Pianists who accompany singers prefer the term collaborative pianist to the old term accompanist. In truth, there are many cases in which the piano part is actually of more importance than that of the “soloist.” One thinks of the works that Beethoven (though not modern programs) called Sonata for Piano and Violin, or compositions like the Hindemith Sonata for Tuba and Piano, where the tuba almost plays a bit part.

But singers are in a position to overshadow their necessary collaborator, even when — as in lieder — the piano part may actually be at least an equal protagonist. There are great singers like Marilyn Horne and Frederica von Stade who never cease, however, to praise the man “in the crook of whose piano I’ve stood all these years.” The deserving artist in question, Martin Katz, gives a telling interview here.

Tonight brought an extraordinary event in Carnegie Hall as Frederica von Stade gave what was billed as her New York Farewell Concert.

Many people say that they have trouble separating an artist’s art from his or her character. I ordinarily seem not to be one of them. My response to Wagner’s music, to take an extreme case, seems completely separate from my view of his beliefs and moral character. To mention Frederica von Stade is to cite an equally extreme case, though assuredly in the opposite direction. It’s difficult not to feel that her generosity, both of spirit and of practical action, makes her art all the more potent. I can’t really say, since I’m such a total fan of both the woman and her art.

But they certainly can be separated in some ways, for she manages to do it herself. She does nothing in her musical performances to capitalize on the inescapable reputation she has for what Evelyn Lear publicly proclaimed the other day as saintliness of a Mother Theresa caliber. In fact, as she sang William Bolcolm’s and Arnold Weinstein’s brilliant song “Amor” tonight, she made the indelible performances of it by Bolcolm’s wife and muse, Joan Morris, seem utterly chaste by comparison. When she sang Offenbach’s hilarious “Ah, Quel Dîner,” she wasn’t just a little tipsy, she seemed in danger of sliding under the piano — and even staggered as she walked onto the stage. She can convey these different atmospheres and characters with such complete conviction (while dressed in an enormous ball gown and hung with jewels) that we forget for the moment her own sterling personal reputation. This conclusively testifies to her integrity as an artist. Many other things testify to her integrity as a woman: a recurring late-night activity among some of my friends is to trade stories of her often extravagant but discrete kindness.

Wagner believed in the possiblity of a Gesamtkunstwerk. Frederica von Stade has shown us that a life, too, can be a complete work of art.

Frederica the Great

August 1, 2009

We could kvell over Frederica von Stade here every week or so. Nothing easier. What would not be so easy would be to avoid the superlatives about the woman that would put off people who had not been, as I and many friends have been, on the receiving end of her legendary kindness and consideration.

But now comes a story that I have to share. It speaks for itself, so that I won’t have to do the procession around the shrine of Saint Flicka by myself. You’ll probably join me.

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