As we approach our inaugural performance, Songs of Love, we sat down to chat with pianist extraordinaire, Mark Connors about working as an accompanist and his advice for upcoming pianist generations. Mark is a graduate of the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, and has since worked extensively as a pianist, repetiteur and musical director across Australia with companies including Underground Opera, Opera Queensland, and Opera Australia.
Pianist, Mark Connors.
A singer’s best friend
The voice is one of those instruments that, unless deliberately performing an acapella piece (independently of accompaniment), needs something to support it musically. One could say then that a singer’s best friend is their piano accompanist. From reducing entire orchestral scores, improvising figured bass on the harpsichord, to following you even when you come in a bar early; this partnership is built on trust and respect, with both coming together to communicate and share ideas through the same language - music.
You’re an in-demand accompanist and repetiteur in Brisbane. How do you approach learning pieces to accompany singers? Is it very different to how you would approach learning a solo piece?
The fundamental difference is that accompaniment music is to be played with other musicians. So, it’s necessary to learn the soloist’s part to a degree that you can understand what they are doing and why. In the case of singers, I need to understand the text, and develop my own ideas about the interpretation of it. I try to practice my part without locking myself rigidly into exact tempi, phrasing, rubato etc. so that when I first meet with the soloist, those elements of the music can be explored in partnership.
What would be your advice to any other aspiring pianists who would like to work in opera as a repetiteur/pianist?
Get to know singers! They’re a good bunch of people. Offer yourself to play for their lessons, auditions, competitions, recitals. So much of this industry is reputation based and about networking. Behind all of that, get to know the repertoire - standard operatic works and art songs. Lastly, languages - knowledge of at least Italian, French and German makes you a valuable asset to singers who may seek your services.
Mark Connors rehearsing with Tom Nicholson (baritone) for Songs of Love in Saint Andrew's Uniting Church.
In Songs of Love, you’ll be performing a variety of works by different composers. Is there a piece that you are most looking forward to? What has been your experience with this repertoire before, is it familiar or is it new to you?
There is some new material, and some familiar material to me. I am quite looking forward to performing Dvořák’s Love Songs - prior to preparing for this concert I did not know them at all. Having played his Gypsy Songs before I knew I was going to enjoy his unique harmonic voice, but here his focus is broadened to a wide palette of emotional colours. I have played several of Schumann’s art songs before, and the Dichterliebe is quite a favourite of mine, primarily because of the cohesion between the songs and the various ways Schumann uses the piano to illustrate elements of the story, not unlike Schubert.