The young piano duo of Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe offered their unique classical performance innovations at Northwestern University’s Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall on Saturday night. In this excellent concert Anderson and Roe showed how they have been reinventing the classical music recital since joining forces in 2002 while students at Julliard. They brought their act to Evanston and regaled a sold out crowd in front of Galvin Hall’s amazing backdrop of Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline.
While Anderson and Roe perform works from the traditional piano duo repertoire, they also create their own arrangements of other, non-piano works by traditional composers, as well as songs from stage and mainstream culture—all the while preserving the highest technical levels of performance. With on-stage theatrics, videos on YouTube and other social media outlets, they have created something that is new, vibrant, and exciting; something that, they hope, will broaden the appeal of classical music to new generations of listeners.
Anderson and Roe’s new approach was evident from the beginning when they opened with Grand Scherzo, their own arrangement of several arias from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera, Cosi fan Tutte. Addressing the audience before they played, which, unlike other performers, is something they do before every piece, they explained how the lyricism and drama of Mozart’s operas are influential to piano students, even though the opera scores themselves do not include piano parts. They recalled how their teachers used to tell them to approach Mozart’s piano pieces as if they were operas. Fashioning this piece from an opera allowed them to do that directly, and it played into their penchant for theatrics. From a single piano, with Anderson sitting on the bass side and Roe sitting treble, they assumed the auras of the opera’s characters in a very tongue and cheek way.
Fashioning a new work allowed them to add greater difficulty and higher technical requirements than those normally found in Mozart, as well as an expansion of the smaller piano keyboard used in Mozart’s day. A classical purist who would rather have heard one of Mozart’s actual, marvelous pieces for piano four hands. Instead, Anderson and Roe added a new dimension to Mozart’s piano music for this genre.
For the next piece Anderson and Roe drew from the traditional classical repertoire, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 1, Fantasie-Tableauxs for two pianos. This suite is made up of four pieces based on poems, excerpted translations of which were in the program. By Rachmaninoff’s standards, the first three pieces are rather restrained. While extremely difficult, they’re more ethereal than tempestuous. Anderson and Roe played with marvelous fluidity, seamlessly passing the various musical motifs from one piano to the other.
The evening Lake Michigan backdrop was the perfect setting for the Suite’s opening piece, a Bacarolle, which was based on a gondola ride at dusk. Saving the big punches for the last piece in the Suite, Easter, Rachmaninoff called for booming chords that are intended to mimic the church bells that herald the Russian Orthodox Easter. Anderson and Roe magnificently captured this effect.
The last work in the program’s first half was Anderson and Roe’s arrangement of four songs from Leonard Bernstein’s score for West Side Story, which allowed them to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. This piece also allowed them to demonstrate their audience rapport and theatrical flair, starting on only one of the pianos onstage, but ending on both.
The first song Mambo required audience clapping and vocal participation. Their arrangement of Tonight faithfully echoed the intense levels on emotion that this beautiful song conjures. In Somewhere, amidst wonderful keyboard artistry, they managed to weave in the last minute of the middle movement of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto. It was almost a note perfect rendition of the piano part, including the one note transition into the finale.
Their showmanship came out big time in their rendition of America, where Roe took on the persona of Anita, and Anderson took on the persona of Bernardo. They bantered in the spirit of this marvelous dance piece, adding their own choreography by switching benches without missing a beat and Roe dashing across the stage to end on the second piano.
The theme of the opening half of the concert was “Romantic,” and Anderson and Roe were dressed to fit the bill. Roe was in a flowing red evening gown with a large bow tie in the back, Anderson wore a gray suit. The theme of the second half was “Transcendence in the Modern Age,” which required something very unusual in a classical music performance, a costume change. After intermission she wore a dark blue evening gown, while he sported a suit with a bluish hue.
The first two works in the second half centered on “Halleluja.” First was Halleluja Junction, a piece for two pianos by minimalist contemporary composer John Adams. Like many works of the minimalist genre, Halleluja Junction features a rapid and powerful motif that constantly repeats itself like the sound of a freight train zooming down a track. The work is built around slight variations that emerge as the train passes by.
Before their performance, Anderson and Roe elaborated on how Adams broke down the four syllable word “hallelujah” in the music as the three-movement work unfolds. In their performance they wonderfully captured the work’s feel, allowing the changes to organically emerge as the piece progressed.
The next “Halleluja” was an application of the classical construct of a theme and variations to a modern song, Leonard Cohen’s wistful number of the same name. Given the artistic quality of many tunes that have appeared on the top-forty charts over the years, it is astonishing that more popular songs do not receive similar treatment in classical circles. In his day, Franz Schubert turned several of his popular songs into sets of variations that show up in his longer works. The program lists Schubert as an inspiration, and it is easy to see why.
Sets of classical variations apply a wide variety of styles to a single musical theme that is repeated several times. Over eight variations, Anderson and Roe provided technical and musical gymnastics to Cohen’s song, and it allowed them to show off the highest levels of interpretation and performance technique. The program also listed Beethoven as an inspiration, and, sure enough, just as their arrangement of Bernstein’s Somewhere borrowed from Beethoven, Halleluja featured passages that seemed to come straight out of the set of variations Beethoven wrote to conclude his final piano sonata, op. 111 in c-minor.
The only part of the program that I did not like was the final piece, Anderson and Roe’s arrangement of the Beatles’ Let It Be. In the original version Paul McCartney starts with a lovely piano introduction that in many ways defines the song, along the same lines that piano accompaniments define several songs by Schubert. Anderson and Roe’s arrangement would have benefited by including this piano passage in their rendition. Also, in their explanation, they said that they were highlighting the gospel quality of the song. Instead it came across as Schmaltzy and hard to follow.
For encores, Anderson and Roe turned to the Argentine tango king and Astor Piazzolla. They followed this with a four hand arrangement of Mozart’s Turkish rondo, which originally ended his piano sonata in A-major, K. 331. For this, played on one piano and went to town both plucking hitting piano keys and plucking strings. It was a perfect ending for a concert that started with an elaboration on Mozart.