Done right, there is no more impressive sight onstage than seeing a great concert pianist leading an orchestra from their instrument. A few years ago, I saw Murray Perahia play Beethoven's 4th piano concerto with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, on a concert in which they also performed Beethoven's Leonore overture and the 7th symphony. Perahia's playing was pristine, though his conducting at times seemed to be something of an afterthought.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard pulled off a similar feat this past Monday at Alice Tully Hall, conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Haydn's "Farewell" symphony and Mozart's 17th piano concerto: part of this summer's Mostly Mozart festival. In contrast to Perahia, Aimard seemed like a giddy teenager on the podium, full of vibrant, infectious joy reflected in the astonishingly prodigious playing of the COE.
Despite his impressive chops as a conductor (and his recent appointment as artistic director of Britain's Aldeburgh Festival), Aimard, whom I've seen as a performer on several occasions, claims to have no ambition to join the jet-setting conducting tribe:
"To be clear: I am not a conductor, and I will never be one. This is not my way of life, I have nothing to do with that, and have no talent for that. But if you want me to give a definition to what I do, I wouldn't say I'm a pianist - I'm a musician, and the piano happens to be my instrument... I like to make chamber music, to be part of a group, to teach, to speak about music. In other words, to live the phenomenon on different sides." (The Guardian, 8.27)
As such, Aimard - arguably the world's foremost interpreter of 20th and 21st century piano music - took his multi-tasking role one step further by speaking to the audience at length about Stockhausen's Kontra-Punkte No. 1 (1953), which he programmed between the Haydn and Mozart. Clearly, this was a vast departure from standard Mostly Mozart fare - for many years even Beethoven was verboten - and Aimard no doubt realized it was unreasonable for this audience to accept Stockhausen's spiky, modernist music at face value. After speaking for nearly ten minutes, interspersing his words with musical excerpts in an attempt to illustrate the somewhat-tenuous connection between Haydn and Stockhausen, he finally conceded: "You may not love it."
But, he did succeed in getting us to listen, rather than feel like victims of some act of sonic terrorism. Kontra-Punkte began as points jumping from one musician to another before coalescing into groups - or, as Aimard called them, "lines" - that combined several instruments. Ultimately, as in Haydn's "Farewell," the musicians fell away one by one, leaving in the end only a piano (not, by the way, played by Aimard) playing two-part counterpoint. It was as enlightening and rewarding an experience as I've ever had listening to high-modernist music, and if the audience's reaction wasn't ecstatic, it was genuinely appreciative.
The concert was held in Alice Tully Hall: a welcome upgrade from the cavernous Avery Fisher, where most of the Mostly Mozart concerts are held. One can only hope we see more concerts moved over next summer. (More pics below.)