STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Tomorrow, Inauguration Day, we turn a page in history. Yeah, I know it's one of the oldest cliches in the book, so to speak. But with so many people focused on this historic moment, let's remember that a page can be turned with precision and grace, or with a clumsy hand. So on this inaugural eve, we have advice from a professional, somebody who literally turns pages for a living. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg makes the introduction.
SUSAN STAMBERG: Well it's not the only thing he does. David Evan Thomas is a professional composer. His work has been performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, chamber groups, choruses. He's also a singer and a pianist. But Mr. Thomas also turns pages for musicians, including biggie pianists like Peter Serkin and Leon Fleisher - and even on request for radio broadcasters. Mr. Thomas, if you have some pages in front of you, would you just turn them for me, please?
STAMBERG: All right.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAGE TURNING)
STAMBERG: Hear that? Just barely - good - that's the goal, being quiet. But it is not that easy to achieve. Page turners must read the music right along with the pianist to keep the beat, do their turnings sometimes several measures before the music on the page runs out, and be pretty much invisible.
STAMBERG: And the page turn is sort of a butler for the pianist. Anthony Hopkins said when he was preparing for "The Remains of the Day" that a butler told him that the room should feel more empty when a butler is there than when he is not.
STAMBERG: Same with page turners. Empty the room, let the music flow. To demonstrate, at our piano in Studio 4A, a pianist and her page turner are poised to play. The turner sits to the left of the pianist. Let the music flow.
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)
STAMBERG: Bravo! Another near-silent performance - by the turner, anyway. When he turns in St Paul, Minnesota, David Evan Thomas is paid 50 to $100 a concert. As part of his preparation, he reviews the music to be played, makes sure to tuck his tie in carefully so it doesn't flap, and that his teeth are freshly brushed. 'Course, no matter how careful the page turner's preparation, there is always the possibility of messing up. Ever turned two pages at once?
(SOUNDBITE OF PAGE TURNING)
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC)
STAMBERG: That's always a fear. And because of that, when you get up and you grab the pages, you have to press them to make sure that you only have one page. And pianists have told me that they like to actually hear you press the pages together, so that they know you have it.
STAMBERG: (Laughing) Do you ever sort of lick your finger before you reach over?
STAMBERG: Oh, that's part of the technique. You have to lick your finger.
STAMBERG: Mr. Thomas's only near-catastrophe as a page turner had nothing, really, to do with his turning. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma was playing a Cesar Franck sonata in St. Paul - this is a commercial recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STAMBERG: Ma's accompanist was pianist Katherine Stott. Stott's page turner was David Evan Thomas.
STAMBERG: As I turned a page, I found that the book was not stapled, and the pages started to cascade down the music rack toward the keyboard. And there was a gasp from the audience, which I could hear.
STAMBERG: Thomas leaned forward, smacked the falling pages against the piano, and pushed them back up into place.
STAMBERG: It was a heart attack. I could liken it to a traffic accident, actually, or a near traffic accident, where you know you've had a near miss.
STAMBERG: But he saved the day. And Katherine Stott just kept on playing. A similar, but far more disastrous tale, comes from a pianist who was the victim of a page turner. Lambert Orkis, principal keyboard with the National Symphony, says lots of terrible things can happen in performance.
STAMBERG: You can slip. A page turner can fall on you. I'm not kidding you.
STAMBERG: Here's the disaster story. Decades ago at a recital, pianist Lambert Orkis accompanied a bassoonist. He can't remember what they played, but this one's nice. A music student was assigned to turn pages for him. In this case, the music wasn't in a book but rather, on a long sheet of paper that folded and unfolded like an accordion. The young accompanist looked really nervous. Sweaty, kind of shaky.
STAMBERG: We were approaching a page turn, and I could see she wasn't going to make it, she wasn't standing up at the right time. So I just said, fine, I'll turn it myself. And my hand goes to turn the page, she gets into a panic situation, and she rushes to grab the page, hits my hand, which then deflects the page so that this accordion-like affair is starting to unravel. It now falls onto the keyboard, so she tries to reel in the music, and now it falls off the keyboard onto the stage itself. And then she tries to pull it some more, and now it falls off the stage down into the audience part of the hall.
STAMBERG: Pianist Lambert Orkis never stopped playing for a second during this chaos, but he pretty much gave up using page turners after that. Then again, he never worked with David Evan Thomas. It's easy at a concert to get swept away by the music, lost in the grandeur of it all. But Mr. Thomas says that's the job of the audience, not the page turner.
STAMBERG: As a matter of fact, you don't really listen. Listening involves personal involvement that is expectation and hope and disappointment, and whatever the music asks of your ears. Whereas a page turner can't listen that way; you simply have to note where you are and keep up with it.
STAMBERG: So in this season of turning a new political page, how about some applause for those unsung heroes of the concert stage, the people who turn pages filled with black dots and lines so that the dots and dabs can become music to our ears. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
INSKEEP: And for a list of all the music you heard in Susan's story, visit our Web site, npr.org. It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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