The Chicago Duo Piano Minifest, held February 1-3 at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston, was a showcase of an unusual niche in the piano repertory, highlighting pieces to be played either by two pianists on a single piano or two pianos playing simultaneously. The festival has been held since 1988, the initiative of husband-and-wife pianists Claire Aebersold and Ralph Neiweem, MIC faculty members and long-practiced advocates of the duo piano repertoire. I must confess I approached the festival with some curiosity, for I am not overly familiar with the format of duo piano performances. The piano is a kind of perfect instrument, the only instrument that is really capable of producing by itself the full range of the musical spectrum, indeed, capable of mimicking an entire orchestra on its own. Though it is often combined with other instruments, for instance the whole orchestra in the case of a concerto, or other smaller ensembles for chamber pieces, it is, for me, a symbol of solitude, for the possibility of an uncompromising interpretation of a piece.
It may seem unusual to have two pianists playing a piece together, but as I observed the performers, I found myself fascinated by the way that the various duos worked together, unifying sometimes highly contrasting styles on such a traditionally autonomous instrument. I had the chance to attend two full-length concerts. The first was a recital by the Unison Piano Duo, composed of another husband-and-wife team, the Chinese-born Du Huang and Xiao Hu, faculty members at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. They performed the first half of the concert on the same piano, and each took their own piano during the second half. I was especially fascinated in the contrasts in their styles, with Ms. Hu clearly the more virtuoso of the two, attacking a short piece like John Corigliano's Tarantella (Gazebo Dances)with ferocity, while her husband, Mr. Huang, seemed to be a more reserved, steadying contributor. Other notable pieces included a duet Rondo by Schubert, D.608, the brief but thrilling Libertango by Astor Piazzolla, played on separate pianos, and their piece de resistance, a dual-piano transcription of several notable movements from Stravinsky's Petroushka, which made a convincing argument that a whole orchestra isn't necessary to perform this masterwork.
The second concert, on February 2, featured MIC faculty members performing various pieces. Another husband-and wife team, Mio Isoda-Hagle and Matthew Hagle, led off with a rousing performance of Schubert's Allegro in A Minor, D. 947 (Lebenssturme). Schubert was a mainstay of the performances, as Maya Brodotskaya and Irene Faliks performed his Rondo in A Major, D.951. Especially notable was when Aebersold and Neiweem took the stage and performed two works by Debussy, including a transcription of De l'aube a midi sur la mer from La Mer, which began plainly enough, but built gradually to a thrilling finish. I was not enamored of all of the pieces, particularly the selections from Samuel Barber's Souvenirs, played by Elaine Felder and Milana Pavchinskaya,
or the short pieces from Stravinsky's Sonata for Two Pianos played by Fiona Queen and Mark George, which I found to be fairly banal, chosen seemingly because they fit the format rather than for any musical brilliance. The evening concluded with a rendition of Saint-Saens' always rousing (and crowd-pleasing) Danse Macabre, performed by Inah Chiu and Sung Hoon Mo. There were also several master classes and student performances given in conjunction with the festival. The performances, as well as the long-standing popularity of the festival, demonstrates that the duo piano repertory is one that can produce satisfactory results, even when collaboration is required in what is generally the most uncompromisingly autonomous of genres.