It all started with Mozart. His concerto in Eb K. 365 calls for two pianos as soloists. Seattle Symphony and conductor Gerard Schwartz had programmed it, and needed to find a suitable pair of pianists. He came up with two of his favorites, Jon Kimura Parker and Orli Shaham. Happily, Parker and Shaham turned out to be excellent performance partners.
Since the two graceful though enormous grand pianos face each other on stage, the pianists sit pretty far apart. They can see each other's eyes, but not their hands, which makes the entire endeavor quite tricky to coordinate.
That was the first time that Orli and Jackie (as everyone calls Jon Kimura) played together, but it won't be the last. The Seattle concert was a colossal success, and both Orli and Jackie were so energized by the experience, they are launching a duo recital project next season.
Journalist and media consult Gail Wein met up with Orli to dig deeper into the delights and perils of performing with another pianist.
GAIL WEIN: Why is it more difficult to play music for two pianos?
ORLI SHAHAM: No one approaches it the same way. I mean literally, the approach of the finger to the key. That means that no two pianists play at the same speed of sound production. That makes it difficult for pianists to play together. You look at each other, you think you're playing your partner's cue, and it turns out you're just that much faster at coming down on the key and having the hammer hit the string. And then there's the issue of matching sounds, or not matching sounds. How much do you want to blend and how much do you want to stand out from the other pianist?
GW: How do you perform effectively together if you can't see your partners hands, especially when there's no conductor?
OS: In some ways, it's better to not see your partners hands, because that can be misleading. The other person's technique may not be like yours and you may misread their hands. The other side of that is, I find that when two pianos play together, you can barely see the top of the other pianist's forehead over the music rack. In fact when we first arrived in Seattle to play with the symphony, I went to the stage manager and asked if it would be possible to build some music stands that we could put inside the piano; that would be angled enough for us to see them, but that wouldn't block our views of each other. This guy was incredible, within ten minutes he came back with two beautifully fashioned stands that, in fact, I now travel around the country with. We were able to see each other and were able to have all of that communication which was so wonderful.
GW: Is there much music for two pianos, and what pieces are you especially fond of?
OS: There's a lot of great repertoire; it's so much fun to make four hands work on the keyboard. I have a number of real favorites, for instance, Mozart's D Major Sonata for Two Pianos. I've always found that piece an ingenious, clever way of using the two instruments, both collaboratively and also occasionally working against each other.
I also am a big fan of John Adams Hallelujah Junction for two pianos, because I find in that piece he was able to really get the instruments ringing off of each other in an unusual way. There's something about the basic physics of having same type of instrument playing together, the sound waves build upon each other in a really wonderful way. I think John Adams has really tapped into that with Hallelujah Junction, and it's very satisfying to play.
GW: What is it you like about playing with Jackie Parker? Did you know right away, before the first note was played that this was going to be a great partnership?
OS: I met Jackie a number of years ago; we were playing a program which was called The Three Pianists, as opposed to the Three Tenors, and our third partner in crime was Andre-Michel Schub. The three of us had a wonderful time, travelling around Florida in a minivan going from gig to gig. We played on the same program, but we never actually played with each other.
We had a lot of fun, and it was obvious that whenever we would get a chance to work together, which is very rare for pianists, we knew we would love working together.
GW: How does this change the relationship or friendship that you and Jackie Parker have?
OS: I think this deepens our friendship. There's nothing like finding a musical partner in somebody that you know is a fun friend to be around. It's very satisfying, and it's rare. The longer I spend making music with people, the more I realize how special it is to understand the other's musicianship, and that is hugely rewarding.
GW: Orli Shaham, thanks very much.
OS: My pleasure!