Richardson — The piano hasn’t been this funny since Victor Borge gave his last concert.
German pianists Paul Cibis and Andreas Kern burst into the Bank of America Theatre at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 31 with their own version of the long-standing tradition of comical satire of classical music, a practice dating back at least to the days when Chopin amused audiences in Paris salons with exaggerated parodies of his contemporaries. In their case, the musical merriment took the form of a multi-round prize fight titled “Piano Battle.” Each pianist took a turn in a series of “rounds”; audience members voted at the end of each round by holding up the black side of the cards to vote for Cibis, who came dressed in a dark business suit, or the white side to vote for Kern, who wore a tastefully grunge-inspired white suit.
Crashes of Grieg, Orff, and boogie woogie provided a joint introduction on the two Steinway grands onstage, proceeding into a series of rounds dominated by familiar favorites such as Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude, Liszt’s “Sospiri,” Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” and other tidbits from Schubert and Scriabin. Cibis generally played the straight man to Kern’s more aggressive, sometimes wacky humor, though each got in his share of jabs, puns, and punchlines.
Both were, not incidentally, superb pianists, with résumés packed with years of rigid training, serious concert performances, and recordings, proven out in performance with unfailing energy and generally razor-sharp technical delivery.
The show took an interesting turn when, several rounds in, Cibis showed off the first movement of Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti’s Musica ricercata of 1953; in this particular movement, the pitch A — and only A — is repeated in various octaves for nearly three minutes, before giving way to a final D at the end. Kern answered with German composer Ekkert Mortiz’s “One Man Band” of 1994, which featured slapping the piano, plucking the strings, and intermittingly playing with the nose or a foot.
More musical gimmicks followed as the duo called on four audience volunteers for a game of musical ping pong, accompanied by Bach’s Prelude in C from The Well-Tempered Clavier; the duo then indulged a version of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, in which the first and last movements of that notoriously famous piece were often superimposed (with Kern sometimes playing while leaning backward under his piano). Some romantic ballad-style music followed, before the two launched a monumental montage of audience requests, including “Chopsticks,” Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Chopin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Joplin, Billy Joel, and Elton John, among others. For a grand finale, the two collaborated to perform the notoriously difficult final two movements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition while blindfolded.
Kern’s assertive comedy won the audience over in the final vote; the two both delivered closing comments with a humorously delivered “message” of the entertainment aspect of classical music, without getting too serious.
Was it great art? Not really. But it was very fine entertainment built around mostly familiar classical music, imaginatively conceived and skillfully performed.