Judith Jackson is not one to apologize for her chosen field. “I know a lot of pianists who think accompanying and operatic work are boring and limiting, in terms of their own creativity. But I find it very challenging–and I really love it! Basically, being a rehearsal pianist, I get to see the work born, built from scratch, and brought through to real maturity–and at that point I leave it. I’ve always been a person who likes building blocks and the creative process. Even though there’s a lot of excitement in performance, rehearsals are what get my creative juices flowing. I like the spontaneity, finding mistakes, finding what works.”
Jackson is an accompanist, and proud of it. Principal pianist for Chicago Opera Theater since 1981, she functions as a one-woman orchestra for staging and technical rehearsals, coaches singers in the words and musical nuances of vocal works, and plays keyboards in the orchestra when required. On Sunday, April 8, she’ll take a rare solo bow in Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto with the Lake Shore Symphony Orchestra.
Jackson is a native of Youngstown, Ohio, did her graduate work at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York, and has worked for symphonies from Denver to Portland, Maine. She is friendly but private. Her only complaint about her long hours at the piano is an occasional back problem. She is the single most important element at COT staging rehearsals, sitting at the piano for hours at a time, playing with cheerful intensity, taking a swig from one of a series of Diet Coke cans when pauses in the music permit. She’s so quietly competent that it’s easy to take her for granted, until she takes a day off. “When I’m playing for rehearsals, I don’t have to make the musical decisions–the conductor does that. I just have to be the best orchestra that he can have. I try to make colors in my playing, to give an idea of the orchestra colors the singers will be hearing.”
“I like dealing with new people and getting new ideas. And at COT they’re not limiting ideas by just having a handful of people. We’ve got people from all over the country, working together for three weeks or four weeks, and we get a good resolution from many aspects–the musical side, and the dramatic side, and the personal side, and the emotional side. You get a lot of strong ideas, and sometimes they’re in conflict. They’re resolved in a dynamic way–for, generally, a pretty good result. That I find stimulating, because it adds to my own education, and I’m able to bring these new ideas, these new thoughts, to my own work as a private coach.”
Sometimes she disagrees with a conductor’s conception of a given work. “That’s another challenge–to be true to your conductor and what he or she wants to accomplish, and still keep intact your own personal ideals and personal views.”
Jackson works for COT for six intense months a year, from January to June. The rest of her time is filled with private coachings. On days when she has a three-hour rehearsal, she may also coach three or four singers at her home in Lincolnwood; on six-hour rehearsal days, she’ll often fit in a couple of singers at night. She and her psychiatrist husband, Carl, are also subscribers to a raft of series and typically spend three or four nights a week perched in the upper reaches of Orchestra Hall.
Jackson is working on the Beethoven concerto in moments stolen by getting up early, arriving at the rehearsal hall an hour before a session starts, or staying up late. “When you play behind the scenes, you’re a team player–you have a certain expertise to enhance somebody else’s performance. When you’re asked to be a soloist, you have, in a way, to glean from everyone else’s experience in order to find the best performance in yourself. It takes more courage to be a soloist. I have great sympathy for singers when they audition and perform–it really involves a lot of trust and a lot of courage to be able to stand up and say something of a very personal nature. You always run the risk of failing–of not being accepted, or not having your ideas jell with somebody else’s. And yet it offers such a wonderful opportunity to speak as clearly as you can your own personal idea of a given work.”
Philip Bauman, the conductor of the Lake Shore Symphony, met Jackson through his work as assistant conductor at COT. “She really is outstanding,” he says. “She always knows what’s going on, and she’s rock solid in her accompanying. It makes it easier on all of us who are conducting.”
Working with an orchestra as a featured soloist also appeals to Jackson’s sense of teamwork. “It’s a continued collaboration, with the conductor, with various families of instruments. You feed an idea into the music; they give it back and enhance it. It’s a different kind of community, a more direct point of view. It’s really a thrill–you and the other musicians having this conversation around Beethoven.”
Her concert with the Lake Shore Symphony will take place at 3:30 PM on Sunday, April 8, at the Copernicus Cultural and Civic Center, 5216 W. Lawrence; also on the program are the overture from Verdi’s Nabucco and Sibelius’s Symphony no.1. Tickets are $8 for adults, and $6 for students and seniors. For more information call 728-5807.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.