The extreme style of pianists Anderson and Roe

by Elizabeth Kerr / 08 March, 2018

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Roe and Anderson: a highly theatrical performance style. Photo/Brent Cline

Roe and Anderson: a highly theatrical performance style. Photo/Brent Cline

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US piano duo Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe set out to thrill with a dynamic style and a repertoire that includes variations on Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

The music video soundtrack pulsates with the pounding rhythms of the final section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the composer’s piano duet version. The images are of two pianists on a beach, intensely engaged at the keyboard of an ancient organ, which is first engulfed in flames, then submerged in frothing surf. Millipedes are crawling from the organ on to the hands and bodies of the musicians.

American pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe created a set of spectacular videos for their recording of Stravinsky’s iconic work because they believe it needs extreme treatment. “It’s about a young virgin dancing herself to death,” says Anderson. “That’s the emblem of extreme, over-the-top, horrifying and disturbing – and any performance of the piece that doesn’t push towards that extreme will feel like a failure.”

And the millipedes? “They are representative of the decay of the material world,” says Roe. “The piano stands in the place of the virgin; it is our object of sacrifice.”

Anderson and Roe are a highly polished team. The supercharged and virtuosic duo approach interviews as a duet, effortlessly taking turns to answer questions and pouring forth words in the passionate and extravagant style they display at the piano. We’re talking long-distance – Roe is in New York in a snow storm and Anderson is on the US West Coast. But such is their “synchronicity”, as they describe it, they might be talking from the same piano stool.

They met at the Juilliard School in New York 15 years ago and have been playing together ever since. “From the beginning,” says Anderson, “we shared an energy on two pianos, a shared musical vision, and we also shared a larger vision for music to have power and relevance in society.”

How do they describe their art? Roe calls it “an adrenaline-filled, slightly unconventional adventurous approach to music. We try to integrate both tradition and innovation; we honour the traditions of the past. In certain ways, we’re harking back to the days of Franz Liszt, when composers would take tunes of their day and reimagine them in their own style. Similarly, we take works from the past and the present, including pop and film music, and try to reimagine each work in a modern ‘Anderson & Roe’ style.”

There are many sides to the Anderson and Roe approach. As well as making music videos, they recompose or arrange many of the works they perform as a duet on one piano or for the more “symphonic” ensemble of two pianos. “We juxtapose core works from the repertoire, works by Mozart or Brahms or Rachmaninov, with contemporary classical works and our own transcriptions of popular music,” says Roe. “We’re less fixated on genre and more on the humanity of the artistic experience. Our aim is always to present the music with immense authenticity and real investment, and I think that really communicates to our audiences.”

Their “full throttle” performances are designed to appeal to not only the committed classical music buffs they’ll meet on their 10-concert Chamber Music New Zealand tour but also audiences unfamiliar with classical music. “Certainly,” Anderson says, “music from 200 years ago was by composers who felt the same things we experience today – heartbreak, intense personal struggle, depression – or they were reacting to the political turmoil, the warfare of their day, the violence or the beauty of the natural world. All those things are still relevant.”

Elizabeth Joy Roe and Greg Anderson.

“Relevance” is a word they use often. But do the highly popular works chosen for the Anderson and Roe treatment need additional enhancement to appeal? Their New Zealand programmes include Stravinsky’s Rite, a suite arrangement of Bizet’s Carmen and John Adams’ exhilarating piano duet Hallelujah Junction.

“In our quest to make it relevant, we really push the extremes,” says Anderson. “We pick themes from Carmen, a very famous, very beloved opera, and in our own personal way we provide another emotional perception of the music. Our approach is to open new windows into the music and through that expand audiences for classical music, so it is immersive and engaging for audiences of our time.”

For New Zealand audiences, they’ll share one of their newest creations, Hallelujah Variations, based on Leonard Cohen’s famous song. “It feels really transcendental and epic to perform,” says Roe. “We were inspired by the writing of Beethoven, so it’s a classical approach, but based on a contemporary song. In Cohen’s lyrics, the word ‘Hallelujah’ takes on different meanings – longing, despair, praise or ecstasy. And those different meanings are the inspiration for each variation; as a whole, the piece is climactic.”

Their performance style is highly theatrical, with an intense, almost erotic involvement between them. “When Greg and I are on stage” says Roe, “there are magical moments when we give our whole selves to the music and it feels more breathtaking and astonishing than fire and flames and drowning.”

Anderson & Roe, Auckland Arts Festival, Town Hall, March 10; New Zealand Festival, Michael Fowler Centre, March 17; Chamber Music New Zealand national tour, March 10-23.

This article was first published in the March 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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