Page turning is a very necessary profession and especially so when chamber music is performed. PAUL BOEKKOOI herewith provides a partly serious, but as often also a tongue-in-cheek historical perspective of what can or often does go wrong on stage…

“As the closing strains began I saw Liszt’s countenance assume that agony of expression, mingled with radiant smiles of joy, which I never saw in any other human face except in the paintings of our Saviour…he fainted in the arms of a friend who was turning the pages for him, and he bore him out in a strong fit of hysterics.”

This is how one observer recounted a piano recital given by Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Two things strike one immediately: Liszt did not memorise a whole recital, and his friend, the page turner, had some higher calling as well – a calling latter day page turners would, hopefully, flatly refuse.

Just imagine the delirium which broke out after the audience had their share of seriousness and circus, of spiritual communion and erotic feeding frenzy, with the composer-pianist constantly tossing back long silvery hair, lips quivering. The perpetual histrionics would make his page turner unfit to do his job properly. And then to carry the pianist out! In the 21st century Liszt would be shot…Gauteng style.

In Nicolas Slonimsky’s Lectionary of Music the page turner is described as “a necessary adjunct to the pianist in a chamber music ensemble… He (occasionally, she) sits on the player’s left and turns the music score, holding the right tip of the page delicately between the fingers. Under no circumstances should the page turner put an arm across the pianist’s field of vision… An ideal page turner must be unobstrusive, respectful and helpful.”

Page turners at public concerts are often the silent heroes of many an event, but they can also derail or even wreck a performance. An ideal page turner should also be a musician. A well-known pianist told me: “It’s very comforting when you feel that your page turner is breathing and phrasing in the same way as you do yourself. It minimises any form of disturbance during the performance.”

It was approximately in the mid-1990s that the award-winning South African clarinettist Robert Pickup gave his services as a page turner for a concert in Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium, organised by his then National Symphony Orchestra colleague Edouard Miasnikov. Playing on stage was the stunning young Russian violinist Anastasia Chebotareva, accompanied by her compatriot Tigran Alikhanov on the piano.

During the performance of a Prokofiev sonata, Pickup did his duty very professionally, turning pages with a natural finesse for Alikhanov. But from the corner of his eye he noted that the pages of Ms Chebotareva’s music did not turn that easily and that they tended to return by themselves to the previous page. Pickup picked up exactly where she was playing, stood up and turned the page for her as well.

He ran back to the piano just in time to turn for Alikhanov, but just before he had to turn again for the pianist, he noticed the violinist’s left page moving once more on its own.

As Pickup saw this happening he was in two minds and realised that he had to turn for both players simultaneously. He kept his cool and left the violinist to her own devices in this Scherzo movement which was performed fast and furiously. In a fraction of a second, like a mamba striking, Anastasia Chebotareva managed to hit the page back with her bow without missing a single note!

All this tension had Pickup collapse flat on his back during the interval backstage. Overnight he became the most athletic page turner local audiences have ever seen. All this happened because the violinist, whose music was falling apart, decided to repair it with adhesive tape shortly before the concert. Very dangerous it proved to be!

The late Prof. Lamar Crowson of the music school at the University of Cape Town, internationally one of the most highly regarded chamber music performers, has worked with countless page turners. He said: “The best page turners are the ones who want to be there. They enjoy being part of the show. If at all possible, I’ll never have a page turner who doesn’t play the piano.

“I was once in Armenia during a tour and this gentleman with his big moustache and his greased down hair came to me and said: ‘I am yor’e page turner; I do not reed wan note of musac’. I panicked, but he was fantastic. He just followed the shape (of the notes).

“Very important is to prepare the turner. It takes only five minutes before the concert to mark very carefully if there are going to be any repeats, and how many pages must be paged back. One should also mark the ends of movements. At that magic moment, one does not want someone hovering over you. I turn the page myself”.

Over a career of some fifty years, Prof. Crowson experienced some horrendous things. He reminisces: “In Riga, when I did a Latvian tour with the violinist Manoug Parikian, we started with Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. The page turner must have been a sort of ex-Olympic weightlifter. She was very short, very stocky, with short, bare arms. At the end of the first page, up goes her right arm across the page, which means, of course, that I had to sort of stand up to look over it, and kneel down to look under it.

“Well, by the end of the first movement my back was sore, and I remember begging her to turn with the left hand, not the right. But she refused to stand up. For the rest of the concert I had this massy bosom laying over my left arm. You should think it was delightful, but it was exhausting! That was a fright.

“Then, of course, you get other ones, like when I accompanied Jackie (du Pre) in the United States. The girl sitting next to me looked like a zombie during the first sonata, and after the interval we were to play the Cesar Franck. I could handle her inadequate turning in the Beethoven, but when I asked her if she would manage the Franck, she was indignant and asked: ‘What was wrong with the Beethoven?’ I said: ‘You didn’t turn anything’. She was alright then”.

Certain works in die classical/modern repertoire are not only very hard on the musicians, but on the page turner as well. The Second Violin Sonata by Charles Ives has the reputation for being “the page turner’s revenge”. At the end of the second movement the composer makes the duo into a trio by writing in a part for “an extra player as drum corps” on a separate stave. This drum corps is implied to be the page turner, who, according to Joseph Roddy, “delivers a swelling succession of white-key clusters that leave both violinists and pianists finally inaudible”.

Many a catastrophe during concerts has been avoided by alert page turners. There was the case of the page turner who held up the pianist’s stool after the front left leg of it collapsed, and another one who fetched some oil to quickly service a squeaky and lame pedal between movements.

Page turning is a serious occupation if one bears in mind that Clara Schumann did it for Brahms, Adolf Busch did it for Dohnányi and Rostropovich for Prokofiev. So please do show some respect if the concert goes its way without a hitch. It’s all due to alert and sympathetic page turners.


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