Music preview: Piano duo to present rarely played works for two pianos

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Eighteen feet, 176 keys, 6 pedals, 20 fingers and two minds.

Those are the specifics of a piano duo, a special pairing that requires two grand pianos placed together like giant puzzle pieces, with the pianists facing each other. But the greater measure is the exhilaration that comes from hearing two musicians working in tandem on these majestic instruments.

"Musically it can be more interesting. It is a different dynamic on stage with someone," says Becky Billock. "It feels like you are playing for the other person." She is one-half of the Faigen and Billock duo, which gives a recital this weekend on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University presented by the Steinway Society of Western Pennsylvania.

Faigen and Billock Piano Duo

When: 3 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Kresge Theater in the College of Fine Arts, Carnegie Mellon University.

Tickets: $5-$15;

"It is like a string quartet," says Tina Faigen. "You need to have the same goals and approach to do something bigger and better than you could do alone."

Yet sounding like one person playing one piano is often the goal of a composition for duo pianists. "You have to blend, making two instruments sound like one," she says. "You need to match your approach so that when you are trading melodies you are doing so relatively seamlessly."

It's a tremendous task, especially considering the already difficult one of playing virtuosic music by the likes of Rachmaninoff, whose two Suites for Two Pianos are the staples of repertoire and are on the upcoming concert's program. These are a pertinent example of the often-hidden gems in the duo piano output.

"Fans can discover pieces [by] composers they love and have written so beautifully for two pianos," says Katia Labeque.

She and her sister Marielle comprise the most acclaimed piano duo in the world. For more than 30 years, they have introduced even classical buffs to amazing but lesser-known works from Mozart, Poulenc, Bartok, Schubert, Stravinsky, Gershwin, Glass and more. But she thinks it is not enough, and in fact the conservative nature of extant piano duo music contributes to its lower status."

"We need to continue presenting new projects and new works to the audience, but sometimes promoters are afraid to get empty halls," says Ms. Labeque. "They think that the solution is to program only well-known pieces."

Two Duquesne University music students, Yuting Zhou and Anna Kovalevska, won the top prize in the U.S. International Duo Piano Competition held in early January in Colorado Springs, Colo. The key to success is developing cohesiveness, they say.

"We work on technique, sound productivity, phrasing and expression," says Ms. Zhou. "After that, we put it together and work on the musical picture, unifying every musical idea and style."

A duo piano performance is different from a duet that places two pianists on the same bench playing the same instrument. A duo doesn't have a duet's prime (primo) and secondary (secundo) designation; both pianists have the same importance and use the entire range of the keyboard. But because one piano faces the untraditional way -- stage right, with the piano lid removed -- there is a slight prioritizing of labor.

"I play the second part," says Ms. Billock. "In the Lutoslawski Variations on a Theme of Paganini for two pianos, [Ms. Faigen's] part is far more difficult than mine, but the Rachmaninoff is pretty balanced."

Both of these compositions appear on the upcoming recital program, in addition to a four-hands (one piano) piece by local composer Robert Schultz, who is married to Ms. Faigen. There is always a give-and-take between the performers.

"The hardest thing is discussing interpretations and having the same ideas," says Ms. Zhou. "We have two different personalities, yet we have to make the pieces sound like they're being played by one person."

But the payoff can be great. "Becky and I work so well together," says Ms. Faigen. "When you have been playing so long with someone, you get to know them so well that a freshness happens when you perform."

Piano recitals are not as popular as they had been; it is especially difficult to find a piano duo concert these days, mostly because of logistics.

"It has gotten to be very expensive to bring in a second piano," says John Contiguglia, who plays in a duo with his brother Richard.

"It can even be hard to come up with two benches," jokes Ms. Faigen.

Ms. Labeque is not so certain this is the primary reason. "I think you have fantastic venues in U.S. and it does not seem that the problem is the instruments."

This means that music fans miss out on an "incredible amount of music. Nearly every major composer wrote for two pianists, and many for two pianos," Mr. Contiguglia says.

The genre essentially begins with that most seminal of all composers, J.S. Bach.

"Bach was the inventor," he says. "He loved multiple clavier ensembles and wrote works with up to four keyboards with orchestra."

Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos was an important and popular work that he and his sister, Maria Anna 'Nannerl,' often performed together. Franz Liszt transcribed a raft of works for two pianists, Brahms' "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" and Rachmaninoff's Suites are essential to their output, and Stravinsky, Bartok and Poulenc penned acclaimed works.

Living composers have augmented the repertoire. The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo, with Pitt composer Amy Williams, is especially active in that realm.

But it is not just unfamiliarity of music and cost of pianos that have made two-piano recitals rare. "Promoters have not taken this art form seriously," says Mr. Contiguglia. "It has become more of an art for the eyes instead of the ears, a spectacle. Instead of hiring duos who have performed together for years, they hire celebrities and throw them together. Some of the ugliest performances that exist on CD are like this."

Few piano duos have a career supported mostly by performance like the Labeques. The lion's share of the rest find university positions or support themselves with solo performing and private teaching. "There aren't many making a living," says Mr. Contiguglia. "Hard to get enough work."

Performances need support, which is exactly what the Steinway Society is doing this weekend. And it is why nurturing a new group such as the Duquesne duo is important. But another reason is that duo performances benefit the performers as much as the potential audiences.

"Playing with someone else on the stage feels more comfortable and supported," says Ms. Zhou. "It is much more fun than playing solo."


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: or 412-263-1750. He blogs at


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