by Mike Telin
When pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe left their respective hometowns in the Midwest to pursue their undergraduate studies at the Juilliard School, the two found themselves by happenstance assigned to the same floor of the famed music school’s dormitory.
The two became fast friends and soon discovered that they had a shared mission for their musical lives: to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society. And both had big dreams of how to do that — by presenting programs that represent the vast range of the human experience.
On Friday, June 16 at 7:30 pm in Ludwig Recital Hall, Kent State Piano Institute will present a guest recital by the always entertaining piano duo Anderson & Roe. Their eclectic program will include Mozart’s Duettino Concertante (arranged by Busoni from the finale of the Piano Concerto in F, K. 459), Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 1 (“Fantaisie-tableaux”), and their own arrangements of music by Piazzolla, Brahms, Dvořák, Grieg, and Schubert.
As with most Anderson & Roe performances, the evening will include some rock music. This concert will be highlighted by John Lennon & Paul McCartney’s Let It Be and Freddie Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
Prior to the Duo’s performance as part of the Cleveland International Piano Competition Festival in July of 2016, I spoke with Chicago native Elizabeth Roe, and St. Paul, Minnesota-born Greg Anderson:
Mike Telin: What do you look for in a pop song?
Greg Anderson: It’s very different in every instance. For example, Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean marinated in my mind for a couple of years. At first I thought it would be a terrible piece to arrange for two pianos because there’s no way we could recreate Michael Jackson’s iconic voice and that irresistible dance track. But in talking with Liz, we began to hone in on some things — like we were attracted to the dark, sinister nature of the music video, and Michael Jackson’s use of rhythm. With those big concepts in mind, we finally wrote the arrangement.
Daft Punk’s Lose Yourself to Dance is based on ‘70s disco music, but it’s fused with an almost classical/minimalist aesthetic. And hearing it for the first time, we were struck by their influence on classical music.
Liz Roe: We’ll also choose songs based on a certain programming concept. For instance, we have an album of night songs — When Words Fade (Night Songs for Piano Duo) — so we searched for pieces that would apply to that theme, regardless of the genre that they came from.
MT: I understand that you played your first concert together while you were still at Juilliard.
LR: We performed our first recital fourteen years ago. It was such a blast and we had so much fun on stage that we looked at each other and thought, ‘maybe we should do this more.’ Actually, when we were still at Juilliard we started getting recommended for all these gigs, and from there our reputation started to expand. We also realized that we both had so many of the same ideas, like ‘let’s make videos!’
MT: Speaking of your videos, I really like them all, especially The Rite of Spring.
LR: The whole reason behind making our own videos is that we couldn’t afford to hire people. But we had the desire, so we just made it happen by being resourceful and figuring out how to edit film. The Rite of Spring video is another example. We thought, ‘Oh, the centenary of the piece is coming up. Why don’t we do a video of the whole 35-minute work?’ We love to take risks onstage, but for that video we took a lot of risks. Greg had to go to the emergency room because he injured his toe during filming when we were sacrificing the piano at sea.
GA: Sacrificing a piano at sea was one of the strangest things we’ve done. But we had the elements of water and fire as part of the narrative. For me, it was inevitable. I said, “We have to drown it in the ocean,” but Liz said, “No, that’s a terrible idea.”
LR: I somehow got overruled.
GA: What I failed to consider is that the ocean has powerful waves, so naturally they shoved the piano all over the place including onto the two of us and over my toe, ripping off the toenail. That was right at the start of the shoot so we just had to keep going because we were not going to get a second chance.
LR: Equally extreme was filming the piano in the desert. We threw gasoline on it and torched it and it was quite windy.
GA: We were trying to play it with the fire blowing. During the editing I had to be very selective, because the two of us were both holding our hands back from the flames.
MT: Wow, that’s amazing. On another topic, did you both study arranging?
GA: We have not taken any composition or arranging courses, only theory. Again, it all started by necessity in that we wanted to play music for four hands, but the bulk of the repertoire is skewed toward music for children, or for the concert stage. So we needed better repertoire for our purposes. I actually composed and arranged music for The 5 Browns, and after writing music for five pianos, writing for two pianos or four hands comes pretty easily.
LR: Yes, but it does require that you use a different part of your brain. I really admire that Greg has the wherewithal to deal with all the complexities — for two pianos especially. We’ve fallen in love with the genre, although initially neither of us was attracted to it. A lot of the music, especially for four hands, is a little precious.
GA: And a lot of the repertoire for two pianos can sound a bit dated.
LR: As pianists, we are naturally exposed to some of the best musical writing on earth, so when playing a piece by Brahms or Rachmaninoff we can learn a lot about how to write for the instrument. We’re also very affected by music of other genres, so listening to how Radiohead treats a song — or just a well-crafted pop song — you can get inspiration from that as well, and then try to infuse that into a classical style. That will hopefully give it a less dated, less kitschy feel. Even if it is an arrangement of something from the 19th century, we want it to feel a little bit modern, and something that can appeal to a contemporary audience.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com June 13, 2017.
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