Opening its 2016-17 season in a wild and exuberant fashion, conductor Mei-Ann Chen and the Chicago Sinfonietta present Unhinged, an evening featuring the ersatz histrionics of the Anderson & Roe Piano Duo and the precise playing of piano prodigy Clayton Stephenson. Over the course of the evening, Chen and the Sinfonietta will be accompanied by two pianos played by as many as six hands in a style that stretches the bounds of the traditional concert performance and repertoire.
Most attention will be focused on the piano duo of Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, who have made it their mission to make classical music relevant to modern audiences. Using video, innovative performance techniques, and social media, they have breathed new life into a musical form that many believe had been ossifying in concert halls, recording studios, and classrooms.
Anderson and Roe’s video of Mambo from West Side Story, played on a Steinway player piano, shows them as anything but staid mannequins propped on stools. Instead we get performers maniacally running circles around the piano, vocally engaging the audience, plucking the strings, beating on the instrument like it were a set of bongos—everything except throwing it up in the air, which they probably would if they could.
Having played together for 14 years, Anderson and Roe view themselves as part of, in the words of Roe, “a significant shift in identity and presentation” in classical music. “Since we started creating our music videos,” she wrote, “we’ve witnessed numerous changes, challenges, and developments within the industry, and these videos have somehow struck a chord with people who desire a more personalized and less formal approach to the music.”
Their videos also put the players and instruments into new contexts, as illustrated by their production of Coldplay’s Viva la Vida, which starts with them rolling two pianos onto the sidewalk for an impromptu, beautifully-played performance. “In all of our music videos,” added Anderson, “it is our goal to convey the spirit of the music visually (as well as aurally), and in doing so, we hope to intensify our viewers’ perception of the music.”
The Chicago Sinfonietta’s Unhinged includes a performance of Viva la Vida with Mei-Ann Chen conducting, as well as Anderson and Roe’s arrangement of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. These programming choices reflect the duo’s pride in drawing inspiration from the pop repertoire. Roe pointed to Beethoven and Liszt as doing the same thing with folk music and opera. “We do find value in blurring the lines between genres, as we feel that great music transcends categorization,” she said.
In performing live, Anderson and Roe play together by themselves and in collaboration with orchestras. “We certainly enjoy performing the staples of the duo concerto repertoire (i.e. the two-piano concerti by Mozart, Poulenc, et al.),” said Anderson, “but we have also created new concerto repertoire for the piano duo genre, including an arrangement of Brahms’ powerful Double Concerto and a dazzling fantasy based on Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre.” Their concerts with Mei-Ann Chen and the Chicago Sinfonietta include Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos in d minor.
Social media plays a big part on their effort to make classical music more relevant. As Anderson observed, “social media allows musicians to showcase the joyous, surprising, and life-changing potential of classical music to audiences far, far beyond the standard concert halls.” He added, “the content we create for social media—whether it be our music videos, listening tips, or cocktail recipes—ultimately serves our mission and amplifies the listening experience for our fans, but also we’ve found that it enhances our performances as well, causing us to interact with our music from fresh and unique points of view.”
In pursuing a new approach to classical music, what has been their biggest lesson? “Remain open: to new opportunities, discoveries, experiences, pathways,” advised Roe. “I would just urge musicians/ performers to explore ways of integrating their art with the world around them, to live as fully as possible (i.e. beyond the practice room and stage), and to trust what feels most authentic in terms of their creative endeavors.”
Unhinged also features performances by 17-year old piano phenom Clayton Stephenson, who will join Anderson and Roe for a two-piano-and-orchestra version of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Stephenson will then be playing solo with the orchestra on George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm Variations. For a young man, Stephenson has already assembled quite a biography, having been a finalist at 2016 Cooper International Piano Competition and having won an award at 2015 the Van Clyburn International Junior Piano Competition. He’s already played at Carnegie Hall, Ravinia, and several other notable stages in the United States and abroad.
The Chicago Sinfonietta, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen, gives two performances of Unhinged: Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, 8:00 pm, at Wentz Concert Hall, North Central College, 171 E. Chicago Ave, Naperville, $10.00-$60.00; Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, 7:30pm, Symphony Center, 220 S Michigan Ave, Chicago, $10.00-$99.00. For more information, check out http://chicagosinfonietta.org/1617season/unhinged/.