The Life of a Collaborative Pianist

By Steven Libowitz   |   August 1, 2023
Collaborative pianist Forrest Howell will play a unique baritone trombone pairing at the upcoming Duo Competition

Take a look at the photo in the online calendar promoting the Duo Competition taking place on July 31. The violinist is brightly lit, his facial features and instrument fully visible, while the pianist is in the background, comparatively dark and blurry with even her hair blending into the background, and no piano keys visible. 

The graphics for professional gigs is much the same, with the instrumental “star” soloist in big bold type while the piano player’s name is much smaller, like an afterthought. Such is the life of the collaborative pianist, who used to be called accompanists, as if their contribution to recitals were somehow secondary to the other instruments. 

At least at the Music Academy, ever since the Concerto Competition was replaced by the Duo Competition several years ago, the collaborative piano fellows picked for the summer festival now have a spotlight event in which they share the attention, which is as it should be. The keyboard masters could be considered the unsung heroes of the summer, ones who have to perhaps prepare more repertoire than anyone else, given that they each participate in up to half a dozen master classes each week – by comparison, violinists appear just a handful of times all summer – playing everything from sonatas to orchestral transcriptions for every instrument at Miraflores. 

But Forrest Howell didn’t come here to become a spotlight-seeking solo piano star. 

“I get a lot of satisfaction out of playing solo piano music, but by now I realize that I enjoy the variety you get working with other musicians so much more,” said Howell, 31, a South Korea native who earned a doctorate in Piano Performance and Pedagogy from the University of Michigan and is already well-ensconced in a professional career. “Every performance feels fresh, because it’s really never the same depending on the collective energy between you and the other musician. It’s always been more satisfying to me than being the only person on the stage and feeling like I have to do it all on my own.” 

Howell has certainly met a bunch of new folks this summer, as the collab cohort spends its morning preparing and practicing (while the other instrumentalists are in orchestra rehearsals) to be ready for the flurry of activity in the afternoons. 

“We play for lessons, we have the masterclass performances, and we have rehearsals where we’re collaborating,” he said. “The pace is pretty fast. The mornings are when we get everything organized and keep the music fresh in our fingers. It’s demanding, and we have to have a cheery disposition all the while.” 

Indeed, Howell was completely congenial in carving an hour out of his schedule to speak with me barely minutes after performing in the Collaborative Piano showcase. Being adaptable is an essential skill, and one of the secrets to success as an accompanist – er, collaborative pianist. 

“The most important thing is to be able to connect, to build a positive rapport with these other musicians right from the first moment, the first interaction, both personally and musically,” he said. “That’s how you create a sustainable working relationship. There are a lot of strong personalities in the music world, and you have to get along with all of them. And every instrument has its own idiosyncrasies. You have to be able to adjust right away, and know what kind of sounds on the piano will complement the sound on a tuba or a violin or clarinet.”

Howell said he understands that it takes a certain level of maturity to be able to work well with everyone.

“It’s like any relationship. It’s not about having the same roles or presence or getting recognition. It’s about a feeling of mutual respect for what each of us is bringing to the table.” 

Howell will be in the spotlight at the Duo Competition on July 31 as the pianist is one of five (of the studio’s nine fellows) who survived preliminary rounds – each pianist was paired with at least five instrumental fellows – to vie for the grand prize that includes $5,000 cash and a recital back at Hahn Hall to premiere a commission by Derek Bermel. The composer will be one of the three adjudicators along with pianist Anne Epperson – who taught collaborative piano at both the Academy and UCSB years ago – and the innovative violinist Jennifer Koh. 

Howell will be sharing the stage with baritone trombonist Luke Sieve. Creating a connection between the two was easy, Howell said.

“We immediately got each other musically, so it’s been really satisfying to work together.” 

Howell and Sieve will be performing three rarely heard works including Stjepan Šulek’s “Sonata ‘Vox Gabrieli’, “Fantasia IV”by Kevin Day, and “Extremely Close” by Daniela Candillari. For the latter, the duo received some private coaching by the composer, who was the conductor for this month’s production of La bohème

“She gave us a lot of great comments and explained her thought process while she was writing the piece,” Howell said. “It was really helpful.”

Mastering modern music is a priority for Howell.

“It helps us to engage with the music because these are composers who are writing for our times rather than an era that we have no context for,” he said. “What we’re doing feels important in a way, because it gives us a chance to share music that we care about and matters. Winning would be awesome, but we mostly just want to make sure that what we’re putting across is effective and clear and that people can have a chance to respond to it.”

Winning would also increase the likelihood that the trombonist and pianist might record the pieces, one of which has not actually been released at all. 

“That would be the dream, to put more of this repertoire out there, because it’s not just an unusual instrument pairing but also music that’s very good and really moving.”

Howell said his connection with Sieve is sure to continue whether they win or not, one of several new partnerships he’ll be pursuing having achieved his summer goal of widening his network of musical collaborators. 

In the meantime, though, there’s still half a dozen more pieces to prepare, as Howell hunkers down for the final master class performances as well as playing in this weekend’s concert with the Academy Festival Orchestra on Saturday night. 

“It’s a busy summer,” Howell said. “It’s great.” 

Upcoming @ MA 

Oboist Eugene Izotov leads the Master Class this Friday, July 28

Thursday, July 27: The Music Academy made something of a left turn when they asked James Darrah to come back to the summer festival to start doing special projects several years back, smartly tapping the cutting-edge director whose reputation has only grown in the interim. Praised for visually arresting work, abstract yet visceral staging and strongly executed original concepts that meet at the intersection of theater, opera, and film, Darrah has brought that ethos to the Academy in his latest project. After creating a Cabaret for MA’s 75th anniversary last year that transported listeners back to the Cabaret era, Darrah and co-producer/music director Craig Terry are putting the finishing touches on Cabaret: 1979. Fellows from the vocal institute will journey back to Laurel Canyon in the late 1970s to revisit the music of the legendary singer-songwriters of that iconic era, including Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, and Jackson Browne, among others, with Hahn Hall once again transformed into a venue from the era. Tonight’s premiere is sold out, but a few tickets remain for Sunday’s reprise. (7:30 pm tonight, 3:30 pm Sunday; Hahn Hall; $65) 

Friday, July 28: To quote Bob Dylan, “It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there.” Meaning, in MA terms we’re nearing the end of the summer, when all the venues will go dark festival-wise for 44 weeks. Sure, there’s still 10 days left, but the studios are already wrapping up their master class series. Today offers last chances to hear fellows perform and watch them get coached in real time for oboe with Eugene Izotov, viola led by Karen Dreyfus, and solo piano with Conor Hanick. (Respectively: 1:30 pm, 1:30 pm & 3:30 pm; Lehmann, Weinmann, & Hahn; $10)… The summer’s penultimate Picnic Concert pushes the envelope even more than email disrupted the post office, opening with Anna Þorvaldsdóttir’s “Sola” for solo viola and electronics followed by Russell Wharton’s “Deus Ex Metronome”for solo snare drum and audio, and Kaija Saariaho’s “Fall” for harp and electronics – all pieces we’re imagining you haven’t heard before, unless you happen to be one of the performing fellows’ compeers. That’s probably also true for two of the three ensuing works, Libby Larsen’s “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII”(soprano and piano) and Kees Olthuis’ “Introduction and Allegro,”sandwiched around Samuel Barber’s “Dover Beach,Op. 3.” We recommend a hearty picnic prior to the performance. (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $40)

Saturday, July 29: JoAnn Falletta became the first woman to lead a major American ensemble when she was appointed music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic back in 1998, and fortunately things have moved in the right direction equity-wise since then, especially at the Academy, where a female conductor isn’t a novelty at all. Considered among the best in the business in our era, Falletta leads the Academy Festival Orchestra in the return of symphony concerts to the Granada after a three-week break. The program opens with Roberto Sierra’s “Fandangos”to Ravel’s “La valse”before displaying breadth and range post-intermission via Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Dances, Op. 45.” (7:30 pm; Granada; $55) Hear from Falletta herself via the pre-concert Meet-the-Conductor talk and Q&A session around the corner. (6 pm; Sullivan Goss; $25) 

Tuesday, August 1: Three more studios offer their final master classes of the festival: flute with Timothy Day, vocal with new Vocal Institute Co-director Sasha Cooke, and horn with Julie Landsman (Respectively: 1:30 pm, 3 pm, & 3:30 pm; Weinmann & Hahn [vocal]; $10)…. Violinist Elena Urioste has soloed with major orchestras throughout the United States, including the Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Minnesota orchestras; New York, L.A., and Buffalo philharmonics; plus countless more overseas. She’s also a commissioned chamber player and the founder and artistic director of Chamber Music by the Sea in Maryland. But many folks know her better by the path she took during the pandemic. Urioste and pianist-husband Tom Poster began posting a new video daily starting in March 2020, and quickly began honoring requests for their genre-busting project that helped keep the musicians creatively occupied and the digital community engaged, while spreading the joy of music far and wide. In 2021, the pair released The Jukebox Album, culling 17 selections from the project that range from arrangements by Poster of classic songs by Piaf and Porter to poignant snippets of unjustly neglected composers such as Lili Boulanger and Cécile Chaminade. In their recital this afternoon, Urioste and Post will play sonatas by Strauss and Luise Adolpha Le Beau before diving into selections from The Jukebox Album and other works from the #UriostePostJukebox project. (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $55) 

Wednesday, August 2: It’s closing time for another pair of master classes: cello with David Geber, and double bass with Nico Abondolo (1:30, 3:30 pm; Lehmann & Weinmann, $10)… The solo piano studio gets its final appearance of the season in a showcase series concert featuring all five of the fellows, which includes competition winner Szuyu Su, whose victory earned her a $5,000 cash award and a commission by Anthony Cheung to be premiered in a recital presented by the Music Academy in Hahn Hall in 2024. (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $40)  


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