Michael McMahon: The Accompanist by Réjean Beaucage
/ September 3, 2003
Michael McMahon is beyond question one of Canada's
most sought-after accompanists. The Montreal-born pianist studied with Charles
Reiner at McGill University before completing his studies at the Mozarteum
International Summer Academy in Salzburg, as well as the Franz Schubert
Institute and the Hochschule fur Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna, where
he graduated in vocal accompaniment.
McMahon returned to McGill University's faculty of
music, where he now teaches song interpretation. He is also vocal coach for the
song workshop of the Opéra de Montréal and the Banff Centre for
The list of Canadian vocal artists with whom he has
worked is long. It includes such names as Nathan Berg, Manon Feubel, Maureen
Forrester, Karina Gauvin, Wendy Nielsen, and Brett Polegato.
His extreme sensitivity is apparent in his
accompaniments on recordings with soprano Lyne Fortin (Analekta), mezzo-soprano
Catherine Robbin (Marquis and CBC Records), and baritone Kevin McMillan (CBC
The profession of accompanist is a thankless one at
times. Audiences often tend to pay more attention to the singer, unconsciously
relegating the pianist's contribution to the level of decoration. However, as
the following interview with McMahon demonstrates, there's no top dog in the
musical pas de deux that is in fact a piano/voice duo. Here is his take
on the subtle art of accompaniment.
"I don't see my role as being someone who plays
behind the star performer," says McMahon, "but rather as sharing a musical
partnership. Neither role can exist without the other. The pianist is literally
acting as the orchestra--no small task! Of course, we're limited to the piano's
capacities, but we must succeed in suggesting the idea of an orchestra--and in
thinking like the imaginary conductor, working for the voice with all our skill.
The piano must always be present, but not too present, and it must
provide phrasing that gives the singer a chance
to breathe. The accompanist
has to know the work being performed intimately, so as to provide maximum
flexibility in the piano/voice dialogue while remaining true to the music.
That's why preparation is so important for accompanists. Ideally, they should
understand the language of the lyrics and be sensitive to the singer's
breathing, vocal strength, and technical powers. They must listen carefully to
the singer and be with him or her every moment, which means being completely
comfortable with the piano score."
Does an accompanist need to have specific gifts?
And do soloist and accompanist each have a distinctive "temperament"?
"Some people prefer playing solo. It gives them
complete control of every second of the performance. Accompanists, I think,
should like dialogue, be able to appreciate the other's presence, and take
pleasure in sharing talents."
Clearly, accompanists have to adapt to each new
artist. Working with both students and artists who are masters of their artistic
medium, McMahon is aware of all the risks of his profession. "I normally have
the pleasure of working with professional artists who are excellent musicians,"
he says, "but it's very different from my role as an accompanist for students.
In the latter case I have far greater responsibility for providing leadership,
although each case is unique. Some singers know the works so well that
everything moves along effortlessly. All you need to do is sit down and
What about the artists with whom he'll be sharing
the stage in La Scena musicale's upcoming gala concert?
"Unfortunately I've never met Mirela Tafaj," says
McMahon, "but of course I've heard of her and I'm very keen to work with her.
However, I've known John Mac Masterfor many years--since he was a student at
McGill, in fact, and I'm very pleased to see the direction his career is taking.
The same is true for Annamaria Popescu, whose career I've followed from McGill
to La Scala! With regard to the program, there are some pieces with which I'm
less familiar, but I've performed them all before. I think we'll have a
[Translated by Jane