Interview by Tanya Levy (MGBH)
There are many ways to deliver an piano performance. Playing as a duo is one of them. The fans of the piano world has seen and heard a number of interesting and intriguing duos that bring a different dynamic to perception of delivering a piano piece. With this interview of delightful Greg Anderson (MGBH) and Liz Roe (MGBH), our magazine is introducing a new section titled “The Piano Duo.” We look forward to your comments and are open to suggestions for future interviews.
PPM: What gave you an idea to create a duo vs. perform as soloists?
LIZ: We initially met at Freshman Orientation at Juilliard—we were actually living on the same floor in the dorm! A close friendship and mutual respect quickly developed, and when musicians are friends, the natural tendency is to play together. The very first time we sight-read together there was an instant musical alchemy. We gave our duo recital debut at Juilliard during our junior year; we had such an exhilarating time onstage and it was a resounding success with the audience, our friends, and our teachers. From that point onward, we felt inspired to continue our duo pursuits. It also became clear that we shared the desire to energize and re-imagine the presentation of classical music.
GREG: Yes, it was absolutely electric the first time we ever read duo music together. The music we were sight-reading was notoriously difficult to synchronize exactly, and we were perfectly together. We weren’t even focusing on synchronization! That same innate sense of musical timing (or is it “mind reading”?) has followed us throughout our career; we rarely spend rehearsal time on the basics of ensemble.
I think the success of our duo is due to three factors: our friendship, this innate musical chemistry between the two of us, and our shared mission for music’s role in society. We’ve now been playing professionally for 15 years. As great friends, we feel so fortunate to be making music together for a living. That said, we still perform as soloists, and we’ve both released solo albums in the past couple years.
I think the success of our duo is due to three factors: our friendship, this innate musical chemistry between the two of us, and our shared mission for music’s role in society.
LIZ: Yes, our solo pursuits certainly continue to inform our duo approach: in honoring our individual artistic and personal identities, we find that our collaboration feels all the more dynamic.
PPM: How do you pick your repertoire?
GREG: Liz and I strive for variety in our programs — specifically, a musical diversity that reflects the variety of life. Joyful and sad, profound and silly, aggressive and dreamy: we aim to capture it all. Although we perform a lot of our own arrangements, our programs almost always include some music written originally for two pianos. We like the variety of style and perspective that these compositions offer our programs.
LIZ: Because we value variety in our programming, we’ve pushed the boundaries of what can be performed in a classical concert: now it is totally natural for us to pair a masterwork from the standard classical repertoire with a contemporary pop hit cover. These juxtapositions stem from our belief that great music is great music, regardless of genre, style, etc. In that sense, we are not attached to labels; what matters about music is not what “category” it belongs to, but rather its impact—if it moves, excites, soothes, enlightens, or uplifts you.
GREG: In the end, our aim is to captivate the audience with music of divine transcendence and wild, acrobatic pianism. We serve our music piping hot with an unhealthy dose of adrenaline, 2-4 servings of sexual tension, and a dash of the unexpected…
PPM: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
LIZ: I was born and raised in Chicago.
GREG: I’m from rural Minnesota.
PPM: What/Who affected your choice of becoming a musician?
LIZ:From a very early age, I was surrounded by classical music, on the radio, through recordings, and in live concerts. My family is full of music lovers and amateur musicians, so music always felt like such an essential part of life to me. From my first lesson at age six, the piano felt so natural to play, and I was entranced by the instrument’s vast palette of sounds.
GREG: I first started taking piano lessons when I was eight years old — my parents wanted my brothers and me to be well-rounded individuals, and we were all required to take at least three years of musical instruction. I fell in love with the piano and classical music instantly, and from then on, I don’t ever recall feeling like there was a choice; I always knew I’d be a musician. It felt so innate to me.
PPM: Tell us about your path to and at Julliard: what led you to this school and what was it like being a student there?
LIZ: A pivotal event occurred when I was 13 years old; I won the IBLA International Piano Competition in Italy, resulting in concerts at notable venues like Steinway Hall in New York and Salle Cortot in Paris, which exposed me to the life of a performer. In addition to my piano studies and performances, I was an avid academic student as well and seriously considered non-conservatory schools. However, choosing Juilliard felt like the natural next step on the pathway to a career in music, and as soon as I arrived I realized how inspiring it was to be surrounded by such incredible artists and the galvanizing energy of New York. I had an extraordinary experience due to my brilliant peers and teachers.
GREG: Before even auditioning at the school, I was inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of Juilliard students, and I knew that it was a world in which I wanted to be immersed. My childhood teacher of 11 years, Kim Craig (MGBH), prepared me well for college. She would work with me intensively for hours every week—sometimes as many as eight hours per week—and she would attend all of my out-of-state rehearsals, performances, and competitions. This devotion made all the difference. Not only did this afford us time to work in great detail, but also it provided incredible training for Juilliard, the concert stage, and life. Life as a Juilliard student was a bit magical, almost like being a student at Hogwarts. We were living in a rarified world, devoting our lives to beauty, honing our crafts, and living and breathing music. We were lucky.
GREG & LIZ: Here are a few of our favorite things about our time spent at The Juilliard School:
- The palpable excitement and energy in the air
- The colorful personalities of our classmates
- The colorful personalities of the faculty
- The massive, well-stocked, and browser-friendly library
- The incredible performing opportunities offered to the student body
- Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens 😉
- The location: Lincoln Center!
- The tight-knit, supportive community
- The convenience of the dorms to the classrooms (you can wake up five minutes before class and still be on time)
- The opportunity to meet awesome musical partners-in-crime
- The location: Central Park, Carnegie Hall, Whole Foods, and great nightlife are just blocks away.
LIZ: We had no promotional objective in making our first videos; we made them simply because we wanted to. (In fact, everything we do—our performances, arrangements, videos, recordings, social media, websites, writings, etc.—comes from our shared passion for creativity and adventure, and beyond that, to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society.) Both of us are highly visual people who like to delve into uncharted territory, so we were interested in exploring the artistic potential of classical music videos. I grew up watching a lot of pop/rock music videos on MTV so I was particularly influenced by this aesthetic, but Greg (MGBH) and I have drawn inspiration from many additional sources: film, all forms of art, the music itself, and our own vivid imaginations!
GREG: We filmed our first music video (Piazzolla’s Libertango) in a classroom at Yale, where I was a student at the time. It was the only venue we could get into, and though a classroom doesn’t necessarily scream “tango!,” the misalignment forced us to think creatively. We concocted a narrative in which I fall asleep during science class and daydream about a lustful interaction with my classmate…PPM: Did you ever consider a profession other than a pianist prior to going to Julliard?
LIZ: I’ve always had broad interests (mainly in the humanities) so I did consider other professions, but in my heart I knew music—in any shape or form—was my calling.
GREG: I considered a career as a material scientist and was on the math and science teams in high school, but I always knew music was my world.PPM: What were your favorite composers in your early teen years and how did your preferences change as you matured?
LIZ: I’ve always seemed to possess an innate affinity for lyrical and expressive music, so I would say I was drawn to the Romantics in my early teen years. I was also obsessed with Glenn Gould (OBM) at that time and thus loved Bach (OBM) from early on. Beethoven (OBM) has been another consistent favorite, as well as the Beatles! Over time I’ve developed a passion for chamber music, music of the 20th and 21st centuries, and music that is off the beaten path, like Britten’s Piano Concerto and Field’s Nocturnes (both of which I’ve recorded in recent years). From Messiaen (OBM) to Miles Davis (OBM), I’ve always had a diverse musical palette!
GREG: I’ve always loved exploring music of different genres and styles. In my early teens, I started going to libraries to check out music by composers of whom I’d never heard, and I’d sight read the scores at home. I remember my local library wouldn’t allow me to check out more than 45 books at once, and so I’d always have 45 library scores sitting beside the piano. I carry that same sense of curiosity to this day! That said, I’ve never fallen out of love with Mozart.
PPM: How often do you practice together and how much time do you practice separately?
LIZ: Honestly, we don’t have a discernible practice routine these days — our schedule has become quite varied and unpredictable. While we’re on tour, traveling takes up much of our time; we also spend countless hours working on creative projects like our music videos and arrangements. That said, we aim to practice as regularly as possible (ideally on a daily basis!). As for duo rehearsals, we make sure to schedule a substantial period of time together immediately preceding our tours, and we try to take advantage of any rehearsal time on the road.
PPM: What is the process of a program preparation for you?
GREG: We devote ourselves obsessively to the planning of recital programs. We believe that the selection of repertoire significantly affects the listening experience, and we work hard to take advantage of this. Obviously with our programs, we consider factors such as variety, cohesion, mood, our audience, etc., but we value the sequence of music and its effect on the listening experience: creative repertoire juxtapositions can especially help novice listeners hear music in a new light! For example, when we pair popular songs by Schubert (OBM) and the Beatles (or even Taylor Swift (MGBH)!), we place Schubert’s songs in a new context, and audiences may come to realize how similar these 200-year-old songs are to the popular music of today. Likewise, the dance music of Michael Jackson (OBM) isn’t so different from the popular dances by Liszt (OBM). Recital programming is just another avenue for us to realize our mission to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society.
PPM: Back at the beginning of June you were hosting the webcast of Cliburn Piano Competition. What was this experience like for you?
GREG: Hosting the Cliburn Competition was an incredible, though taxing, experience. We were so impressed with the pianism, and even more so, by the extent to which the 30 pianists shared their souls with their listeners (we went through more than one box of kleenex!). And from our point of view, we really appreciated the platform to further our mission; we were able to discuss, very specifically, just how relevant this repertoire can be in the 21st century to millions of viewers.
LIZ: It was also an exhilarating challenge to dive into the world of live broadcasting: it was high-wire act of timing, research, speaking, improvisation, diplomacy, and cooperation. (And fashion, naturally.) Instead of being in our normal element onstage, it was fascinating to be involved behind the scenes and to have the privilege of interviewing some of the most prominent figures in the classical music world. The Cliburn and Medici TV teams were an absolute joy to work with (we felt like a family by the end!), and it was of course thrilling to actively engage with piano-lovers worldwide on a daily basis through our on-camera commentary and our social media feeds.
PPM: Do you have favorite performance venues?
LIZ: Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center will always have a special place in our hearts, thanks to our Juilliard days. The legacy and energy of these venues are incomparable.
GREG: In addition to beautiful concert halls throughout the States, Asia, and Europe, we’ve also had a blast playing in more intimate venues: for example, we’ve put on shows in club-like spaces, and we also periodically present “musical mixology” concerts that feature craft cocktail pairings (created by yours truly!) with pieces of music.
PPM: I would like to address an issue of worshipping musicians and composers that Greg mentioned during the Chicago talk. This indeed has been one of the problems in classical music for centuries – blind reverence of the performer and the composer vs. enjoyment of classical music and using it as a tool for elevation of consciousness. A musician, after all, is just a spiritual channel to the sound vibrations. And depending on their level of spirituality, he or she is able to attract and produce high or low level vibrations reflected in the quality of music compositions. What, in your opinion, is one of the ways to remove or, at least reduce, this “idolatry” element from the classical music tradition?
GREG: We want our audiences to be active participants in the concert experience. An invested listener won’t be nearly as affected by blind reverence, since they’re actively making the music their own! We created a “Listening Manifesto,” in part to encourage listeners to invest themselves more fully in the concert experience and to deepen their enjoyment of the music.
LIZ: While we can and should acknowledge the superhuman achievements of great composers and performers, we must remember the underlying humanity of these individuals, and that their creative output is a powerful expression of our shared humanity.
PPM: With your performances, you are making the art of piano performance highly interactive vs. entertaining the passive listener. From filming on college campus in Midland, TX to performing on the street. How does the aspect of interactivity, in your opinion, affect the audience’s perception of music?
GREG: We want our audiences to feel the music more deeply and more personally than ever before. We’re always asking ourselves, “How can we make the music come alive?” and “How we make the music relevant to our listeners?”
Bringing music to life involves far more than just “playing the piano.” Many external forces affect our perception of music, from our listeners’ emotional state to the venue, in which we are performing. With this in mind, we do our best to align these external forces in our favor. Sometimes this means we choose to burn pianos in our music videos, wear provocative clothing onstage, compose fiery arrangements of pop music, or, otherwise, spice up the music listening experience. But in the end, everything we do as artists is in service of the music we perform and our audience’s reaction to it.
LIZ: In this postmodern age, the audience is an essential part of the artistic experience. We don’t create or perform in a vacuum; in a performance we’re shaping and responding to our environment and context, of which the audience’s active engagement plays a pivotal role. And if you didn’t catch it before, be sure to check out our “Listening Manifesto” (http://www.andersonroe.com/listening-manifesto/)!
PPM: What are you looking forward to accomplishing this upcoming year with your piano performances?
GREG: We’re premiering several new works, including our very own Carmen Fantasy for Two Pianos and Orchestra and Danse Macabre: Bacchanal for Two Pianos, Percussion, and Violin.
PPM: Please, tell us about your CD recordings. Do you have any releases coming out?
LIZ: We do have a new release on the horizon! We’re thrilled to be in the editing stages of our latest album – Mother Muse. Mothers represent a whole spectrum of attributes, both mythic and uniquely personal: they can be forces of nature and nurturing, guidance and inspiration, patience and strength, and, of course, love: profound, fierce, unconditional. Mother Muse features musical compositions that pay tribute to the diverse aspects of motherhood, from the sacred (“Ave Maria”) to the saucy (“Mrs. Robinson”), and everything in between.
GREG: In addition to the album coming out next spring, we have all-Mozart (OBM) and all-Bach albums, as well as an album of night songs arranged for piano duo (When Words Fade) and a DVD release of our music film, The Rite of Spring: A Musical Odyssey.
PPM: Do you have a favorite piano piece that you like playing together over and over?
GREG: Brahms’ (OBM) Variations on a Theme by Haydn (OBM), which Brahms originally composed for two pianos, is noble and grand; it’s one of our favorite pieces ever composed, and notably, it was the first piece we ever performed together as a duo. We’ve performed it hundreds of times since, and it’s never gotten old.
LIZ: I’d add the gorgeously evocative Rachmaninoff (OBM) Suite No. 1 and our cover of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” (in which we rock out!).
PPM: What are your hobbies outside piano?
LIZ: Music (listening, creating, singing) and silence, reading and writing, food and film, drawing and museums, traveling and exploration, nature and inspiration, the silly and sublime.
GREG: Playing piano, piano recital programming, hanging out, piano, film, reading, piano, astronomy, composing, design, art, piano, politics, music, hiking, mixology, cooking, wine tasting, traveling, playing the piano. Also: playing the piano.
PPM: Do you have siblings? Please, tell us a little about your family.
LIZ: I have two sisters. I was fortunate to grow up in a family of music-lovers so they are all very supportive of my career. My mother’s side is particularly musical: my mother played the violin and conducted during her school days, and I have an aunt who is a cello teacher in Seoul and another aunt who teaches piano in the DC area. Both of my sisters are also musically talented and became accomplished at their instruments: my older sister on violin and my younger sister on cello.
GREG: I have two brothers: an older and a younger brother. We had a wholesome upbringing in rural Minnesota, where we lived across from a farm. My parents both grew up on farms.
PPM: What are your favorite places to visit?
GREG: It’s all about the food!
LIZ: Yes! We love to visit (and perform in) places with access to delicious food, but also extraordinary history and culture: London, Tokyo, Rome, Montreal, to name a few. My personal travel favorites include Paris, the English countryside, Iceland, Hawaii, and Switzerland.
GREG: I’d add China and Spain… Plus, New Zealand is absolutely magical; in fact, we have a 10-city concert tour there next spring, and we can’t wait!
PPM: What cuisine/food/restaurant do you like the most?
LIZ: Virtually all cuisines. Pasta, pizza, fruits and veggies, fresh fish, all kinds of tea, dessert. A really delicious brunch also hits the spot.
GREG: Unhealthy: pasta and cheese. Healthy: salads (with dark greens, please!), artichoke hearts, avocados, tofu. Mmmm.
PPM: What are your thoughts on classical music in the XXIst century?
LIZ: Classical music has been undergoing a significant shift in identity and presentation. Since we started our careers over a decade ago, we’ve witnessed numerous changes, challenges, and developments within the industry. Audiences desire a more personalized and less formal approach to the music.
We didn’t start with the goal to “change” classical music per se; from the beginning, we’ve aimed to be true to ourselves and to the music we love, which in turn allows us to create with freedom and communicate with sincerity. In re-imagining music from the pop world, we’re not only striving to keep the genre relevant, but we’re also paying homage to composers like Beethoven and Liszt, who did something similar centuries ago with folk and operatic music. We—and many of our contemporaries—find value in blurring the lines between genre as a reflection of our multicultural, heterogenous world, but also because great music transcends categorization. To that end, we reap inspiration from the creativity and showmanship of pop and rock musicians, as well as the artistry of dancers, actors, visual artists, and more.
In doing all this, our ultimate intention is to channel the immensity of the human experience through music and to elicit a heightened sense of joy, curiosity, and wonder in others. Classical music has the power to do that, and I believe that’s why it persists as a cornerstone of our civilization, no matter how much times change.
I think social media will continue to transform classical music in the 21st century. The Internet makes classical music so much more accessible, whether it be through music videos, behind-the-scenes looks into musicians’ lives, or interactions with likeminded individuals.
GREG: I think social media will continue to transform classical music in the 21st century. The Internet makes classical music so much more accessible, whether it be through music videos, behind-the-scenes looks into musicians’ lives, or interactions with likeminded individuals.
As we’ve said repeatedly, it is our mission to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society, and our social media projects are naturally an important part of this mission. Social media allows us to showcase the joyous, surprising, and life-changing potential of classical music to audiences far, far beyond the standard concert halls. The content we create for social media—whether it be our music videos, listening tips, or cocktail recipes—ultimately serves our mission and amplifies the listening experience for our fans, but we’ve found that it enhances our performances as well, causing us to interact with our music from fresh and unique points of view. We savor all opportunities to exist in the same creative space as the music we love so much!
Classical music is a creative, living art form, and we look forward to watching our successors adapt and transform the field to suit the needs of the 21st century.
PPM: If you were to conduct a reform in music education, what would be the one thing you would change?
LIZ: I’d start with accessibility. Music education should definitely be more readily available to everyone regardless of socioeconomic factors. We both grew up with music education classes in our public schools, and I think music and the arts should be considered just as important as athletic programs here in the States.
GREG: Music (and all the arts, for that matter) is an amazing tool to help young people develop creativity and imagination—skills that are increasingly necessary in our changing world. I want to see MORE music programs in schools!
PPM: Who is your role model and why?
GREG: I’m limiting my answer to purely pianists here, for the sake of brevity:
I greatly admire the spontaneity of the Romantic era pianists: Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin (OBM), Clara Schumann (OBM), etc. From what I’ve read, their concerts were wild affairs, filled with surprises, destroyed pianos, new music, improvisations, and humor. The list goes on… Shura Cherkassky (OBM) (I’d want to learn the secrets to his beautiful tone) and Ignaz Friedman (OBM) (because he’s awesome). Among my favorite living pianists is Alexandre Toradze (MGBH). He becomes a dragon at the piano; he breathes inspiration and personality and fire!
LIZ: There are too many pianists whom I admire, but I’m especially inspired by Alfred Cortot’s (OBM) imaginative and poetic approach to playing; Glenn Gould (OBM)’s riveting iconoclasm and hunger for artistic expression beyond the concert stage; Martha Argerich’s (MGBH) organic, instinctive, and mesmerizing connection to the instrument; and Grigory Sokolov (MGBH)’s fascinating artistry and fierce devotion to this craft.
PPM: Would you share some funny stories that happened to you during your tours/performances/music video recordings?
LIZ: As you can tell from our videos, Greg and I can get very physical at the piano, especially while we’re playing four-hand music. Once Greg was a bit too physical; during a performance of our “Libertango” arrangement, he actually elbowed me in the face! I was dazed by the accidental blow, but I kept going; meanwhile Greg kept looking at me with this terribly guilty expression. Thankfully, intermission immediately followed, so I could ice my face before the second half!
Once Greg was a bit too physical; during a performance of our “Libertango” arrangement, he actually elbowed me in the face! I was dazed by the accidental blow, but I kept going; meanwhile Greg kept looking at me with this terribly guilty expression. Thankfully, intermission immediately followed, so I could ice my face before the second half!
GREG: Often our concerts sell out, and in such instances, the venues often add stage seating. In one very special performance, there were an additional 60 audience members seated on stage with us. While we were performing Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos, a young girl in the front vomited everywhere, including on the legs of the pianos! The audience gasped, and we had to take a break to clean up the mess.
PPM: We’d like to thank you for an interview and give you many blessings in delighting audiences with your electrifying performances!