- Souvenirs for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 28 (1951)
Pas de deux
Michael Brown, piano • Gilles Vonsattel, piano
- Prelude and Dance for Cello and Piano (2014, rev. 2017)
Nicholas Canellakis, cello • Michael Brown, piano
Samuel Barber (3/9/1910—1/23/1981)
Barber's Souvenirs is a suite containing a waltz, schottische, pas de deux, two-step, hesitation tango, and galop. Barber provided his own notes for the work: “One might imagine a divertissement in a setting of the Palm Court of the Hotel Plaza in New York, the year about 1914, epoch of the first tangos; ‘Souvenirs’ – remembered with affection, not with irony or tongue in cheek, but in amused tenderness.” Barber had a nostalgic affection for the Plaza, where his mother took him to tea as a child. Souvenirs reflects the forgotten spirit and magnificence of pre-WWI opulent hotels of another era.
Each of its six dances was fashionable during the early 1900s, and Barber sets each dance in a different room or area of the Hotel Plaza. The Waltz takes place in the lavish lobby, where its music reflects the elegant surroundings. The rambunctious Schottische is set in the third floor hallway. The Plaza’s ballroom provides the intimate setting for the Pas-de-deux. All the Palm Court’s hustle and bustle is perfectly captured in the humorous Two-Step. Barber labeled the Hesitation Tango “a bedroom affair,” and its sensual rhythm and beguiling melody is the perfect background for an erotic rendezvous. The final Galop takes place the next afternoon and the suite concludes with virtuosic flair and exuberance.
One of the joys of being a pianist is the opportunity to play four-hands and to explore its rich and vast literature. A totally different animal from solo playing (and far less lonely), it is in many ways similar to playing “doubles” in tennis where the duo has to choreograph every movement and learn to breathe as one. There are different challenges such as voicing the four hands so there’s a balanced clarity of expression. Sharing one pedal is also as strange as someone else brushing your teeth! The intimate art form was originally intended for making music in one’s home, a form of socializing in the salon, and to widely disseminate reductions of new works (a 19th century Spotify if you will.)
Michael Brown (b. 6/18/1987)
Prelude and Dance was commissioned and premiered at Bargemusic’s 2014 “Here and Now” Festival. Inspired by Baroque dance suite forms, it is the third work composed for my duo with cellist Nicholas Canellakis. Prelude presents musical material that is languorous and exploratory in character. Hushed repeated notes that gradually gain prominence throughout the movement foreshadow motivic material in the Dance. The second movement is a stark contrast from the first—strict in temperament and inspired by the spirited nature of the Baroque gigue. It is a high-octane, perpetual-motion piece that sizzles along at breakneck speed, featuring virtuosic interplay between the cello and piano.
Nicholas Canellakis and I met in 2008 as students at the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Institute outside of Chicago. After some initial skepticism and contention with each other, we soon became best friends and musical collaborators with a desire to explore the cello/piano repertoire.
My musical life began at the age of two as I danced in front of the TV to the songs of Raffi. By age three, I had listened to Billy Joel’s Piano Man so many times that I wore out the cassette tape. At four, I realized I wanted to be the reincarnation of Mozart so I embarked upon a life of exploration, some isolation, but mostly pure and utter joy.
Felix Mendelssohn (2/3/1809—11/4/1847)
Mendelssohn’s music never ceases to satisfy and amaze me; I love playing it and find his voice deeply refreshing and personal. The sextet, composed in 1824 at the astonishingly youthful age of 15(!), is Classical in design and spirit but possesses his inimitable qualities of lightness and virtuosity. Speaking of which, the work is a beast (and a joy) to play; filled to capacity with thousands of notes in the piano (I started counting and then stopped). Most important of course is its humor, elegance, shifting moods, delightful interplay among the musicians, and ultimately sheer optimism that reminds us what chamber music is all about.
I live up in Washington Heights with Octavia and Daria. Collectively they weigh almost 1,980 pounds and have been on this earth for 264 years! Octavia is a Steinway model D Concert Grand, from 1892. Daria, my other 9 foot Steinway from 1884, is the 31st Steinway D ever made. She snuggles up to Octavia and both of them occasionally romp through concerti and two-piano works.