School of Music piano students’ time at Chautauqua is coming to an end, but before they leave, they have one more chance to come together with each other and with the Chautauqua community.
At 4 p.m. Thursday, August 1 in Sherwood-Marsh Studios, about half the students in the School of Music Piano Program will perform piano duets, some for two pianos and some for four hands, which is when two pianists play on the same piano. At 4 p.m. Friday in Sherwood-Marsh, the other half of the piano students will do the same.
Usually, the Piano Program only lasts five weeks, ending with the annual piano competition. This year, however, a $1 million donation to the program allowed it to be extended for a sixth week. A showcase of student duets, Piano Program Co-Chair Nikki Melville said, seemed like the perfect way to fill that extra time.
“I think it would have felt premature to finish last week, actually,” Melville said. “It sort of felt like we weren’t quite done yet.”
Playing duet and four-hand pieces is not necessarily a common part of a pianist’s training, so these recitals offer students a chance to experience that unique performance. Partners were randomly assigned, so in many cases students have had to learn to play with someone they have not worked with before.
“I think it’s a great way to get to know another person,” said piano student Narae Lee. “We still have to share our musical ideas and then have to discuss what they really think (and) what I think.”
Students were able to choose their own pieces, so the programs will feature a range of pieces, from the light and fun to the virtuosic.
For example, students Katherine Benson and Alexei Aceto will be playing Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre, Op. 40, arranged for two pianos.
“It’s upbeat, it’s fun, it’s rousing,” Benson said. “It’ll be enjoyable.”
Lee and her duet partner, Alexander Lo, will be playing two fairytale-themed pieces; one is from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty ballet arranged for piano by Sergei Rachmaninoff, and one is a medley of the film score of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” originally composed by Alan Menken and arranged for two pianos by Lo himself.
“Who doesn’t love Disney?” Lee said.
Though pianists commonly perform chamber music with mixed ensembles, it is a unique experience to collaborate with another pianist. There is an understanding of each other that comes from playing the same instrument, but there is also the challenge of adjusting to each other’s style and vision of the piece. Sometimes there is a disconnect, but when the two pianos begin to sound like one, Benson said, that’s when they know they’re getting close to clicking.
“You can kind of feel it too, like the two of you are jiving,” she said.
Much of the piano duet repertoire has its roots in salon music, from an era when people would play together just for fun at social gatherings — performances that were better suited for a drawing room than a concert hall. As such, the recitals are meant to be more casual and carefree than a formal show.
“This concert shouldn’t be too serious,” Lee said. “It should be fun.”
For some of the students, it is their first time publicly performing a piano duet, but the nature of this type of show alleviates some of the usual performance pressure.
“It’s one of our few times where we’re not alone on stage,” Benson said. “You can empathize with each other, you can laugh about what you could have done better, and you really appreciate what the other person is doing.”
These are the last two performances the Piano Program will present before its season ends. They are both a goodbye for the students and a thank you to the Chautauquans who have consistently attended piano recitals and supported the program, Melville said.
“The idea is just to sort of give something back,” Melville said. “It’s a less hyped-up, concert sort of atmosphere and more just a sharing of some really fun repertoire for all the people who have supported us all summer.”