May 16, 2014 SPA
To Duel or Not To Duel
May 16, 2014 — At first I was concerned that the performance of Christina and Michelle Naughton, billed as the “Dueling Pianists” at the Wortham Center last night, would be more of a spectacle and less a performance of musical craft and refinement. What were the chances of two young, attractive sisters each possess a mastery of piano? Four-handed piano has long been the providence of amateurs and early 20th century parlors in the absence of the modern entertainment accessories.
Musical craftsmanship is both a talent and skill, and it is logical and also readily apparent that these two grew up not only under the tutelage of great pianists (just look at their bio), but also with the constant feedback of each other. They communicate with movement, body language and perhaps some of that special sisterly telepathic connection. Their body language and gestures during the performance err on the side of exuberance, but only when the passage is especially exciting.
The two pieces, a Mendelssohn and Schubert for four hands, were refined and tasteful. It is easy to lose yourself in the onslaught of four hands coaxing Romanticism of out of a grand piano, especially sitting as close we were. Technically, the sisters were beyond proficient, and unless you watched and listened carefully, distinguishing between the two was impossible and perhaps even undesirable.
The third piece, a Ravel waltz for four hands, and two pianos, was stunning. At one point I turned my head and looked behind me at wave of rapt faces in the audience. The cadence of the waltz lent itself to communication between the players, and overall, anyone would have been rapt.
The third piece, the modern incendiary favorite, The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, was less inspiring. The piece is composed for a full orchestra, where various textures of instrumentation can punctuate or sooth, and roll out a melodramatic narrative of death and rebirth. The invariant textures of the two grand pianos gloss over the full effect of the piece, through no fault or lack of ability on the part of the sisters.
Louis Kahn, a famous architect is famous for saying:
You say to a brick, ‘What do you want brick?’ And the brick says to you, I like an arch.’ And you say to brick, ‘Look, I want one, too but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel.’ And then you say: ‘What do you think of that, brick?’ Brick says: ‘I like an arch.’
My final comment to the Naughton sisters, is to ask what not one but two grand pianos want. It’s probably not Stravinsky. Maybe Mendelssohn or Schubert?