Dual piano teams used to be a staple of local concert series. There is a great repertoire to explore and two grand pianos can make a really big and thrilling sound. Unfortunately, in the last few decades, the touring piano duo has fallen out of favor. Maybe that is because the local concert series themselves have fallen on hard times with the wide availability of more commercial competition for the entertainment dollar.
For this reason, the opening concert of the new season of Blue Candlelight Music Series, featuring the outstanding Mexico-based and Russian-born pianists that make up Duo Petrof, was so eagerly anticipated. Vlada Vassilieva and Anatoly Zatin are fine pianists, both with a wall full of competition prizes as well as being on the faculty of the University of Colima, Mexico. Zatin is equally well known as a conductor with a number of highly regarded recordings with major orchestras on the market.
Two gleaming Petrof pianos greeted the audience at Brook Hollow Country Club on Sunday evening. While these Blue Candlelight concerts are usually held at the Baron Mansion in Highland Park, this one presumably had to be moved to a larger space to accommodate the pianos. And real beauties they were—with a glorious full and rich sound.
While the two pianos matched, the two pianists aren't so similar. Zatin is compact and solidly built while Vassilieva is taller and slender. At the keyboard, Zatin is aggressive and leans over the piano as if to keep it under his complete control. Vassilieva sits upright and lets the keyboard come to her. Together, these two opposites meld into a single entity – Duo Petrof – much as yin and yang make a complete circle.
The program they played was built around dance music, except for Mozart's Sonata for Four Hands in D major, K381 that opened the program. Duo Petrof made real magic in the second movement, which finds Mozart writing in his high "opera aria" style. A rushed final movement only slightly distracted from the over all effect.
Bohuslav Martinu's Three Czech Dances ended the first half and a suite from the Slonimsky ballet Icarus, arranged for two pianos by Zatin, ended the program. Both of these pieces make transcendental demands on the two pianists technically and rhythmically. Grigory Korchmar's "Farewell, Dear Friend," built on a theme by deceased composer Valery Gavrilin, was a somber, and very Russian, musical tribute that offered some reflection and contrast to the dance music around it.
The highlight of the evening was a piece of pianistic tomfoolery, by the irreverent composer Aleksey Igudesman, entitled "Imaginary Dances from Fictional Places." They required some words of explanation. Violinist Gary Levinson read the fantastical descriptions of the dances and their bizarre origins.
The "Hopka," which means something like "I am trying to get up," is danced in the country of Plutney during a celebratory month when the natives only can eat sweet potatoes and must sit in a chair for 18 hours a day. The dance consists of trying to get up and out of the chair. The two pianists tried valiantly to rise from the bench as the music progressed, finally succeeding only at the end. The "Prksa" is a slow dance performed by the men of Uglisian while they take hours to ceremonially wash dishes. Zatin washed a traditional platter while playing, in true Uglisian fashion, wearing a characteristic apron. The finale is the "Mango," a war dance from the underwater island of Santa Laniña where everyone lives in a boat. Fortunately, the only weapons they have are codfish so no one ever gets hurt in the battle. (No cod were harmed in the performance on Sunday.)
Igudesman's wild social and musical satire was great fun, totally unexpected, and gave a welcome break before the program ended with the very serious "Icarus." This performance of Slonimsky's ballet score left both pianists and audience exhilarated and exhausted from the effort of meeting the extreme technical demands of Zatin's reduction of the orchestra score. From the sound of it, he could not have eliminated many notes, just redistributed them to what sounded like more than four hands.
As an encore, a mind-boggling and knuckle-busting arrangement of "The Mexican Hat Dance" (again by the demanding Zatin), ended the evening with a virtuoso flourish.