Anderson and Roe Piano Duo – a compelling and invigorating mix of gravitas and glitter!

Anderson and Roe Piano Duo

Arrangements for two pianos/four hands of music by Leonard Bernstein, John Adams, Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, Christoph Willibald Gluck and Georges Bizet

Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe (pianos)

Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 17th March, 2018

Duo pianists Anderson and Roe are very much the products of the millennial age, two accomplished graduates from the Juilliard School of Music who make music together out of a shared vision of wanting “to strengthen and make more relevant the place of classical music in the new millennium”. They’ve been playing as a duo for fourteen years, now, and intend to continue to do so, along with keeping their own solo careers ticking over. Despite some of their extremely physical duo-pianistic interactions on stage, they’re not real-life partners (Greg Anderson is married, but to someone else, while Elizabeth Joy Roe is unmarried).  However, they both enjoy the physical choreography and intimacy of four-hands at one piano as much as their two-piano work, and don’t ever stint on the intensity and overt emotionalism and sensuality of the music they play together. In Roe’s own words,“This whole partnership arose out of a pure desire to have a joyful time together, to try new things and just to keep exploring what’s possible with presentation and execution.”

I must confess to some initial hesitation regarding reviewing the concert, prior to finding out anything about the pair’s performance and musical philosophies, and reading only the usual “hype springs eternal” publicity blurb. I thought that the experience might involve spending an evening enduring a relentless onslaught of  empty and facile double-pianistic note-spinning arrangements – something to which I have a definite aversion, particularly those “display” concerti that proliferated during the nineteenth century, which enabled performers to “show off” their virtuosic skills over endless sequences of brilliant-sounding nothings! Happily Anderson and Roe’s playing bore out the many positive reports I was able to read from different sources, indicating that their partnership was something definitely out of the ordinary.

These feelings were certainly reinforced by my finding out details of the actual repertoire they were going to perform for us, a programme which appeared to alternate the virtuosic element with the profound and poetic. Thus we in the audience were able to gauge their abilities over a wider spectrum than was perhaps expected. True, there were no “big” duo-pianist works such as any by Schubert or Rachmaninov in the concert, which I counted as an opportunity missed. However there was sufficient gravitas and depth in what they played acting as a counterweight to the equally enjoyable arrangements of “popular” music which emphasised humour and brilliance.

They had what I think is an overall philosophy of performing, which they were able to apply to everything they did – this was to throw themselves entirely into each of the item’s particular world of expression,  and adopt ways of bringing out the essentials of whatever piece. However, in doing this they became chameleon-like in their different kinds of treatment of each of the works, so that we in the audience felt transported to each “space” inhabited by the composer of the original music. I got the feeling that they wanted to pay homage to each of these creative acts by bringing out the individual “character” of the pieces – in the event, most successfully.

Throughout the concert both musicians attached particular importance to talking with us, taking it in turn to introduce the pieces, bring out salient points and underline any significant and illuminating association the pair might have previously had with any parts of the programme.

Of course, the visual aspect of a piano duo or duet  (the pair played two pianos simultaneously, and occasionally a four-handed duo on a single piano, changing instruments and seating positions for each of the items) wasn’t neglected, and there were plenty of virtuoso thrills and the occasional amusing antic involving intertwining arms and bodies to reach the keys – but these were entertainment incidentals rather than essences, which didn’t divert them from the more serious purpose of doing the music justice. In short, I felt they made sure the concert was primarily about the music, rather than about them, and I loved their playing all the more for that.

Obviously the pair’s virtuosity was a key component in the presentation of the more serious music as well, and came to the fore in the nonchalance with which they threw off some of the difficulties of things like the opening Prelude, Fugue and Riffs by Leonard Bernstein, as well as the ease with which they set in motion the ebb and flow of the different sequences from the same composer’s “West Side Story” at the second half’s beginning (they even got us joining in with the shouts of “Mambo” during the first section of that work – our first unison attempt was a bit ragged, but with Roe’s expert semaphoring as a guide, the second shout of “Mambo!” we delivered was one to die for!).

That “character” which the pair imbued in every piece they played came to the fore in heartfelt fashion during the first half’s sequence of arrangements using material with a kind of Gospel-song ethos, from John Adams’ “Halleluiah Junction”, through the treatment accorded Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah”, and finishing with a redemptive-like take on Paul McCartney’s inspirational “Let it be”. Regarding the last of those items, Roe had set the tone for our listening by inviting us to join in with her singing of McCartney’s opening melody and words (her voice extremely lovely in its own right), before the two pianists opened up the vistas (the accompanying note used the phrase “duelling Gospel pianists”!), powerfully suggesting a revivalist kind of fervour to illuminate the music’s message.

Another highlight for me was the deeply-felt and serenely spell-binding performance of Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits” from the composer’s opera “Orphee et Euridice”, which, significantly, the pair chose to resent as a four-hands duet at one keyboard rather than use the bigger two-piano sonorities. That kind of wide-screen sound was restored for the concert’s final scheduled item, the pair’s own exploration of themes and sequences from Bizet’s opera “Carmen”, here given with all the sensuous atmosphere, colour and rhythmic swagger and excitement that we all associate with Bizet’s score. There were several encores afterwards, but Bizet’s music made an appropriately brilliant climax to the programme, which had the audience clapping and bravo-ing for more, the pair generous in response, and leaving us replete with a sense of occasion.