“Who runs the show in a concerto performance—the soloist or the conductor?”
Ideally, it is the soloist. The concerto was written to feature the soloist, and the conductor’s job is to shape the accompaniment to the soloist’s playing.
That is the ideal, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Some conductors see themselves as the leader at all times, even when they should be accompanying. Some orchestras don’t stay with the conductor, who may be faithfully following the soloist, and there results a breakdown of synchrony between orchestra and soloist.
Playing the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto with the Frederick Symphony Orchestra initially posed some ensemble challenges. The piece was new to their repertoire, and although the conductor, Elisa Koehler, was always right with me, the orchestra was still getting accustomed to playing it.
Elisa told me that I should totally just do my own thing during the performance. I was to make no adjustments to the orchestra whatsoever if there was ever a moment when we weren’t together. She said that she would always follow me exactly and that she wanted me to feel completely free to fulfill my vision of the interpretation.
This was a new premise for me. Instead of collaborating, I was supposed to sit at the piano as if it were a solo performance, as if there were no conductor and no orchestra, and to do things exactly as I wanted. But there was an orchestra, and I could hear them, and my best instincts were to alter my playing to match theirs.
Instead, I had to ignore my best instincts and to forge ahead without taking them into account, like a test of my will power. It required MORE concentration and determination than usual. It also allowed me total freedom. Thanks for the assignment, Elisa, because the combination helped to create an unanticipated effect on my playing.