Presented by Steinway Society The Bay Area
“Pyrotechnic” piano duo Anderson and Roe
By Heather J Morris
Audience members expecting to see sexy, sultry renditions of Michael Jackson or Coldplay songs must have been severely disappointed with the first half of Anderson and Roe’s concert on Sunday night. Sitting quietly in their seats spectators had to patiently endure Bach and Mozart before the ‘real entertainment’ for the evening began: after the intermission, after the Rachmaninoff and then, yes, here it was, the long anticipated Billie Jean. The audience, like Vesuvius, erupted with one massive cheer, jumping to its feet, settling for a moment like hot pumice only to explode again minutes later for two more dazzling pyrotechnic encores.
Elizabeth Roe, the demonstrative one, and Greg Anderson, the more reserved performer, have a mission: ‘to make classical piano music a relevant and powerful source in society.’ Are they achieving their goal? Well, this is their second time at the McAfee performing arts and lecture center at Saratoga High School and they played to a capacity audience so people are definitely coming back for more, and getting the word out to new concert goers. Accustomed to classical music concerts where the audiences comprise few who are not eligible for the senior discount at Ross, it was both refreshing, and, from a piano teacher’s perspective, encouraging, that many families had taken their school age children along to the show. There was also a higher percentage of 30 somethings than I see at most concerts in the area. Perhaps this is reflective of the fact that despite already playing as a piano duo for 13 years Anderson and Roe are 30 somethings themselves.
Besides performing to the well-heeled of Saratoga, in a nicely appointed theater with comfy, plush seats, subtle lighting and two magical Steinway D’s the couple, ever true to their mission, were scheduled to spend the following day in the much less glamorous surroundings of a low income school district in Silicon Valley where the cold light of the classroom could well bring a tougher, more critical group of spectators.
Trying to bridge the gap, then, between stuffy traditional classical music concerts where penguin-suited performers appear to go through purgatory as they wrestle with the piano, bowing occasionally to acknowledge the applause (only at the ends of works—not at the end of movements, please) but rarely daring to speak to the listeners apart from some barely audible mutterings announcing an encore, it was exhilarating to have the first item of the evening be a personal introduction by the performers themselves. Daniel Stewart recently did the same thing at the opening of a Santa Cruz Symphony concert when he asked the audience to turn on their cell phones and check in to Facebook. Taking advantage of social media is a smart move that will attract a more diverse audience and indeed, much of Anderson and Roe’s popularity has been a product of their YouTube mini-movies. Shot with imaginative lighting, artsy angles and fantastical costumes these snippets are connecting with the social media generation in the same way that Peter Gabriel’s ground breaking videos were so uniquely avant-garde in the ’80s. But if audiences view the duo’s website and see their mini videos, all produced by Greg Anderson himself, will they be disappointed to see a typical classical music stage set when they arrive at a concert venue? Should there be videos projected on screens above the pianos? And what about creative lighting à la Willie Williams? I did think that some of the pieces for 4 hands on one piano would have benefitted from an overhead camera showing the intricacies of the interplay of their dancing digits. I wanted to get a better view of the action! The same comment applies to Piazzolla’s Libertango where the piano strings are plucked à la The Piano Guys and the sizzling synergy was hyped up to fff.
Growing up in England I remember my parents watching, on a fuzzy black and white television, the famed piano duo Rawicz and Landauer, an immensely popular team performing from the 1930s to 1970. Like Anderson and Roe they were crossover artists as much at home playing more popular contemporary works as they were with traditional classical repertoire. Particularly engaging is their version of Liebestraum No. 3 dressed up as a charleston! Music for two pianos does not have a vast body of literature and, like Rawicz and Landauer before them, Anderson and Roe arrange much of the music they perform themselves. They are also at home, and appear to revel, in playing 4 hands on one piano and they switched effortlessly between the two forms. Their exuberant choreography of Libertango was a joy to behold, at times bringing memories of the versatile Victor Borge to mind.
The first half of the program featured music by composers who are generally acknowledged to be the supreme masters of their particular historical period: Bach and Mozart. The Concerto for Two Keyboards in C major, BWV 1061, and Contrapunctus XIII and its Inversion from the Art of Fugue showed exquisite phrasing, beautiful rich tone and a synchronicity in performance and interpretation that I have rarely seen in a live performance. These two play so well together that they often seemed ‘as one’ but as their website neatly points out “Contrary to appearances we are not a couple” and “At the heart of our piano duo is an amazing friendship, and we hope this radiates through whatever we do.” Further evidence of this collaboration was seen in their own version of a selection from Mozart’s operas. For me the highlight of the first half was the magical ‘Soave sia il vento’ from Così fan tutte. The gently rolling waves underlying the melody demonstrated a wonderful mastery of pianissimo playing. No captivating showmanship here—just sublime, heart-felt musicianship.
The second half opened with Rachmaninoff’s virtuosic Suite No. 1 for two Pianos, Op 5, in which the movements are based on works by four different poets. Unfortunately the performers’ reading of the poems did not carry into the audience since they were not mic’d up, and the words were not printed in the program, but the trilling of the nightingale and the sound of bells demonstrated not only the emotional range of the performers but also stretched the pianos to their very limits.
Their own arrangement of the Blue Danube waltz led to a call for three encores. I was a little disappointed not to get a glimpse of the new work in which the duo are involved—a new version of Stravinsky’s monumental Rite of Spring. But the work of a contemporary in an arrangement by the duo finished the concert in breathtaking style: Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance had all the flamboyance, adrenaline and infectious passion that youth and virtuosity could muster.
Editor’s note: Anderson and Roe have been selected to perform at the 2014 convention of the 4750-member Music Teachers Association of California, June 27 through July 1, at the Hilton Los Angeles Airport hotel.