Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe are both world-class pianists and they love to play together. And that’s all you can say about them that fits any model. Their artistry is not patterned after any other piano duo. Their media of performance varies from indoor stages to varied outdoor locales, and from traditional albums to cutting-edge videos. And their concert programming follows no template other than their own inspiration.
Yet Anderson and Roe aren’t in it just for themselves and their own careers. Not only are they out to expand audiences for what is imprecisely known as “classical music” – which for Anderson and Roe also means classically informed covers of songs by the Beatles, Coldplay, Taylor Swift and others – they’re also guiding other rigorously trained musicians to discover their own unique inspirations. Those inspirations could even be the opposite of what Anderson and Roe like to perform, but as long as they are authentic to the performer in question, they fit the model that this duo-piano team has established.
Prior to their appearance this weekend presented by Washington Performing Arts at the Kennedy Center, I had a wide-ranging telephone conversation with Greg Anderson and Liz Roe about their backgrounds, their approaches, their choices of music from Bach to rock, and their unique musical and visual interpretations.
But first, on the old principle that seeing is believing, you have to experience what they’re about, and for DCMetroTheaterArts what better example than Anderson and Roe’s take on the “Mambo” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story:
One of the keys to Anderson and Roe’s approach is that they like to move beyond the cliché that music is a universal language. “In some ways, it’s the opposite of a universal language,” says Anderson. “We react to it differently.”
“An artist’s authenticity is defined by oneself,” Roe explains. “There are a lot of expectations that the world can impose upon you in the business and industry of music. While there are many people who have followed the traditional path, some of the old ways of shaping a career aren’t necessarily as effective or relevant. The thing that can be sustaining for a career or just a life in music is to find the passion that really resonates on a deeply personal level with your own self. And that can, in turn, bear a greater resonance to your audience.”
A great example of her point is Anderson and Roe’s arrangement of themes from the ultra-popular opera Carmen, which they’ll be performing in Washington. There are several standard concert pieces derived from a group of themes from Carmen that are frequently performed by symphony orchestras. While they vary, each of these “fantasies” or “paraphrases” primarily suggest that Carmen is a bubbly romp with fun, exotic themes suggestive of southern Spain, and no hint that (spoiler alert) the opera ends with Carmen’s spurned soldier boyfriend stabbing her to death in a fit of rage over how she’s ruined his career and driven him mad with love.
I suggested to Anderson and Roe that their Carmen Fantasy for Two Pianos on CD and video finds far more of the dark places in that opera in what is still a virtuoso arrangement running over a dozen minutes. “I’m thrilled that’s what you got out of it,” says Anderson. “Before doing it, we talked about the elements that we wanted to push into the foreground – the sensuality, the tragedy, the drama of it all. There’s certainly a lot of festivity, but at its core, there are a lot of twisted, messed-up characters who don’t treat each other well. It’s messy and we love dwelling on the messiness of life.”
“Sometimes in music and other genres we see that everything is airbrushed,” adds Roe. “We don’t shy away from the rawness, the darkness, the kind of risk that exists in life. Especially in classical music, everything is so refined so much of the time. But music is supposed to astonish you. We love the provocative elements in Carmen.”
Something analogous happens in Anderson and Roe’s arrangement of the “Blue Danube Waltz,” which has become almost a musical cliché. “The restraint of the waltz is beautiful to watch, but it’s masking all the passion that’s underneath the surface,” says Anderson. “We bring that into the foreground.” And they’re not averse to a visual trick in their performances. “We treat our four hands as if they were four feet on the dance floor,” he says. That’s something that entertainingly shows up in their video of the waltz, which also suggests a personal backstory of their own meeting, which happened during their very first week as piano students at Juilliard in 2000.
Contemporary pop composers enter their repertoire through different methods. “It’s almost less about the artist than it is about the individual song,” says Roe. “Sometimes we’re so crazy about an individual song and we want to make it work on two pianos. Other times it’s the opposite. We did a cover of ‘Let It Be.’ That’s not necessarily my favorite Beatles song, but we wanted to accentuate its gospel element.” And it’s also on the program for their Washington concert.
Another key to song selection is the dirty little secret among pianists that the piano is technically a percussion instrument – pressing a key activates an unseen hammer hitting three adjacent strings. “I listen to a lot of non-classical music,” says Roe. “There is a strong rhythmic element in all pop and rock music. And I am very physical when I play. I am inspired by rockers and pop divas and dancers – there is a kind of beauty and organic connection with the physical. I will rock out because I’m physically feeling the beat.”
Anderson explains that to find the “groove” of such a piece, one of their two pianos can be assigned to concentrate from the middle of its keyboard down on the rhythmic elements – something beautifully shown in Anderson and Roe’s uncannily legitimate and full-sounding cover of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” shot outdoors in Midland, Texas. “One person can get into a groove, and the other person can get into the melodic space,” says Anderson. “We find a way through the arrangement to turn one of the pianos into a drum set, to use half the piano in a really percussive way.”
One of the revelations that will come from watching them live in the Terrace Theater is to see how they actually coordinate their playing so precisely, which counter-intuitively has little or nothing to do with “cueing” each other like chamber musicians, and is much more akin to how actors respond to one another on stage.
“We’ve found the easiest way to play in sync and totally together is through listening rather than through looking for a cue or a head nod from each other,” says Anderson. “If we’re in the moment and listening to the music the way the music is evolving, we can play totally in sync. The act of lifting the head up takes you away from the moment.” Roe adds: “Beyond the technical, I would attribute it to the fact that we’ve had this instantaneous alchemy, been friends for so many years. We have this kind of ineffable connectivity. There’s a kind of personal trust, a kind of shared desire to bring out the essence of the music.”
Maybe that’s because they disdain any particular models from past renowned piano duos, other than a duo they discovered from the Golden Days of Radio named Virginia Morley and Livingston Gearhart, who composed new arrangements every week for their radio shows. Roe says, “We’re actually inspired by dynamic duos in all areas – like Lennon and McCartney, or like I once likened Greg and me to Lucy and Ethel from I Love Lucy, and people have called us ‘Will and Grace’ ever since college. It’s also like I’m the yin to Greg’s yang, and vice versa, and I think that informs a lot of our artistry.”
The extraordinary variation of settings and backstories that Anderson and Roe find for their videos is obviously part inspiration but also a lot of perspiration. “It takes an incredible amount of work and passion, and at times finances,” says Anderson. “We conceive and produce and edit everything ourselves. Taking on all those roles allows us to be as creative as we want. It allows us to accentuate the aspects of the music that we want to be accentuated.
Much of this work sounds like what happens in the film industry, with very long days of shooting sent through an editing funnel until the final product is reached. “We joke that each minute of footage in a final video will take at least two hours of filming time,” says Anderson. Roe adds that the “DIY aspect” of the process is liberating. “Usually we have a very clear vision for the big picture, while the little details come to light as we’re editing,” she says. “We make sure to have ample footage and then we can kind of mess around with it later.”
“But certainly the path that we are on is by no means the only one,” Anderson notes. Younger classical musicians are now being told they need to be “entrepreneurial,” he says, but there’s a potential trap in that. “When you do something just to be entrepreneurial it’s probably going to be wrong,” says Anderson. “If you’re doing something that’s authentic, that feels essential, then sometimes the result is that it’s entrepreneurial, but I don’t think you can force it.”
He has a favorite example that he relates. “It’s when classical music organizations do something like a ‘Classical Blue Jeans’ theme, and the performers wear blue jeans – while playing classical music! They think they’re doing something with an entrepreneurial spin, but then the audience goes, and they don’t know why they’re wearing blue jeans, and it doesn’t match the music in any way, and the audience gets nothing out of it. We argue that if you’re going to wear blue jeans in a performance, you gotta make it feel like you have to be wearing blue jeans because they’re playing only Americana type music, Copland, and hoedowns, it would feel disingenuous to the music to be wearing anything but blue jeans.”
Once performers decide on an approach, there has to be full buy-in. “And if you’re going to wear blue jeans, you still don’t need to walk out on a beautiful concert stage in all formality,” Anderson says. “You may as well wear the blue jeans in a barn and perform the piece! And people should be drinking, because when you wear blue jeans you’re casual and you’re drinking. If you’re going to do the blue jeans it has to come with a whole world of reconsideration.
It can’t be just wearing blue jeans and expect that to change the face of classical music.”
Perhaps concert seasons in the future will be like this, with unpredictable mixes of venues and programming. Until then, there’s Anderson and Roe next weekend here in Washington, DC.
“Right from the beginning, not only did we have this remarkable, vibrant friendship sustaining us together, but we both wanted to make a relevant and powerful impact on society through classical music,” says Roe. “That has shaped so many of our endeavors, from the actual concerts themselves to the music videos that we make, to just break down a lot of those formal barriers that prevent a lot of people from having a personal and vital relationship with this music.”
Anderson and Roe Piano Duo presented by Washington Performing Arts will appear on Saturday, February 3, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, 2700 F Street NW, in Washington, DC. For the complete international schedule of Anderson and Roe, see their concert calendar.