Art of Two Piano Playing

October 09, 2011 — By Susan Wang—The art of playing on two pianos is not a modern concept. Ever since the classical era, around the end of the 18th Century, pianists have played together, and competed against each other, on two instruments. In the Romantic era, pianists would have “play-offs” or duo duels, improvising at two instruments facing each other, competing to display their virtuosity and creative prowess.

Until well into the 20th century, music-making was an everyday form of entertainment, enjoyed in the company of friends and family. Composers would write four-hand music to play at home, for social gatherings. It was also common for these composers to dedicate certain works to talented students, with whom they would premiere the work in a salon setting.

Today duo-pianism has been specialized into an interpretive art form.

The music of George Gershwin is unmatched for playing at two pianos.  With its soulful melodies, nostalgic harmonies, and sense of swing, his works are as entertaining to perform as they are to listen to. Many versions of his works for two-pianos were originally for orchestra, or in the instance of Porgy and Bess, for a whole operatic production.  When two great pianists recreate Gershwin’s lyrical interactions and voluminous orchestral sounds on two keyboards, the effect is absolutely sensational.

We asked pianists Shelly Berg and Santiago Rodriguez about their approach to two piano playing and Gershwin as they prepared Gershwin Piano Favorites, a program they will perform at UM Maurice Gusman Concert Hall, October 23 – 4:00 PM. The program includes “Cuban Overture,” “Three Preludes,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” “I Got Rhythm Variations,” and Percy Grainger’s “Fantasy on Porgy and Bess.”

Why Gershwin? How does this program stretch you artistically?

Santiago Rodríguez: If not approached with a high level of respect and artistic profile, Gershwin´s music can make a performer sound inane. There is a simplicity to his music that’s difficult to capture, and any overreaching by a performer — such as resorting to clichés and over-sentimentalizing — is embarrassingly apparent. It’s a challenge to perform Gershwin’s music with honesty and integrity. One has to devote much attention to the instrumental demands.

Shelly Berg: To this day, no one has surpassed Gershwin´s ability to perfectly synthesize the classical and jazz idioms.  Since he is best known as a composer of songs for Tin Pan Alley, Gershwin is often overlooked in terms of how serious and wonderful his concert music is.  My goal as a performer is to have the audience swept into an experience that is at once classical and jazz.  They should sense that they are listening to concert music, yet be thrilled as if listening to improvisation.  My performance must, therefore, feel like an act of creation while being very attentive to the technical demands of the music.

You both are experienced solo, duo and chamber music artists, but have never performed with each other in the two-piano format.  What are the performance challenges when playing as a duo, and specifically when playing Gershwin? Rhythm? Phrasing?  Dynamics? Conceptual approach?

Santiago Rodríguez: There can be two approaches to performing duo-piano: a) when two performers live and work together for a length of time that they sound almost like a giant two-handed sound system and, b) two performers who retain their individuality at the keyboard yet exude love and passion for playing music together. I am happy to listen to both approaches as it’s the commitment to the music by the pianists that makes or breaks a performance. Playing duo-piano with Shelly will be a big thrill for me as I have tremendous respect for his artistry and love of music. We may not be bound-at-the-hip as performers but I can assure you that our hearts will be in the same place.

Shelly Berg: Santiago Rodriguez is truly a giant as a pianist and artist, and so my primary challenge is to keep my knees from knocking! His sense of rhythm is so strong, that I don’t believe we will encounter difficulties of synchronicity.  In fact, I think our performance will really “groove” in the ways this music demands.  I think the challenge will lie in melding our individual styles into a cohesive musical statement, all the while highlighting the uniqueness we each bring.  I have no doubt we will be able to do it, and I’m eager to hear the result.

In some instances you are playing Gershwin’s own reductions of orchestral pieces. Do you refer to the orchestral score for your interpretation? Do you allude to the orchestral sound (e.g. violins, horns …)?

Santiago Rodríguez: There is an advantage to knowing the orchestral colors when performing a piano reduction of a piece. The piano is the only instrument that can, almost, emulate the sound(s) of an orchestra. Gershwin himself arranged “Rhapsody in Blue” and also a bunch of his songs for solo piano. He must have felt confident that the piano was capable of expressing his musical intentions quite well.

Pianists are often hearing orchestral textures in performance.  However, we are not bound by the specific timbres of the orchestral work when playing a derivative arrangement.  In these pieces of Gershwin there are some iconic moments that can’t be extricated from the sound the orchestral version produces, and we will be thinking of those timbres to be sure.

Shelly Berg: The simultaneous performance of two pianos is inherently difficult anyway, because so many notes are being played with only the timbre of the piano. For example, imagine 20 oboes playing 20 different notes at once!  The great challenge of two-piano performance is to allow the listener to hear the “trees” within the “forest” of piano texture.  We want the audience to hear an orchestra, with a variety of shadings and colors.

Performance Information:

Sunday, October 23, 2011, 4:00 p.m. / Festival Miami Concert

Gershwin Piano Favorites—Shelly Berg with Santiago Rodriguez

*Susan Wang and twin sister Sarah Wang are one of the youngest, and more successful, piano duos in the world today (http://www.wangpianoduo.com). Born in Ridgewood, NJ, these Taiwanese-American sisters are currently based in Berlin, Germany, where they perform and teach. Susan and Sarah Wang won the 2010 ARD International Two Piano Competition in Munich; the 2009 Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy-Preis in Berlin; the 2008 Dranoff International Two Piano Competition in Miami; the 4th International Piano Duos Competition in Bialystok, Poland; and the Ellis National Duo Competition in the United States.


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