The Page-Turner

by Susan Knox

papier-partition-stylise-17The violinist, dressed in a scarlet satin gown, her ebony hair smoothed into a chignon, strides onto the stage. Close behind are the cellist and pianist in their graphite-gray suits and crimson ties. A fourth person enters, staying in stage shadows and carrying music for Brahms’ “Piano Trio in B Major, Op. 8.” She’s dressed in black: black tight-sleeved turtleneck, black wool pencil skirt hemmed below the knees, black flats, no jewelry. She walks quietly, expressionless, and while the three musicians acknowledge the audience’s applause with smiles and bows, she places the music on the piano rack, opens it to the first page, and sits on a straight-back chair slightly behind and to the left of the piano bench. She’s young—early to mid-twenties—and she’s not identified in the program. She’s the page-turner for the pianist.

Her job is to read the music as it’s played and, when the performer nears the end of a page, stand up, hold her right arm close to her side, curve her left arm over the score, grab the top right-hand side of music, squeeze the paper to ensure it’s a single sheet, and turn the page. It’s a tricky business.

She met the pianist thirty minutes before the performance to learn his preferences. This pianist wants her to be prepared to make the turn three bars before the end of the page. When he’s ready he’ll signal her with a nod. They have not rehearsed together.

Then there’s the music score itself. Sometimes the page rustles as though it’s protesting the turn. Sometimes the paper flutters as though it’s not sure it wants to be on that side. Sometimes the page waves like a flag in the breeze, and the pianist has to crane his neck to read the music as though he’s looking around a corner.

Page-turners exhibit their own personalities for these situations. A cavalier turner will sit down, expecting the page to relax and behave. An empathetic turner, concerned for the pianist’s vision, will make a quick swipe down the centerfold, hoping to cow the page into submission. A steadfast turner will remain standing, holding a particularly recalcitrant page prisoner until it’s time to turn again.

Page-turners’ days may be numbered. Technology is making its way onto the concert stage as a few fearless musicians bring their iPads loaded with the score and a foot control to turn the page. The pianist, Adam Neiman, a regular performer with the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, was the first pianist I saw use a tablet and it made me nervous.

When I read with my Kindle, strange things occasionally happen. I inadvertently linger my finger on the screen and turn two pages instead of one. Sometimes, for reasons I have yet to discover, the text jumps great distances ahead, and I have to try to remember my original location number. Other times a footnote or a dictionary definition appears uninvited. So when Adam brought his iPad to the piano, I couldn’t help but fret about its reliability. What if he hit the footpad too hard and the screen shot ahead? What if the connection was lost? Could his brain coordinate all his movements? He not only had to use his fingers on the keyboard and his feet on the pedals; now, to advance the music, he also had to tap the black control placed to the left of the piano pedals with his foot.

I relaxed when I realized his foot movements were indiscernible and that he was in complete control. However, I have noticed he now has two iPads on the piano rack. When I queried Adam via email, he responded, “I always have a second iPad and a second set of corresponding Bluetooth pedals on stage with me as backup, should the first device fail. It’s never happened but it makes presenters feel better about me functioning exclusively as a digital musician.”

Sometimes, when the music is less engrossing, I watch the page-turner, trying to divine what she or he thinks of the performance. They’re usually inscrutable. I think they’ve been well schooled in page-turner demeanor, but occasionally I’ll see a slight upturn of the lips, a nod of the head, or the shadow of a frown.

The reason page-turners dress like cat burglars is to escape attention. Their eyes never meet the audience or any musician on the stage. They’re focused and try to be invisible, like a British butler. They’re not always successful. I’ve heard of a page-turner who slipped when he stood up and tipped into the pianist. In another incident the music was not stapled in the middle, and when the first page was turned, the entire score cascaded from the music rack onto the keyboard and into the pianist’s lap.

The only glitch I ever witnessed was at Nordstrom Recital Hall in Seattle when pianist Anna Polonsky reached the end of a passage that was to be repeated. The page-turner missed the notation, and Anna, with a great flourish of her right hand and a crackling of paper, turned back to the beginning of the passage. The page-turner flinched and began to tremble, but she managed to turn the rest of the pages until the end. I wonder how she dealt with her omission afterward. Did she apologize profusely? Did she slink away, too embarrassed to face anyone? Did she ever turn pages again?

This spring pianist Richard Goode performed in recital at Meany Hall on the University of Washington’s campus. After intermission he played a series of songs from Debussy’s Twelve Preludes, Book 1. A woman followed him on stage, carrying the music. She didn’t look like the usual page-turner. She was dressed in black with no visible jewelry, just like all page-turners, but she was older, with long, salt-and-pepper hair. As Goode played and she began to turn pages, I noticed she was deft, rising at the last minute, quietly, effortlessly, smoothly turning the page and gracefully returning to her chair. I’d never seen such a practiced page-turner, and I realized she must know Goode and his music well; they were a seasoned team. There must be some personal connection. Goode is seventy. She seemed younger. Could she be his daughter? A protégé? His lover?

The next morning I checked in with Cristi Benefield, Director of Philanthropy for the World Series and Meany Hall. Cristi said, “The page-turner was his wife, Marcia Weinfeld. They’ve been married for many years and met when she was playing violin with the Ottawa Symphony and he was a guest pianist. She now travels with Richard on his tours to help him.”

Lucky man, Richard Goode. And lucky audience—the music was superb.

At the end of April, I returned to Meany Hall to hear violinist Hilary Hahn and her piano accompanist, Cory Smythe, in recital. Hahn, slim, thirty-four years old, with brown, curly hair pulled back from her forehead and dressed in a silvery, strapless gown with a gathered skirt, walked briskly on stage, followed by her accompanist and a page-turner. Her program was varied, with compositions by Mozart, Schoenberg, Schubert, and Telemann, and included two pieces, “Third Sigh” and “shade,” from the collection she commissioned from twenty-seven composers entitled In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.

I’d previously enjoyed seeing Hahn perform with symphony orchestras in Eugene and Seattle, and I appreciated the opportunity to hear her music-making in Meany Hall’s more intimate venue. It was a stunning concert, and my admiration for Hahn’s stage presence and professional generosity deepened when, after being presented with a large bouquet of flowers at the end of the performance, she pulled a pink rose from the bundle, presented it to Smythe, then gracefully awarded another rose to the page-turner—an acknowledgement I’d never seen before.



Category: Fiction, Short Story