The Piano Duo:
The Story of Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann

Interview by Tanya Levy (MGBH)

He is from Germany, she is from Canada.  They could have become competitors, but, instead, chose to complement each other’s talent.  Their love for music united them, and the Bergmann duo emerged to bring delight to the hearts of audiences across the globe.
Curious to know more? Here is our interview with Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann (MGBT).

 

PPM: Elizabeth, you are from the town named Medicine Hat. What is it known for and what was it like growing up there?
EB: Aside from its cool and unusual name, Medicine Hat was a pretty good place to grow up in. It was one of those places where as a kid, you could get on your bike, spend all day outdoors, and your parents didn’t worry about you. It was a safe place. We still visit my home town at least once a year since my parents still live there. It has a population of about 65,000, located in southern Alberta, and in the summer, it boasts some of the hottest temperatures in Canada. There are a couple of stories/legends about how it got its name. One of them I usually tell is: “The Cree and the Blackfoot were having a battle and the Cree medicine man lost his headdress in the process- it was seen floating down the South Saskatchewan river. So, the place where that happened became known as “the place where the Medicine Man lost his hat.” Later it was called the “Medicine Man’s Hat” and then Medicine Hat.

So, the place where that happened became known as “the place where the Medicine Man lost his hat.” Later it was called the “Medicine Man’s Hat” and then Medicine Hat.

PPM: Marcel, please, tell our readers a little bit about your childhood.
MB: I grew up in the heart of Munich (Bavaria, Germany). I am an only child, but my parents made sure that I had a lot of opportunities to interact and play with other children.  I enjoyed being creative from an early age – playing around with words, language, drawing, painting…then, of course, music.  Growing up partially in the 60’s and then the 70’s, there was an atmosphere of change in Germany – similar to many other places. People tried out new ways of living, dealing with relationships, jobs, social justice etc. I realized from a very early age that I lived in a very political, kind of “politicized” environment, and all of that had a profound impact on my life later on.  My father worked as a journalist and filmmaker for the Bavarian Broadcasting Corporation, and my mother was a high school teacher, with French and German as her principle teaching areas.  My parents were and still are very much involved and interested in literature, art, music, theatre, and film.  As a result, I absorbed a lot of knowledge and experience in that area as my parents took me to public performances from a very early age.  I always loved those occasions and looked forward to them with much excitement and anticipation.

PPM: Has anyone in your family played piano or had musical background?
EB: My parents never had the opportunity to have music lessons as children, having grown up during WW II and, subsequently, being refugees.  They both came from large families (10 children on my mother’s side and 7 on my father’s), and money was sparse.  Music lessons were a luxury item, however, my grandfather taught himself to play harmonium, and my uncles all played brass instruments in church as they grew up.
MB: My mother had piano lessons for a few years when she was growing up.  Her mother had had piano lessons when she was young, and so, despite the limited resources after WWII, my grandmother felt that this was an important part of a good education. On my father’s side, my uncle played the trumpet in various Dixieland bands for about 30 years. He was basically self-taught, but was determined to learn to play the music he loved. Although he had another job for most of his life, he played many concerts with the “Old Merry Tale Jazz Band” as their main trumpet player.  They also produced a fair amount of records over their 25 year existence, and my parents and I listened quite a lot to his music at home and went to occasional concerts when they happened to play in Munich.

PPM: How did you start your acquaintance with classical piano?
EB: When my parents were in Canada and first got married, one of the first things my mother bought was a piano. My parents were very determined about providing the opportunity for music lessons for my sister and I. I started out with classical piano lessons at age 7. I couldn’t wait to start!  I had voice, theory, guitar, and piano lessons and sang in a girl’s choir.  In my spare time I accompanied choirs and played the organ in church.  Both my sister and I pursued careers in music.  She became a music therapist and has specialized in working with children with autism spectrum disorder.
MB: My parents signed me up for an Orff class that provided some basics about music, notes, rhythms etc. when I was about five.  I was drawn to the piano and always quite excited when the teacher would sit down and play something. I also loved percussion and was always very drawn to rhythm, pulse, and grooves.  My parents said the interest that I showed toward the piano at that time lead them to buy an instrument and get me started with piano lessons around age 6.

PPM: What made you choose piano as a profession?
EB: I was very involved in music throughout my childhood and had success at it, especially participating in local music festivals. I knew from around age 13, I wanted to be a pianist – and that was it.
MB: As I got so much overall enjoyment out of being at the piano, I had a desire to explore and study the repertoire more extensively and in-depth, deciding to follow up with further studies in Hannover and Montreal that eventually lead to a professional career.  My concert experiences as an audience member as well as listening to my favorite piano recordings were also a big influence and inspiration.

PPM: Can you, please, tell our readers how your duo started?
EB: We met at the music school in Germany (Hannover) where we studied with the same teacher (Arie Vardi (MGBH)).  We instantly became friends and soon realized we had a lot in common including our musical approach.  We became a couple first and then started playing together.  Our first collaboration was playing the Bach (OBM) C minor 2 piano concerto in Greece.  We were at a summer music festival, and there was a concerto competition as part of it.  We could have prepared a solo concerto each, but our teacher encouraged us to do something together.  In the end, we were chosen to play with an orchestra and had such a great time during that performance that we decided to pursue it further.  That is when it all started.

PPM: What’s the story behind your William Bolcom (MGBH) album? What made you choose this composer and those particular pieces for your CD?
EB: We became familiar with his Recuerdos pieces that he wrote for the Dranoff Two Piano Competition and really liked them, deciding to take them into our repertoire. Then, later we were asked to play a half recital as part of the Calgary International Organ Competition where Bill was in the jury.  So, we prepared the Frescoes, which is a very cool and terrific piece for 2 pianos, harmonium and harpsichord, and his fun ragtime – The Serpent’s Kiss.  We played that repertoire for that specific concert without having had any time or an opportunity to have played it for him prior to that.  You can imagine how nervous we were to have the composer sitting there in the audience and not knowing if he would like it.  Luckily, we were on the right track with our interpretation, and he very much enjoyed what we did at that concert.  We really hit it off and spent some time together during that competition.  Later, CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) recorded some of that same repertoire and a CBC producer Harold Gillis (MGBH) suggested to us that we propose to record Bolcom’s complete 2 piano works to Naxos.  Coincidentally, we had a friend in Munich who worked closely with them (Naxos) and through him, we were able to make that connection.

You can imagine how nervous we were to have the composer sitting there in the audience and not knowing if he would like it.

PPM: If you could share your experience with a young piano performer who is interested in recording an album, what would be your advice?
MB: I feel that there should be a personal connection and particular interest in the repertoire chosen for a recoding project. The more strongly a musician feels about the chosen array of pieces, the more convincing the results.
There are some important steps to help prepare for the actual recording sessions, e.g. recording all of the relevant pieces several times at home and listening very carefully to those pre-studio/concert hall renditions.  Also, it’s very helpful to have a clear plan about what to start with, how much time to allocate to each selection, etc.  Naturally, some of those parameters might change during the actual recording process due to various aspects that can shift as things are going along.

The first rehearsal was difficult: I was quite nervous. To complicate matters, the rehearsal numbers of my edition didn’t match up at all with what the conductor had in his score.  My poor parents sat there, just as nervous as I was!

PPM: Do you remember playing with an orchestra for the first time? What was that experience like for you?
EB: Absolutely! It was one of the most exhilarating experiences as a young musician I could have asked for, and it remains an exciting one today. It felt wonderful to be enveloped by the sound of all those musicians. Once you have played with an orchestra, you are hooked.
MB: When I was 17, I had the opportunity to play with a professional orchestra for the first time, and that turned out to be one of the most amazing and formative experiences of my entire musical life. I played the first movement of Beethoven’s third piano concerto. The first rehearsal was difficult: I was quite nervous. To complicate matters, the rehearsal numbers of my edition didn’t match up at all with what the conductor had in his score.  My poor parents sat there, just as nervous as I was! But in the end, things did come together quite well, and the second rehearsal went much more smoothly. During the actual performance, I felt like in a kind of a trance – something I had never experienced quite that strongly before. It was a wonderful feeling, and I remember that I was completely stunned by the applause after I came out of that magical moment.

PPM: Who are you favorite classical and contemporary composers?
EB: That’s a difficult question to answer, but I would have to say some of the composers who have had the biggest impact on me are Bach (OBM), Beethoven (OBM), Brahms (OBM), and Mozart (OBM).  As for contemporary composers, there are so many who are very interesting, so it’s hard to name them all. Of course, I always enjoy my husband’s music!
MB: Not an easy one to answer as there are so many great ones – and the numbers have been steadily growing over the centuries. But here’s, at least, an attempt, albeit it’s a bit of a reduced version. Classical: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert (OBM), Schumann (OBM), Chopin (OBM), Brahms (OBM), Bruckner (OBM), Tchaikowsky (OBM), Mahler (OBM), some Strauss (OBM). I developed more and more appreciation for Handel in recent years – and especially for Haydn (OBM), who is often, unjustly, neglected as one of the greatest creative minds of the classical era.  Onward from there: Debussy (OBM), Ravel (OBM), Varese (OBM), Poulenc (OBM), Milhaud (OBM), Messiaen (OBM), Dutilleux (OBM). Albeniz  (OBM), Granados (OBM), de Falla  (OBM), Villa Lobos (OBM), Ginastera (OBM), Piazzolla  (OBM). Berg & Webern (OBM), some Schoenberg (OBM) (especially his seminal Pierrot Lunaire) and various works by Hindemith  (OBM) (especially his earlier, jazz-influenced pieces, such as the Kammermusiken, are quite amazing) As for the Russians – Rachmaninoff  (OBM), Scriabin (OBM); then Stravinsky (OBM), Prokofjew  (OBM), Shostakovich (OBM); Bartok (OBM), of course… From America: Ives (OBM), Copland (OBM), Barber (OBM), Gershwin (OBM), Bernstein (OBM); Crumb (MGBH), Bolcom (MGBH), Corigliano (MGBH), Foss (OBM).   There are many contemporary composers that I could list here -to name a few: Ligeti (OBM), Berio (OBM), Schnittke (OBM), Denisov (OBM), Takemitsu (OBM), Feldman (OBM).

PPM: What’s your favorite aspect of being a piano performer?
EB: Communicating with an audience and bringing joy, excitement and inspiration through music. I love the uniqueness of each concert experience – you never know what will happen exactly.
MB: Maybe that you can play almost anything, any musical work, on this instrument. Also, there is such an amazing, inexhaustible repertoire, which nobody can even dream of ever covering in its entirety. I personally feel that I can express myself artistically in so many different ways at the piano, including improvising and performing my own arrangements and compositions.

PPM: Please, tell our readers about your Classical Coffee Concert Series.
EB: The Coffee Concerts were founded by a friend of ours who asked us to take them over, and we gladly agreed. The concerts are preceded by coffee, tea, and pastries and then followed by a 75 minute concert with no intermission. These are informal concerts where we talk about the music. We usually have a guest artist join us. We repeat the program typically 6 times as we travel to the various venues in the area.
MB: This format is becoming more and more popular as many people don’t like to drive at night or head to downtown Vancouver, and they love the fact that they can find a classical music in their own community. In addition, they enjoy the “up close and personal” aspect of the concert.

This format is becoming more and more popular as many people don’t like to drive at night or head to downtown Vancouver, and they love the fact that they can find a classical music in their own community. In addition, they enjoy the “up close and personal” aspect of the concert.

PPM: Where do you spend your holidays?
EB: It varies. Sometimes, we spend some time off in Canada and sometimes in Europe. It usually ends up being a combination of both as my parents are in Canada and Marcel’s are in Munich.  We usually try and see our extended family during our time off as well.
MB: When we plan a specific holiday/ leisure trip, the destinations vary from places like Paris (which is a city we always love to return to) to tropical destinations, such as Cuba or Mexico.  We really enjoyed the all-inclusive resorts at those southern destinations.  We’d love to go back to Greece sometimes.  France and Italy are always on top of the list, whenever possible…

PPM: Over the years, besides being performers, both of you have taken on projects that require organizational and administrative skills – as artistic directors of White Rock Concerts and Dranoff Competition and Festival, for example. How does that aspect of musical profession fulfill you?
EB: Being an Artistic Director allows one to better understand the other side of the music industry. Wearing several “hats,” so to speak, helps us in our own concerts by getting to know all aspects of producing a concert from programming to budgets to marketing to subscriptions and ticket sales. It also helps us establish balance in our own programming, discover and think about creating other ways of bringing classical music to our audiences.

PPM: Where do you currently live, what are some of the most favorite things about the city/town you live in, and what do you do on an occasional night out?
EB: We live in the Greater Vancouver area in White Rock/South Surrey. It is a beautiful place, right next to the ocean with many wonderful parks. As everything is so close in our area, we can easily stroll down to the beach by walking through a park with majestic and magnificent trees and eagles soaring above us. In general, we love to walk and spend time in nature. This area is perfect for that!
MB: On a night out, we love to go down to White Rock and have dinner outside by the promenade on Marine Drive, in one of our favorite restaurants. Or else, drive into Vancouver for a concert and go out – often with some friends- afterward.

PPM: Was there ever when you thought to yourself, “I would rather be….. than a pianist”?
EB: No, actually not. I never have wished to be anything else. However, there are times, especially on the weekend, when I wonder what it is like to have a ‘regular’ 9 to 5 job and have evenings and weekends off.
MB: I think that thought crosses most people’s minds at some point and time. At times, I felt it would be great to be a writer as you can have a more flexible life in many ways, not being confined to always needing an instrument. I also often imagined how it would be to work as a painter/sculptor/visual artist…as there is something profoundly satisfying in creating something with a more tangible shape or form… something that can be captured in a kind of solid state. Being a composer and arranger although, of course, not full-time, helps connect with that primary creative source though.

PPM: How do you choose your repertoire as a duo?
EB: We often discuss ideas together while we are driving (which we have to do quite a bit, travelling to the various venues).   A lot of creative ideas come to us while we are doing something mundane like that.  We always have a pen and paper handy in the car.  We spend a lot of time discussing how to balance out programs, etc. for the coming season and how to be more efficient with our planning. Sometimes, we map it all out on a huge roll of paper to get a clearer overview.
MB: We frequently feature selections from my arrangements of West Side Story or from my own rendition of Porgy & Bess. Then, we add some of my other arrangements of more contemporary repertoire, such as Tangos by Piazzolla (OBM), jazz tunes by Dave Brubeck (OBM), Chick Corea (MGBH), or Pat Metheny (MGBH).  What I personally enjoy about performing those selections is having built-in opportunities for free variations and improvisational elements, while still following a well-established overall form and structure. Besides those various options, we also design certain programs around a specific theme – for instance, on the occasion of Leonard Bernstein’s (OBM) centennial, we put together a program that focuses on his legacy and musical influences.

PPM: What personal qualities do you look for in a friend?
EB: Honesty, openness, understanding, humor, and the ability to share and listen.
MB: Loyalty, commitment, honesty…enthusiasm. Similar interests, at least in some areas. Philosophical inclinations.

There is order, patterns, and structure evident in nature, similar to that in music. A beautiful moment in nature can move you in a profound manner just as a string quartet of Beethoven can.

PPM: How is nature and music connected in your world? What inspires you in nature? And how do you connect spirituality and music?
EB: The sounds of wind blowing in the trees, the eagles and other birds and rhythm of waves of the ocean create a calmness and natural pulse. Spending time in nature helps keep me grounded. Nature has inspired creativity in people forever, and it continues to help us as performers to clear our minds from the day to day clutter and allows inspiration for room to flourish. There is order, patterns, and structure evident in nature, similar to that in music. A beautiful moment in nature can move you in a profound manner just as a string quartet of Beethoven can. Words can’t really describe what is happening. Being in nature is an absolute necessity for me – kind of like a meditation. Likewise, music can also be a meditation when one is “in the zone” or “in the flow” both as a performer and as a listener. Music can be an incredible healing source as it allows us to tap into energies and ideas that are positive and life renewing. There are certain “truths” in nature and those are revealed about life and humanity I believe when music is presented in an honest way. All of this can and should have an empowering effect on us and the world. Nature and music feed our souls.
MB: Since having moved to Canada, I have become a huge “nature buff.”  I discovered the joy and excitement of hiking, especially in the Rockies.  Walking has also become a very regular and most important activity, especially in more recent years.  When I walk by myself, I often get some ideas in regard to my current compositions or arrangements.  So, while I am out in nature, the creative juices are flowing at the same time as well.  Music happens, undoubtedly, in a metaphysical realm.  There always remains something intangible about the fleeting moments, in which sounds are created and vanish.  Music has its own internal time that has little or nothing to do with measurable clock-time.  So, by its very nature, music has the power to transport all of us into a different realm and dimension.  I feel that there is a strong connection between spirituality and music, especially in the moments when things just seem to “happen,” without willing or controlling them too much.  Those are usually the best moments in performances – as something emerges from a different place. I frequently experience this spiritual aspect when I am composing or arranging – often, I forget everything around me when being in the creative flow.

Music has its own internal time that has little or nothing to do with measurable clock-time.  So, by its very nature, music has the power to transport all of us into a different realm and dimension.  I feel that there is a strong connection between spirituality and music, especially in the moments when things just seem to “happen,” without willing or controlling them too much.

PPM: What are some of your most memorable performance moments?
EB: Playing for the great Yehudi Menuhin (OBM). We performed Schubert’s Fantasy in f minor at a concert for an organization in Germany called “Live Music Now.”  Menuhin was present at this concert as he was the honorary patron. He was a remarkable human being, and his sheer presence in that front row made us play our best.
MB: As a soloist, definitely the performances with orchestra- as well as a couple of concerts during my post-graduate years in Hannover.  As for our duo concerts – there are many.   Our first performance, playing Bach’s double concerto in c minor with a festival orchestra in Greece, will always hold a special place.  Playing with our Dutch friends – Jeroen and Sandra Van Veen (MGBT) – on four pianos in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam has also been one of those unforgettable moments.   We played there several times, and it is always a joy to perform in a hall with such a history!

PPM: What’s coming up for you, guys, in 2018?
MB: Lots of concerts & touring – including three weeks in China in May and early June. Festival appearances in Ottawa and Parry Sound in the summer. The upcoming fall season will be very busy as well – besides many local concerts, we will also play in Detroit for the first time and will be returning to Ontario for a few more performances. Also, Vancouver Opera is featuring one of my pieces –Requiem For a Lost Girl– as part of their festival this year, which I am very excited about. I am also working on a commission for the VSO School of Music that will feature their “piano orchestra” – about 40 students on 20 pianos! Plus, there are always many more composition and arrangement- projects that I am hoping to complete this year still.

PPM: What’s the most exotic place/venue that you have performed at?
EB: Several years ago, we played a 4 piano concert on a beach on the northern coast of Holland with our Dutch piano duo friends. The piece was Canto Ostinato by Simeon Ten Holt (OBM).  It was magical to watch the sun go down as we neared the end of the 2 hour long piece, and I played barefoot. It was a fabulous experience!
MB: Once we performed Visions de l’Amen by Olivier Messiaen (OBM) at an old church-ruin in Erfurt. There were these gigantic, medieval structures of an old cathedral. The whole ceiling was gone, so the view was completely open toward the night sky. The concert was in October, and the evenings were already quite chilly. We had to dress as warmly as we could, given that we still had to wear clothes that were suitable for a performance. It was a magical atmosphere indeed.

We sat down, adjusted our chairs, and realized something was very wrong.  The stage was on an angle and no adjusting of the chairs could make us feel comfortable.

PPM: Do you have any interesting stories of something that happened during one of your performances?
EB: A truly strange moment was when we played at the winners concert of a competition in Caltanissetta, Sicily. They were still building the stage in this old theatre as the concert was supposed to begin.   It was televised live, and we had no time to try out the pianos.  We sat down, adjusted our chairs, and realized something was very wrong.  The stage was on an angle and no adjusting of the chairs could make us feel comfortable. It felt like we were going to fall off the stage. We never did, but it certainly felt odd.
MB: Another time, we were playing in Sicily again, and 3 major things happened that could have thrown us off. The first, was that we broke a string- which made a massive sound. The second was the huge bouquet of flowers fell off the stage and the third thing, was strange clicking noises coming from the piano. I thought it was my cuff links, but we realized later it was the action of the keyboard. These things can be very distracting at the moment, but you must play on and pretend nothing has happened.

PPM: Name one thing that your parents taught you in childhood that you still come back to and say, “Wow! I am so blessed to know this!”
EB: Perseverance, discipline and determination – stick with it, don’t give up… eventually you will figure it out and don’t forget to breathe!
MB: “Always be curious and open- minded.” I feel my parents opened my eyes and perception for a whole universe of possibilities for exploration, growth, and development. I am deeply grateful for their guidance and encouragement during my childhood and adolescence, that they let me pursue my own path while always being there with their help and advice.

“Always be curious and open- minded.” I feel my parents opened my eyes and perception for a whole universe of possibilities for exploration, growth, and development.

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The Story of Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann

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