That famous old actors’ mantra – never work with children or animals – is founded on simple expediency; both groups will inevitably upstage the professional actor either by their refusal to abide by the conventions of stage etiquette or by their inherent “cute” factor. Is it, though, equally relevant to musicians? The subject came up during an informal gathering with concert promoters the other day.
For much of my early career as a cathedral organist, children were my main professional performing force. I invariably found the boys in a cathedral choir vastly more professional and capable than the men, many of whom were, in their own way, frightful prima donnas. And as a critic attending several opera performances (notably Aïda) where animals were present, the odd involuntary defecation on stage apart, I never saw any of them behave with anything other than immaculate professionalism; but I never had to work alongside them, so I can’t comment on the problems they created backstage.However, one of our assembled group told a lovely story about a performance of Carnival of the Animals in which children and animals were combined with catastrophic results. He had brought in two child star pianists and had filmed the relevant animals which he then projected on to a screen above the pianists. Unfortunately, having decided to film them all himself (to cut costs) he had not perhaps exercised the same care as a professional film director and as the lavish aquarium of his son’s school was projected in glorious colour on the screen, it was obvious that lying on the bottom of the colourful fish tank was a rubber object, not unconnected with birth control, which some young joker had, at some point, tossed into the aquarium where it lay unnoticed by fish and teachers. But not by the two pianist children who noticed it and collapsed into such paroxysms of laughter that the performance ground to a halt. “Work with children and animals? Never again!” was his advice.
However, that was a minority opinion. Most agreed that children and animals were easy to deal with in comparison with singers and concert pianists.From my limited experience, I have no doubt that singers are, almost without exception, an absolute headache with their unrealistic demands and their weird neuroses. A good friend once told me about a concert he put on in a church where the singer, on arrival, demanded that there should be no cucumber in the refreshments. Having previously ascertained that the singer had no unusual dietary (or other) requests, my friend had, in all good faith, asked the ladies of the church to prepare sandwiches which had, of course, contained cucumber. He spent the whole of the concert carefully removing the offending fruit (and it is a fruit, rather than a vegetable) from the sandwiches, not having the heart to ask the loyal ladies of the church to remake the whole batch.
Then there was the great singer visiting Malaysia whose demands included the air-conditioning of the concert hall being turned off for the entire duration of her visit. She came from a notoriously cold country and presumably regarded air-conditioning as an irrelevant luxury; as the hall became hotter and clammier, the instruments became increasingly out of tune as the violinists’ sweaty fingers slid loosely over their fingerboards and as the singer herself began to perspire copiously, one would have thought she would have learnt her lesson, but her parting shot was that the hall’s ventilation was bad and she would never come again. And there are countless similar stories where singers have forced on poor concert promoters unrealistic demands fuelled by an unrealistic belief in their own elevated position in the pecking order of humanity. I heard of a singer demanding only Israeli oranges while touring an Arab country, one insisting on the national flag in a concert hall being taken down as it clashed with the colour of her dress and another demanding that the front three rows of the auditorium be left empty (the concert had already sold out) as she did not want people to see her from too close quarters.But concert pianists? My experience of them is that they are usually pretty odd, but only a handful create real problems. Not so, it seems. Every wrong note in rehearsal, every miscounted rest, is never the fault of the pianist, but entirely down to inefficiency on behalf of the concert promoter. One pianist, apparently, insisted that the organisers had switched pianos in the hour which had elapsed between the rehearsal and the concert, and as the discarded pianos had not been tuned, there was an inordinate delay while the tuner was called to service the replacement piano while the increasingly irate audience waited. Another, it seemed, objected to the brand of water being offered in his changing room and, despite his preferred brand not being available in the country where he was playing, insisted some was brought in especially for his second concert the following week. The organiser wryly observed that, when he left, “he had not even touched the stuff”.
And it doesn’t stop there. For some reason, concert pianists attract a large and often unruly camp following. A trombone soloist will turn up with his trombone and, perhaps, his motorbike; a pianist turns up, not with his instrument, but with a gaggle of assistants, supporters and friends all of whom are expedited to be accommodated and nourished at the concert promoter’s expense, and all of whom will insist on travel only in luxury limousines and in the first class cabin of aeroplanes. And some even have their parents tagging along, making the demands for their children which one suspects the pianists themselves would never make. “I don’t mind xxx”, said one of our group, “it’s his mother that causes the problem and I’ll not have him again simply because of her”.Give me children and animals every time.