Guest writer: Katherine Burkwall-Ciscon, principal pianist of the Houston Ballet Orchestra
What does a pianist do during rehearsals? Sometimes we just watch the amazing process of dancers learning and refining their movements. Imagine having to learn the entire part of Maria from West Side Story from a recording. No written music, no script, no paper or pencils to take notes, only the recording. How long would it take? This month I’ve watched the entire company learn their roles in The Merry Widow in a matter of hours—bit by bit, step by step, with no written aids, only the artistic staff and a video. This is the third time I’ve played rehearsals for The Merry Widow, and I never grow tired of watching the characters develop, or of playing that wonderful music. Each time I also find there is a higher level of detail I somehow missed writing into my musical score the last time!
There are two layers of details I jot down in my music. The first layer is the choreographic signposts that the dancers use to block out each section. The more I know about how the choreography meshes with the music, the more common reference points I have with the dancers. I definitely do not have a dancer’s memory, so I write the steps of the corps and each character in my music. I’ve found that different colors are sometimes the only way to visually separate out the formations of the corps from the simultaneous actions of the principal characters. My music is covered in colored writing! Often, the dancers use nicknames to differentiate the sections (which I also write in the music). Some of my favorite nicknames for The Merry Widow sequences: “Ladies Choice”, “Pickey Dickey”, “Down the Avenue”, “Madame Butterfly”, “Explosions”, and Annette Page’s favorite: “Magic Moment.” (Annette Page is choreographer Ronald Hynd’s wife, and she joined her husband in setting The Merry Widow on the company).
The sheer number of waltz and polka themes, and their inevitable repetitions, brings out the second layer of details I need to add to the piano score. When John Lanchbery first wrote the piano reduction of his arrangement of Franz Lehár’s music, he gave the pianists the basic black and white version of the music that he would later orchestrate in glorious Technicolor. In the orchestration, whenever a major theme was repeated, Lanchbery used different mixes of instruments to change the color of the music, or he added counter-melodies (like the famous piccolo solo in Stars and Stripes Forever) to make the theme sound very different. My challenge as a pianist this time around was to try to put more of those counter-melodies into my music—and then figure out how to play it all with only ten fingers! Sometimes it just isn’t possible—the last triumphant waltz of The Merry Widow has a fantastic counter-melody in the strings that I just couldn’t squeeze in. But then, there is the glory of listening to the orchestra play it all in the dress rehearsals!