Pianos In Conversation: A Collaborative Faculty Concert

Watching musicians fascinates me. It is different from watching other artists, as many of them are separate from their work: visual artists are normally not part of the art, actors play characters, writers normally aren’t around when you read. Dancers and musicians, on the other hand, are vital pieces of their art. I am always entertained by watching musicians get into their music.

My love of watching artists as a part of their art made this weekend’s faculty piano concert a treat to watch. Applied Music faculty Chiharu Naruse and Bridget Convey were joined by Professor Emeritus James Parakilas for a delightful ninety minutes of music, mostly playing on two pianos. It was my first ever classical piano concert and I enjoyed it more than I expected. It was fascinating to glean about their personalities from behind a piano bench.

For some reason, I delighted in watching a pianist get into the music more so than musicians playing other instruments. Playing the piano is more of a full body experience than say the guitar or trumpet. Watching pianists in profile obscures audience members from seeing the expressions on their face. You watch their body movements: how their head moves, how their feet tap against the pedals, where their elbows go. It was so intriguing watching Naruse and Convey because it was easy to see they were passionate about the performance, while observing them work in tandem.

Pianists only have conductors when part of an orchestra, but with two pianos involved, Naruse and Convey had to communicate timing with only nods and expressions. I was pulled in to the performance by their body language as much as I was by the music. Instrumentalists often wear black for concerts in part to let the music stand without the distraction of busy patterns or bright colors, in a way to separate the artist from the art. However, I found it enjoyably impossible to do this; watching the artists perform was equally as enjoyable as listening to the music they brought to us.

Naruse and Convey played three pieces: Harold Stover’s Rag, Pastorale, and Carillon for Two Pianos (Composed 1984-1988), Witold Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations for Two Pianos (Comp. 1941), and Philip Glass’ Four Movements for Two Pianos (Comp. 2008). They were joined by Parakilas for my personal favorite pieces of the afternoon, Armin Fuchs’ Vielleicht, Vielleicht auch nicht (maybe, maybe not) and Oder etwa doch? (or does it?) For Piano Six Hands (Comp. 2004 & 2005). You heard that right, six. How, exactly? Well, by seating all three pianists at the same piano! A camera was trained onto the keys and the footage played on a projector screen behind them in order to see the choreography required to have three pianists, each playing different lines, at the same time.

The two pieces clearly enjoyed playing around with multiple pianists. The first piece opened with each pianist having their own “range” of the piano: Convey at the bottom, Naruse in the middle, and Parakilas at the top. Each played notes within their respective range, divided in half in order to be played by different hands. As the piece went on, more and more crossover occurred, which forced the pianists to pay careful attention to what the others were doing while also playing their own lines. The second piece had a more consistent crossover throughout. Both pieces played around with the same structure in different keys as well as portraying each section as in conversation with the other.

The pieces played by only Naruse and Convey were equally interesting as the two pianos played in conversation with each other. I found the Stover piece to be my favorite because the three movements all drew on different styles and made for, in my opinion, a more intriguing combination than the other pieces. Regardless, all pieces were beautifully and enthusiastically played by three amazing pianists, and the concert was a memorable experience I hope to repeat in the future.