2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

You had me at Mozart

Published: May 9, 2014, 7:09 pm, by David Sckolnik

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“I knew exactly what I was in for with Alice. We played together for years and it was very unsettling suddenly to have someone across the way who was different.”

As Sue Grace’s words would suggest, this was what everyone was wondering as we took our seats last night in Packard Hall for a Quattro Mani concert. This was Colorado Springs’ first chance to hear a complete recital from the two piano ensemble since Alice Rybak was replaced by Steven Beck, assuring that the 25-year-old ensemble would survive with Grace still in tact.

So, where to sit? The stage sported two concert grand pianos nestled together- the downstage instrument had its lid removed; the upstage was with an opened lid in standard concert style. Sitting left or right would provide a view of one or the other pianist’s hands on keyboard.

I chose to sit smack dab in the middle – I could see plenty of hand motion although no piano keys. I thought it best to view and listen to what was being produced from a balanced perspective. After all, the ultimate test of a performance such as this is how complimentary the balance between instruments and performances would be.

It didn’t take more that 30 seconds from the opening Mozart’s “Sonata K. 448″ to reveal the truth: the newly reconstituted Quattro Mani is the best it’s been; Grace and Beck share a likeminded musical philosophy with the “chops” to realize the musical imagery they savor.

This was a performance with exquisite detail and unforced energy. Although the pianists were using two seemingly different sounding instruments- Hamburg and New York Steinways – there was no discernable difference between them.

All three movements were perfection. This inspired reading even managed to project the wit and spontaneity that only the best interpretations of Mozart can muster.

More of the same experience came from Chopin’s “Rondo, Op. 73.” While not the equal of the Polish piano master’s best efforts, the essential qualities of his music were easy to discern here. Grace and Beck were not all daunted by the broader music language here and still boiled down their performance to matched details and moods. The artistic payoff was to be able to hear Chopin’s unique musical palette with more depth and richness than with what one piano can produce.

So much for the “classics.” With the originally programmed Saint-Saëns’ “Beethoven Variations” cut from the concert, only contemporary literature, Quattro Mani’s historical specialty, remained.

John Novacek’s “Three Rags for Two Pianos” was composed for the original duo, but seemed perfect in the hands of this new incarnation. Grace and Beck “filled it up” – just what this charmingly-raucous music calls for. They seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves and it was fun to see Beck so delighted with how the “hometown” audience received the music.

It was time to bring out the big guns- percussionists John Kinzie and Michael Tetreault. I’m not going to try to portray Michael Daugherty’s “Lounge Lizards for 2 Pianos and 2 Percussion” as a profound or even emotionally potent experience. It’s derivative stuff that succeeds in it purpose to capture the feel of four cocktail lounge setting.

But the soundscapes sure were fun and the added energy and textures that having the precise Kinzie and reckless Tetreault at the ready made for a wild and liberating experience for all.

This was the last tune up concert for the, I guess it’s okay to say, legendary Colorado College Summer Music Festival (June 9-29; www.coloradocollege.edu/other/summermusicfestival ). Grace will be all over the musical map. But her Quattro Mani will be up at bat again for more Mozart: his immortal “Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra , K. 365″ with the Festival Orchestra conducted by Scott Yoo. Must hear music.