Piano, Ensemble
Anderson and Roe Mesmerize SRO Audience at the Portland International Piano Festival

Playing with incredible focus as if they were one person instead of two, the Anderson and Roe piano duo mesmerized a standing-room only crowd at the closing Portland International Piano Festival concert on Sunday afternoon (July 15) at the World Forestry Center. It didn’t matter if they were playing on pianos opposite of each other or if they played side-by-side, the artistic chemistry of Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe was intoxicating, as if playing the piano was the most fun thing in the world. What a great way to create a memorable recital, which consisted of works by Brahms as well as their own arrangements of pieces by Antonio Vivaldi, Georges Bizet, Johann Strauss Jr., and even Michael Jackson.

The first half of the program was devoted to works for two pianos, starting with Brahms “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” which was impeccably played by Anderson and Roe. But they did so many things with each phrase, varying, at times, the dynamics in terms of tempo and volume, that Brahms’s music became an absolutely delicious to the ears. Once or twice they executed a slight hesitation together, which might lead one to believe that they had some weird kind of mind meld going on.

Anderson and Roe switched pianos to play the next piece, which was their arrangement of “I feel within a rain of tears,” a piece that Vivaldi wrote for a play that has been lost. For this piece, Anderson prepared one piano with dampened strings, and Roe used that piano to create the diminutive sound of raindrops while Anderson, at the opposite piano, layered a melodic line over it. This was followed by a flashy, rhythmically-driven A&R arrangement of a Michael Jackson tune called “Billie Jean.” Tricky elements of this piece included some very sudden pauses, reaching into the piano to pluck some of the piano strings, and a wickedly emphatic finale (with elbows on the keyboard at the very end).

The first half concluded with their own “Carmen Fantasy,” which began with an intimate and very quiet passage from Bizet’s opera and slowly passed through a number of more familiar tunes from the opera, including the famous “Habanera.” However, they didn’t play a snippet from the “Toreador Song,” which seemed sort of odd.

Anderson and Roe joined forces on one piano for the second half of the program, delivering an engaging performance of Brahms’s “Liebeslieder Waltzes.” Since each section/song in this work has text, either Anderson or Roe read the lyrics before playing the music. Much of this was charming stuff, especially when the notion of pretty bird and pretty maiden were depicted. But in a couple of cases, the text and the music seem incongruous with each other. That was when the text described sadness or a lament. Perhaps Brahms wanted to avoid those emotions, because of the waltz style.

After seeing Anderson and Roe play “The Blue Danube Fantasy,” you will never think of “By the Beautiful, Blue Danube Waltz” the same way again. Anderson and Roe pulled out all of the stops in playing their take on Strauss’s beloved gem. The acrobatics of reaching around or over each other and finding the right note in a split second was stunning. It was a virtuosic and impeccably choreographed work that nobody, especially those who were standing in the back row of the main section, wanted to miss it. (Click here to see an amazing 2007 performance of this work by A&R on YouTube.)

Ecstatic applause and a standing ovation brought Anderson and Roe back to the stage for two terrific encores: their arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” and an arrangement of a selection from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera “Orfeo ed Euridice.”

Anderson and Roe also showed a lot of class by dedicating their performance of “The Blue Danube Fantasy” to Portland Piano International’s founder and artistic director Harold Gray, who led this festival for the last time. The standing ovation and sustained, heartfelt applause paid tribute to Gray’s vision for piano-centric festival that has enriched Portland’s culture immeasurably over the past 14 years.

James Bash, Oregon Music News
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