Two pianos provided twice the thrills at the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra’s Something Old and Something New concert — especially since Marcel and Elizabeth Bergmann were the gifted soloists.
The husband and wife pianists from White Rock, B.C. demonstrated an extraordinary ability to seamlessly blend their playing, much like the Everly Brothers could harmonize two voices, to sound like one rich instrument.
Seated at opposite ends of two grand pianos at the Red Deer College Arts Centre on Saturday night, the Bergmanns started out with Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D Minor. The work borrows from French cafe tunes as well as Balinese percussive music, but ends up transcending both genres to become something else — an inventive piece that steers from meditative to playful.
This was demonstrated in an intro segment when RDSO music director Claude Lapalme asked the pianists to compare the Balinese original music to Poulenc’s rendering of it, which turned out to be very impressionistic, indeed.
Poulenc’s talent for writing engaging melodies and the Bergmanns’ ability to create multi-layered harmonies led to moments of staggering beauty, where the undulating notes flowed like a rippling stream.
The Concerto later moved into more Stravinsky-like territory. When handled by the intuitive Bergmanns, these discordant sections sounded expressive and as bold as an exclamation mark.
The former Calgarians, both international prize winners, also played off each other and the orchestra to exciting effect on their second piece — the world premiere of Urban Pulse. An orchestral version was created by Marcel Bergmann from one of his original piano compositions from 2005.
It was a crowd pleaser, with hints of Gershwin works such as Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris.
The Bergmanns would often start out playing different melodies that somehow merged into a single tempo. Their piano parts either alternated with the orchestra, or were heard with just percussive or strings instruments, or horns.
Since Urban Pulse is underpinned by jazzy strains, the trumpet figured prominently in the dynamic composition that eventually built to a busy climax, with the soloists and orchestral musicians creating the aural equivalent of a traffic jam.
The work was a definite hit — earning a rousing standing ovation from the audience, and second curtain call for the two talented pianists.
The Bergmanns, as RDSO music director Claude Lapalme pointed out, “really love music,” and their enthusiasm was contagious.
Another original work was also on Saturday’s program — Lapalme’s Fantasie on French Canadian Themes, an adaptation of two folk tunes for fiddle and hurdy-gurdy.
The beginning and end resounded with toe-tapping, homespun fiddle tunes, while the middle had a Cinemascopic feel — as if the soundtrack for a gregarious dance scene in a musical like Oklahoma!
The short work was the opposite of weighty, providing plenty of fun for listeners. But as Lapalme warned, the string section got a real workout with this demanding composition.
And the difficulty didn’t stop there. Another tricky work finished the evening — Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta.
Based on the composer’s memories of his childhood village, the piece borrows from Hungarian folk tunes as well as Gypsy music. Lapalme noted it’s always hard to separate one from the other, but why bother when the combined effect is so charming?
The RDSO’s violin section was, once again, called upon to deliver most of the work’s passion, with frenetic playing that built to an impossibly fast tempo before unexpectedly switching gears to become lighthearted — or even comic.
Whatever emotions were needed, the orchestra was able to summon them, providing a highly entertaining evening of virtuosic playing.