School of Music Piano Co-Chairs John Milbauer & Nikki Melville to Play Duets in Recital

Chautauqua Piano Program Co-Chairs John Milbauer, left, and Nicola Melville on Sunday, July 29, 2018 outside of the Amphitheater. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Co-chairs of the School of Music’s Piano Program, John Milbauer and Nikki Melville, will give a joint piano recital at 4 p.m. today, July 5, in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. They will play an hour-long array of upbeat duets, including one for four hands — meaning they will share the same piano.

Milbauer and Melville will play three pieces: “Recuerdos for Two Pianos” by William Bolcom, selections from “Legends” Op. 59 by Antonín Dvořák — which is a piece for four hands — and “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,”  composed by Leonard Bernstein and arranged for two pianos by John Musto.

Milbauer and Melville have played together numerous times. They were students of the School of Music together from 1989, when they played their first duet, to 1992; this year marks the 30th anniversary of that meeting, and their seventh summer as co-chairs of the Piano Program.

“We’ve both said many times we can’t imagine another person we could do this for six weeks with,” Melville said.

“It’s true,” Milbauer said.

Last year, Milbauer and Melville’s joint recital was more traditional; this year, they are branching out of the usual piano repertoire into “something for everyone to love,” Milbauer said. Two of the three composers are from the Americas, and one — Bolcom — is still alive.

“They are pieces that provide some counterpoint and contrast to other repertoire that’s offered during the summer,” Melville said. “There’s a lot of highly Romantic, piano-istic kind of repertoire and I think … the Bolcom and the Bernstein are not the kind of pieces that are commonly heard. It’s nice to offer something that broadens the repertoire both for the audience and for the students.”

The first piece, Bolcom’s “Recuerdos,” has Puerto Rican influences. It is a difficult piece for the piano in that the writing is not very idiomatic and has unusual markings for a piano piece.

The second piece, which comes from Dvořák’s “Legends,” is a colorful folk-inspired duet that provides the unique challenge of both pianists sharing the same piano — something, Milbauer and Melville agreed, that requires the two of them to know each other well, work in sync and have similar playing styles.

“(Doing) four hands is a different kind of experience and a different kind of fun, where our hands cross and mine goes over hers or under,” Milbauer said. “It adds some variety to the program. It’s a different skill, a different kind of playing, and I love playing with Nikki for four hands.”

At the end of the summer, there will be a four-hands festival for the School of Music piano students. They will find, Milbauer said, that if the two pianists have drastically different techniques, aesthetic sensibilities or even personalities, they will be faced with a lot of complications. For Milbauer and Melville, though, their styles of playing complement each other well.

“When you’re playing with other pianists, you learn how you operate as a pianist,” Melville said.

Finally, the two will finish off with a crowd-pleaser: a medley of themes from West Side Story.

“For those our age or older — it’s ingrained in our cultural memory, these tunes from West Side Story, ” Milbauer said. “People hear the Symphonic Dances — the orchestral version — in concert not infrequently, but this arrangement for two pianos is relatively new.”

This piece has significant difficulties due to the “thorniness” of the writing, according to Milbauer, meaning that it does not sit well or flow easily beneath the pianist’s hands. This comes largely from translating a piece written for a whole orchestra into one meant for just two pianos — in a way, they will play the parts of many instruments in one.

The recital is full of joyous music, Milbauer said, with something that everyone can love.

“It’s sort of a party,” he said. “It’s animated music, and it’s uplifting music.”

Because they had the same teacher who gave them an unusual technical training at Chautauqua, and because of their years-long friendship, Milbauer and Melville enjoy playing together. They understand each other’s playing and can be quite flexible with each other so that neither of them dominate the performance.

“There’s still things to be worked out; there always are, when you’ve got two people doing one thing, essentially, but that sort of working process is much simpler and much easier because we have that shared history,” Melville said.

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The author Julia Arwine

Julia Arwine is a rising junior at Miami University in Ohio, where she studies journalism and interactive media studies. She will be covering the School of Music this summer. Julia’s three main ambitions in life are to write for National Geographic, to be a chef and to own a sheep farm in Scotland — not necessarily in that order.