Instructor of Vocal Literature and Diction, Musical Director of UConn Opera Theater
D.M.A., New England Conservatory
M.M., University of North Carolina at Greensboro
B.M., University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Pianist Brett Hodgdon has made a unique career at Emmanuel Music, where he is as important behind the scenes as on the stage. Since 2006, Hodgdon has been a regular rehearsal pianist who works with the conductor almost every Saturday to prepare the chorus and soloists for the Sunday cantata. “I love the behind-the-scenes work because I develop a close relationship with the conductor, get to know the Emmanuel Music singers, and learn the music in more detail.”
Being a rehearsal pianist also presents several challenges. Technical challenges require careful preparation, because piano reductions are approximations of the full score, and not always faithful to the originals. The Bach cantata reductions often add embellishments to the score that Hodgdon needs to subtract from his performance. He studies the piano reduction of the score and then the full score, so he understands which instruments play each part. He finally listens to a recording and lightly annotates the piano reduction to guide his playing.
Artistic challenges require the rehearsal pianist to imitate as closely what the orchestra will ultimately sound like. “Being a rehearsal pianist is playing a game of pretend,” Hodgdon says. “I pretend that the piano is an oboe, a trumpet, a string section. I like experimenting with different orchestral colors at the piano, giving the singer the closest possible approximation of the most important orchestra cues.”
A good rehearsal pianist, Hodgdon understands that his role is sometimes not to interpret but to follow the conductor’s lead. “A rehearsal pianist is not in control as a soloist or chamber player is,” Hodgdon explains. “The conductor conducts me as if I’m the orchestra. I shape the phrasing as he wants and am flexible as he tries out different tempi and approaches. But this being said, there is often a lively exchange of ideas in these small rehearsals, and my ears and musical ideas and opinions are a part of the mix.”
Piano rehearsals are an effective way to prepare a piece, particularly when Emmanuel Music has limited time to rehearse the weekly Bach cantata. Hodgdon and Ryan Turner rehearse for 30 minutes with each soloist during the week and then for about two hours with the chorus on Saturday. The conductor and singers are then ready to rehearse with the full orchestra. “This approach works well because the intimacy of singer, conductor, and pianist allows for a free exchange of ideas that isn’t as practical with a larger group,” Hodgdon explains.
Hodgdon so enjoys shaping the ultimate performances that he finds himself in demand as a rehearsal pianist. He fills this role for many of Emmanuel Music’s large-scale operatic and choral works like last season’s performance of The Rake’s Progress. He is also a rehearsal pianist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s preparation of works with soloists – notably Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and John Harbison’s Fifth Symphony and Double Concerto. Hodgdon has also cultivated a relationship with Boston Lyric Opera as a rehearsal coach-accompanist, where he worked closely with Emmanuel Music’s Michael Beattie on Agrippina during the 2010-11 season. Chosen as one of two pianists for their current roster of Emerging Artists, Hodgdon most recently coached Verdi’s Macbeth and will coach John Musto’s The Inspector this spring.
When Hodgdon was training as a musician in college, he had multiple interests that took time to coalesce. He got both a Bachelor’s in solo piano and a Master’s degree in accompanying at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, a school he chose in part for its liberal arts offerings. “My musical education was unbelievable, but I also wanted to study languages and poetry,” Hodgdon says. “I had a German minor and took courses in Italian and religious studies. When I help to rehearse cantatas or when I accompany a singer, these different aspects of my education are all invaluable.”
Fortunately, Hodgdon performs on stage as well as behind the scenes. He has been featured in Emmanuel Music chamber concerts since the 2008-09 season, when Hodgdon was named a Lorraine Hunt Lieberson Fellow. This award recognizes younger Emmanuel Music artists who have demonstrated exceptional artistic talent and have enthusiastically participated within the Emmanuel Music community of musicians. That season Hodgdon accompanied mezzo-soprano Krista River in six Schumann songs. The following season he played the Haydn Piano Trio in A-flat Major and accompanied mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal in three Schoenberg songs. This year Hodgdon performed the second Beethoven cello sonata with Raphael Popper-Keizer, to overwhelming audience applause. He is also performing several NEC recitals, mostly as a vocal accompanist.
Hodgdon has a special affinity for art song and chamber music, partly because he gets energy and insight from working closely with other musicians. “I love chamber music and art song – my life would be incomplete without them,” Hodgdon says. And it was art song that connected Hodgdon to Emmanuel Music. He attended SongFest in the summer of 2006 and loved the “fantastic experience” of being steeped in the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Harbison, and others. He also met Craig Smith and John Harbison there. “I let Craig know that I was living in Boston and getting a doctorate at NEC, and that I would love to work with Emmanuel Music,” Hodgdon says. A rehearsal pianist job opened up within weeks, but in 2008 Hodgdon had the exceptional opportunity to premiere a new version of John Harbison’s Milosz Songs for soprano and piano with Emily Hindrichs.
“These songs were originally written for voice and chamber ensemble, and John was in the process of arranging them for piano when we started working together. I played from his handwritten copy, and had the privilege of being able to ask him questions about the music,” Hodgdon says. “I also love how his music is at the same time very modern and new, but also reinterprets music from the past, like the Bach and Schubert that John loves so much (as did Craig). This mix of new and old is something that is very much a part of the Emmanuel Music aesthetic as I have experienced it.”
For now, Hodgdon is busy completing his doctorate with a dissertation on Mouvements du Coeur, a cycle of seven songs by six composers written to mark the 100th anniversary of Chopin’s death. “This cycle is out of print and without a good translation, so I hope I can help the world learn more about this great music,” Hodgdon says. And until he completes that work in a year or two, Hodgdon aims to “embed myself as much as possible in the musical life of this city.” He is well on his way.
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