark a tenuto in the horn part in measure 322 but the horns don’t play in measure 322.” Was it the common problem of using different editions?

No. Perlman was looking at Concerto No. 1 in E Minor. The librarian was looking at Concerto No. 2 in F Minor.

And all because a year earlier, the spoken phrase “Chopin’s second concerto” was intended to mean the second concerto he wrote. And that’s Concerto No. 1.

I get the call from the librarian. A few minutes later the staff picks me up off the floor.

 

Chopin was a virtuoso pianist, so his concertos are very difficult. He wrote them so he could perform them himself, and he wasn’t above a little showmanship that displayed his technical prowess. Today’s pianists have to practice not hours or days or months, but years, to master a Chopin concerto.

 

You can imagine my trepidation in making the phone call to the pianist: “Hi Orion. So we have a little, itty-bitty change.”
 

To my shock and delight, Orion told me he was always planning to play “Piano Concerto No. 1,” because he knew it was Chopin’s second concerto but also because he and Perlman had already performed it together multiple times while touring together with the Israel Philharmonic. In other words, Perlman and Weiss were on the same page, it was the executive director, who loved Chopin but clearly wasn’t a scholar on his works, who wasn’t. I called the librarian back, and happily, he had already anticipated the need to acquire the other concerto. And since the musicians don’t read our press releases anyway and just wait for the librarian to send them whatever it is they need to learn, they were largely oblivious to the change.

Orion Weiss 3_credit Jacob Blickenstaff
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May was approaching, and after all that, Mr. Perlman ended up having to bow out of that concert. We were delighted and gratified that our good friend Jaime Laredo was able to step in. And Jaime knew the work well.

For those keeping score, that meant three program inserts for the pre-printed concert program: The new title page, the new bio for the conductor, and the new program notes describing the work being performed.

Whether or not anyone in the audience was initially disappointed to read about the change when they took their seats, the cascading bravos that met Orion, Jaime, and the orchestra at the work’s conclusion proved that all is indeed well that ends well.

Except for the Concert Hall ushers, whose job it is to stuff those inserts into the programs. I bought them all pizza, spent a few minutes with them stuffing programs while sitting on the floor, and held court with a little hard-won education on the piano concertos of Frédéric Chopin. All two of them.

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(Chopin's second concerto.)