Teacher, her 3 prized students to perform ‘2 Pianos, 8 Hands’

School of Music piano faculty Nicola Melville, John Milbauer, Omri Shimron and Rebecca Penneys rehearse for
“2 Pianos, 8 Hands.” Photo by Lauren Rock.

Yemi Falodun | Staff Writer

“It helps that we all went to school together,” said piano maestro John Milbauer.

“I didn’t go to school with you,” said piano chair Rebecca Penneys. “I was your teacher.”

Penneys joins her prized pupils Milbauer, Nicola Melville, and Omri Shimron in the annual “2 Pianos, 8 Hands Extravaganza” on full display at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall.

The group will show off its skills and personalities as it plays lighthearted classics from composers such as Beethoven, Vincent Youmans and more.

“It’s not unusual for two pianists to sit at one piano, or even a duet with two pianos,” Milbauer said. “But to have 2 pianos with 4 musicians is rare.”

“In some sense, it’s a window back into this tradition of arranging orchestral works or operatic works for either two pianists or four pianists,” Penneys said.

All that adds some unpredictability, when four distinct pianists try to play in sync.

“Rebecca is very charismatic, even though she’s older than all of us,” Shimron said. “She pushes us to the edge and does quirky things that you wouldn’t see in a normal, classical piano recital.”

Penneys is known for her random theatrics, such as standing up spontaneously, playing maracas or a drum, sneaking in funny hats or costumes, and making funny gestures.

“Nikki has a lot of fantastic energy and vivaciousness — very sparkly at times,” Shimron added. “John keeps us doing things in good takes. And he has a beautiful sound.”

It is hard to gauge how to have four different pianists play cohesively and sound good. But those four make it happen.

“If you have four musicians that are like-minded like us, then it’s not so difficult,” Milbauer said.

With so many instrumentalists and so little room, the group relies on having a mini conductor for each piece.

“It’s always the person on the top on outside piano, who is the leader of the group,” Penneys explained.

“Unless that person isn’t Rebecca,” Milbauer said.

He compared the group to four musical siblings, who create dividing lines on a long, strange road trip across a beautiful soundscape.