Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The New Season Begins: the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo

Who: The Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo
What: works for “Piano Four-Hands” by Mendelssohn and Schubert, Falla, Gavrilin and Gershwin
When: Sunday, September 24th, 2017, at 4pm
Where: at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg.

Tickets to all of our performances are $35, $30 for seniors, and free for K-12 age children with $10 tickets available for one accompanying adult. We also offer $5 tickets to college students with valid school ID.

You can buy tickets here - and through our website  – plus tickets will be available at the door.

This post introduces the performers and explores the Piano Duet. It includes video clips of Mendelssohn's Allegro brillant and Falla's "Spanish Dance," plus the four hands of George Gershwin playing his own transcription of An American in Paris! (Well, through the magic of the piano roll.)

The second post will focus on Franz Schubert and his Fantasy in F Minor, certainly one of the masterpieces of the piano duet repertoire - and then a third one introduces a composer who will no doubt be unfamiliar to an American audience as Schubert is familiar: Valery Gavrilin and his ballet Anyuta.

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The “new year” is upon us – at least, it seems like a new year, even if it's actually September, not January. Like fiscal years, arts seasons have for some reason never followed the calendar, giving us a cumbersome “2017-2018 Season.” But after the end of summer (not official until Friday at 4:02 EDT) turning over a new if not yet brightly colored leaf, after the kids go back to start a new grade at school, after the holiday of Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish New Year (observed this year beginning at sundown on Wednesday), getting ready for the first concert of the season always seems like another form of “new year.”

And so Market Square Concerts first program of this new season is this Sunday afternoon at Market Square Church, starting at 4:00. So often, those first-concerts-of-the-new-season often don't usually start until October, so this news might catch you unawares.

We begin the season with a piano duet – technically, they call themselves the “Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo” since they play repertoire for two pianos as well as what we call “piano four-hands” or “piano duet,” something which, years ago, I'd heard someone clarify as “two-on-a-bench.”

The fact there are two pianists and only one piano at Sunday's concert has nothing to do with space – or with budget cuts.

The program includes a brilliant work by Felix Mendelssohn – his Allegro brillante – and perhaps the masterpiece of the duet repertoire, the Fantasy in F Minor by Franz Schubert that makes us forget the whole idea of the piano duet began as home entertainment, gathered around the parlor piano in the days before there were TVs and stereo systems.

This lighter side of the duet repertoire is represented by arrangements of the Spanish Dances from Manuel de Falla's La vida breve and their own transcription of George Gershwin's orchestral souvenir, An American in Paris.

In between, there's something of a rarity: “Pieces from the ballet Anyuta” by the Russian composer Valery Gavrilin and it's quite possible Peter Sirotin will be the only person in the audience familiar with this delightful score! (More about this music a little later.)

Stanislava Varshavski hails from Kharkov, Ukraine – also Peter Sirotin's home town – and Diana Shapiro was born in Moscow. While both of them studied music at home, it was in Israel where they were both pursuing advanced training at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem that they met. In 1998, their teacher suggested they play as a duet – and that's how they got started.

They now live and teach in the United States, taking time to perform around the world.

Here's a video of their performance of their own arrangement of the “Russian Dance” from Stravinsky's ballet Petrushka – originally an orchestral work that began as a work for piano and orchestra and later became the first of Three Pieces the composer arranged for piano solo (for no less than Artur Rubinstein).

As you can see, once the camera pans down to their hands, there is a certain issue about “space” here and sometimes it seems arrangers often try to have some fun with the idea of who plays what, where.

Normally, with two people sharing the bench, the one playing the upper register (called the primo part) covers the melody (assuming the melody is in the upper register) and the one playing the lower register (called the secondo part) handles the bass and the harmony, generally recognizing “Middle C” as a boundary point. This at least maintains the typical body posture of the performer's hands and arms in relation to the placement of the body but limits the reach to only half the 88 keys.

But often the “other body” creates logistical problems: “if I'm to play that note, how do I get enough elbow room there?” This is one reason “piano four-hand” music is rarely so virtuosic with arms flailing in dramatic gestures – before somebody gets a nose broken or an eye poked out.

Not to mention who controls the pedal. Is it the “melody” person because isn't that the most important thing (primo, after all)? Or is it the “harmony” person because that really is what needs to be audibly clarified by the pedal, since the melody can be phrased by good “right hand” technique? And so on...

So, you see, you have to be good friends to play piano duets. It's more than just being in such close proximity to the other performer.

Given the players' proximity, it's interesting to note the history of the “Piano Duet” as a social phenomenon – Social Music as a medium from a time when most people made their own music (unless you were an aristocrat and could afford to hire musicians to make it for you).

Probably all of the music being published for piano duet in the late-18th, early-19th Centuries was intended for the “amateur market” of the growing middle class, for “household music-making” (a different approach to “house music” than we're used to today). This was a time when respectable young ladies were expected to be able to play the piano and sing as well as sew and do other things commendable to future wives (cooking, however, was usually relegated to a hired servant in those days, even for the middle class).

If you saw the recent BBC/PBS series Victoria, you might recall the scene where the young queen of England plays a Mendelssohn piano duet with her cousin (and future husband), Prince Albert. Though this photo doesn't really show much of the piano in question, it certainly gives you an idea that there was more than just musical entertainment in this scene...

Very often the primo part was designed for the more advanced player, the secondo, chugging along with the accompaniment, more for the less-experienced player.

And while much of this music was amateurish in its own way – collections of dances and simple tunes to give the impression of artistic accomplishments – some of it was designed with a higher quality of “amateur” player (keeping in mind amateur meant someone who didn't make a living at it but does it for the love of it, considering the Latin amo/amas/amat, for “love”).

But other works were conceived for players of equal talents – and might give those of us today a different view of the word when “amateur” has taken on a more pejorative blush.

Mendelssohn certainly didn't compose his Allegro brillant for just any amateurs. He wrote it on short notice for a benefit concert in 1841 for newly-married friends of his who were having legal problems – the great pianist Clara Wieck who had only recently married the composer, Robert Schumann. As part of the concert, Mendelssohn played secondo to Clara's primo, elevating a popular form of domestic music-making to a higher professional level, but one that would have been quite familiar to its audience, at least in style if not substance.

Here's a Russian piano duo – Alexander Bakhchiev and Elena Sorokina to play Mendelssohn's scampering scherzo: note that the “second part” is no second fiddle and sometimes even has its own solo.
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One of the chief objectives of the piano duet was to offer “regular people” the sense of joy and accomplishment that artists (who, for argument's sake, may not be all that regular) get all the time from their playing, an experience that can be both satisfying on a personal level as well as entertaining for their family and friends.

And so, much of the repertoire one could buy in the music shops included arrangements of popular pieces or melodies – or variations and fantasies on them. In that sense, something like the Spanish Dances from Manuel de Falla's La vida breve (“The Short Life”) on this program, though a little later than the early-19th Century, would serve its purpose.

In this video, the camera-work gives you an opportunity to see how the hands of Carles and Sofia divvy up the keyboard, an element which also provides a good deal of the visual entertainment.
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Another aspect of this “amateur market” was the education – or perhaps, better, the “familiarization” of a would-be concert audience with the symphonic repertoire. Throughout the 19th Century, symphonies regularly appeared in four-hand arrangements so someone going to a concert – a special event in days when you couldn't buy a recording to listen to it or hear it on-line – could purchase a duet-score and play through it, get to know the tunes, see and hear what the composer was doing in the development section, know what to expect with the work's highlights.

And then, after the concert, considering it could be years before they might hear that piece “live” again, it would be a chance to reacquaint themselves with it whenever they wanted to.

Certainly four hands at the piano would better imitate a full orchestra than two.

But what was behind Gershwin's own “recording” of An American in Paris on a 1933 piano roll in which the composer played both parts of a four-hand arrangement? Just as people might not be able to hear live concerts of the piece that often, and maybe they didn't have a record player to deal with those cumbersome 78rpm records, imagine having George Gershwin himself to play your own player piano for you whenever you wanted, just at the flip of a switch?

Stay tuned for Part Two as we get a chance to hear Franz Schubert's incredible Fantasy in F Minor and find out who Valery Gavrilin is!

- Dick Strawser

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