For those of us who were treated to watching Hye-Jung Hong and Wei-Han Su seemingly sway as one in their tour de force recital of Piano Four Hands selections, it would come as no surprise that they know each other well.
In fact these two virtuosos share most of their life together—adjacent offices at Missouri State University, a home with two adorable young children, a Four Hand repertoire when they are not soloing, and a continuing romance that began when they met as doctoral students at the Peabody Conservatory of Music.
Their intimacy showed during the concert, or rather, was heard. Switching sides for different pieces in their selected repertoire, they also took turns at who was at the pedals even during one piece.
The program had a few family touches as well.
“Five Images” by Dello Joio was the first piece performed and reportedly was composed for Dello Joio’s children. As soon as Hong and Su started playing it was amazing to watch them move as a piece to the melodic and at times carousel-like themes. During the last movement, “The Dancing Sergeant” Su took on the expression of a determined marathon champion in keeping with the high energy pace of this finale.
Andante and Variations by Mendelssohn also perhaps had a family inspiration in that the composer often performed piano duets with his sister Fanny at family gatherings when he was young. This piece was composed in 1841 when he was 32
Hong and Su chose to play the Mendelssohn piece with only a short pause from Bolcom’s “Dédicace: A Small Measure of Affection”, two short movements that the program noted the composer planned as either “an introduction to another piece or as ‘bookends’ for a group of small works.” As if on cue, though I suspect it was not, the duo both smiled at the same musical phrases, again allowing us to feel the intimacy of their Four Hand collaboration.
The final piece was Ravel’s well-known “Rapsodie espagnole”. This was the piano duet that Ravel later orchestrated for full orchestra and like “Bolero” is said to reflect the influence of his Basque mother on him. Two of the movements of this piece are for types of dance, but the final movement called “Feria” (or “Fair” in English, as in fairgrounds) energized the Dame Myra Hess audience to the standing ovation that they gave the couple.
Both Hong and Su often play solo as featured performers with the world’s leading orchestras. Wei-Han Su, who left his native Taiwan at the tender age of 12 to study music in London, had made his orchestral debut at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London when he was 17. He has performed in major cities in the US, Russia, Italy, Korea, Malaysia, China and Taiwan. Similarly Hye-Jung Hong has performed both chamber and orchestral works in Germany, Holland, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan, China, Canada, the US and in her native South Korea.
When I asked Hong if it is fun playing duets with her husband she said, “Duet is an intimate kind of music making. You are seated at the same instrument, sitting right next to each other and sometimes even sharing the same bench. There are parts that require hands to cross. You learn to synchronize your breathing and hand gestures. It is a special kind of music where you learn to complement and support each other.”
“In duet playing, you need to learn to adapt to what the other person is doing. You need to learn to match each other’s sound, and this is challenging because each of us has our own distinct tonal quality on the keyboard. Also, pedaling presents a special challenge—in solo playing, you pedal your own part, but in duet playing, one person pedals for both partners and it requires a lot of precision of coordination.”
Hong explains their selections, “We wanted a program that has a variety of styles and moods. The Five Images and Dedicace are both works by 20th-Century American composers though they are markedly different in sound and style. The Andante and Variations is a work of German Romanticism while Rapsodie espagnole is a depiction of Spanish dances and scenery by a French Impressionist composer.
“The first piece on our program, Five Images, is a work that Dello Joio wrote for his own children. The composer had earlier written a work called “Family Album,” but the Five Images demanded more skill to keep pace with the children’s improvement over a four-year period of time. We find it special that a composer writes music for his own children. That’s such a loving gesture and a wonderful gift for a parent to give to his child.
“The 2nd piece on our program, Dédicace: A Small Measure of Affection is a set of 2 miniature pieces which Bolcom wrote for his former teacher Darius Mihaud. Bolcom indicates that the work may be played as an introduction to another piece, or as "bookends" for a group of small works. We have chosen to use the piece as an introduction to the Mendelssohn because we feel that its simplicity and intimacy leads very naturally to the Mendelssohn, which has a similarly serene and intimate theme.
“It is interesting that Mendelssohn wrote only a few four-hands pieces, which is surprising considering that he often collaborated with his sister Fanny Mendelssohn on the piano. The Andante and Variations is full of fresh and charming ideas, and really showcases his ingenuity in variation writing. It is especially interesting how the last variation expands the theme well beyond the original 24 measures, which brings the work to an exhilarating climax.
“The Rapsodie espagnole is a piece we have performed often and is one of our favorite piano 4 hands works. Most people probably know the work in its orchestral version – Ravel is famous for orchestrating his own keyboard music. It is amazing how colorful the piano duet version is – in our view rivaling the orchestral version. We especially love the last movement and always have a fun time exploring its range of sound and color whenever we perform.”
They may have made it look effortless but even getting to Chicago to perform was not without obstacles. Although Hong says Chicago is a favorite family vacation spot for them, this week was not only their first days back at Missouri State University but also the first days of school for their children, Andy Su (9) and Katie Su (7), who were shepherded to school by good friends in the performers’ absence.
But before they headed back to Missouri for first week teaching and parenting duties Hong gazed up at the magnificent mosaic ceiling of Preston Bradley Hall and confessed her gaze kept going in that direction. She said, “We are very excited to have the opportunity to perform in this prestigious series.” On the contrary, thanks go to Hong and Su for making the journey to delight our ears and eyes with their intimate Four Hand recital.
Photos courtesy of Hye-Jung Hong and Wei-Han Su
Performance site photos: Amy Munice
Dame Myra Hess Concerts are free to the public and simulcast on WFMT
Location: Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center
Every Wednesday 12:15 pm
For more information visit http://imfchicago.org/hess/main