by Jeannette Fang
Maiori - Palazza Mezzacapo
July 24, 2014
Usually when I hear “piano duo concert” I think of this:
It’s generally not a bad idea to keep to having only one pianist on the stage. Except for…
The Festival Duo!
Vigilantes against stereotypes, the festival darlings of Jim Giles and Yoshikazu Nagai strode calmly to their pianos, perfunctorily bowing and launching immediately into a perfectly coordinated Lutoslawski with an ensemble that was so together it crackled with crispness.
I guess the main bias I have against two-piano performances is that it’s just too much piano. It’s usually just kind of noisy and loud, and ultimately boring. Too many divas in the room make for disjunct chamber playing. But Nagai and Giles? They completely ruined all my narrow-minded assumptions. For one, they were NEVER too loud. They have such finely tuned ears that there was never a moment of confusion or chaos; multiple different lines were delineated clearly, yet every sound was perfectly modulated to create a unified whole, whose complexity was carefully imagined and transparent to the audience.
Secondly, they were so coordinated. Maybe it’s because they have known each other for over two decades, but they so perfectly matched each other’s sounds and ideas that Logan Skelton’s quote of “I can’t tell who’s playing” couldn’t be argued with. I think it’s safe to say that these two pianists are the opposite of showmen. They were focused on the complete musical picture; always aware of the other, not viewing the other’s part as separate from their own. Actually, it seemed that instead of playing two pianos, they were playing a hyper-instrument, because there was never that sense of them being two separate entities. As indication, the two never needed to look at each other, because, why would you need to look at a part of yourself?
As mentioned, the concert started out with Lutoslawski’s Variations on a theme of Paganini, with Giles sitting Primo and Nagai sitting Secondo. The electric beginning gained in excitement because they were so physically aligned and economical in movement. Even the jet speeds of sweeping runs were sparklingly together.
Switching parts for the Brahms Variations on a theme of Haydn op.56b, the two began the theme with a warm, full sound, conveying perfect peace. Bass lines were particularly memorable, as they had an anchoring warmth as well as always a line, such as the wonderfully long shape of variation VII, with the suspensions noticed with just the right amount of savor without losing their glue. Livelier sections like variation II were never aggressive, but had quick flashes that served to spark energy, but never overwhelm and turn off the ear. Often, specific images came to mind because of how clear their conception was, such as raindrops in variation V, or a murmuring brook in variation VIII.
There was a noticeable gaiety with the second half, as they started Percy Grainger’s Fantasia on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with a brilliance that evoked the curtain raising announcement of spectacle of Broadway. It’s impossible to resist bobbing along to the rhythms; you could see Brian Hsu lose the fight in his page-turning post, his face utterly serious but his body betraying our communal desire to dance. The writing was complex and layered, as is any work must be when based on a orchestral score, but Giles on Primo displayed an innate understanding of how much brilliance to use in order not to intrude on the lower line of Nagai’s, yet he did not sound as if he were self consciously squashing into quiet.
It’s interesting to see the subtle differences between the two with how they treated the vocality of the writing. Giles sat back with his solos, luxuriating in the lushness, really feeling with satisfying expansiveness the chordal melody, making us all sigh with relish as he took just the right amount of soulful timing. Nagai moved more in a forward, inward way. An especially touching moment was the melody “Summertime”, which Nagai played with cherished simplicity. When he restated it as a whisper, it took your breath away because it was one of those gems, those moments that you remember for a long time.
Of course, the town hall erupted after their sparkling finish. There is something particularly heartwarming about these lifelong friends that are such a team. Most importantly, theirs is a relationship founded on musical generosity, performing for us with the intention of having no barriers between the communication of sincerely felt music.