Most pianists who perform with singers don’t like to be thought of as playing second fiddle, so to speak. That’s why there’s a growing trend to do away with the term “accompanist,” with its tag-along connotations, and instead call the folks at the keyboard “collaborators.”
“That just drives me crazy,” says Craig Rutenberg. “It sounds like something you did when you were French and you worked with the Germans during the war.”
However you define his profession, Rutenberg is at the top of the field. He’ll be appearing Saturday night at Tannery Pond with soprano Christine Brewer. She’s one of today’s most prominent singers, including Thomas Hampson, Dawn Upshaw, Ben Heppner and Frederica von Stade, who turn to Rutenberg as their partner in recital.
“I’m an accompanist. I’m a decent pianist and I accompany a singer,” says Rutenberg. “My job is to lay down the most beautiful carpet of sound and help the singer make a good performance of a song. That for me is accompanying.”
Rutenberg makes his duties seem rather simple, but his career encompasses far more than what he does during a concert. Often going hand in hand with being an accompanist is being a vocal coach — the person who guides singers in learning and preparing repertoire, especially opera.
Rutenberg is a master coach as well. As head of the music staff at the Metropolitan Opera, he supervises a staff of 52 full and part-time musicians, including language coaches, assistant conductors, vocal coaches, ballet pianists and prompters.
“The best part of working at the Met is that I’m around some pretty wonderful musicians and conductors all day,” says Rutenberg. “And the worst part is sometimes I’m not.”
The job description for an accompanist/coach is lengthy: “You need to know a lot of repertoire, know language — French and German or German and Italian — know how to play like an orchestra,” say Rutenberg. “You have to be able to travel with someone and be pretty laid back. Frequently there’s going to be a stronger personality than you in charge of what’s going on. And then you have to always remember you’re not married to this person and you don’t have to go home with them at night. That’s the good part.”
Rutenberg is well beyond the point of needing a gig so badly that he has to play for whatever singer will hire him. As he puts it, “I don’t play for anyone I’m not crazy about.”
He’s been accompanying Christine Brewer for about 10 years now. Though he was businesslike and succinct during our interview, it was clear he practically swooned when he first heard her voice.
“When she came to do the Met auditions around ’90 or ’91, I was just sideways by the beauty and honest of her singing,” he recalls. “I remember blurting out that she’s the only person who should be in this competition.”
Brewer is known for her abilities to handle demanding roles in operas of Wagner and Strauss. Yet Saturday’s all-American program will be a departure. It features more intimate works of Menotti, Ives and Harold Arlen, plus the final aria, “All My Life,” from “The Mother of Us All,” Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s opera about Susan B. Anthony.
The concert will also be a departure for Rutenberg, who will perform a few short solo piano pieces, five of Thomson’s musical portraits.
A trademark of Thomson’s, the short pieces were written by the composer while the subject, usually a friend or colleague, would sit as if modeling for a painter. Among Saturday’s selections is “Bugles and Birds: A Portrait of Pablo Picasso.”
“The personality always comes through and in the most frightening way sometimes,” explains Rutenberg, who refers to Thomson as his friend and mentor.
“Virgil was incredibly kind and generous and one of the great blessing in a great life,” he recalls. “When I was an undergrad at Georgetown I would visit him in New York once a month for a weekend. I would learn to cook, and play the piano and earn a little extra by copying music.”
Thomson lived for decades at the famed Chelsea Hotel, where he died in 1989.
“I slept on the couch many many times. The kitchen was a glorified closet with a gas stove,” recalls Rutenberg. “Just about anyone who was anyone in the artistic or musical or literary world would come by.”
Stepping further out of his familiar role as accompanist, Rutenberg is in the midst of a three-year project to record Thomson’s complete solo piano works, which include about 90 portraits. He explains, “I’m probably the only person on the planet who’s alive who knew a good portion of these people.”
Originally appeared in the Times Union.
Previously on MyBigGayEars: