Christina & Michelle Naughton reviews: sister act

Portland Piano International brought identical twin virtuosos for two recitals, and they delivered performances as polished as their presentation

By ANGELA ALLEN & JEFF WINSLOW

Editor’s note: because the latest Portland Piano International production featured a pair of pianists performing a pair of a concerts, and sometimes using a pair of pianos, we decided to feature a pair of reviewers

I was privileged to hear 30 young virtuosos compete for the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano prize last summer in Fort Worth, Texas. Ranging from 19 to 30 years old, they played technically difficult, swooningly expressive pieces. Consider Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 and Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, two of the most performed during the festival.

Yet none, even winner Yekwon Sunwoo who opened the 40th Portland Piano International Solo season in October, impressed me as much as Michelle and Christina Naughton did Dec. 2 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. They played a second concert Dec. 3 featuring a different and equally demanding repertoire. (See Jeff Winslow’s review of that concert below.)

These identical twins, 28, graduates of the Juilliard School and Curtis Institute of Music, began piano lessons at four years old and played as single-piano musicians until a savvy producer suggested they try duets and four-hands pieces. That was 10 years ago. Now the two play as one. They are polished; they are pros. Wunderkinder they are, but practice they have — hours and hours a day for years and years.

Portland Piano International presented Christina and Michelle Naughton. Photo: John Rudoff.

During their two-hour performance, the team demonstrated clean technique, exacting timing, and bravery (or confidence) to incorporate into their repertoire challenging pieces, most notably Conlon Nancarrow’s Sonatina for four hands. Most of the maverick 20th century American composer‘s work was written for the player piano; humans can’t keep up with the rhythms.

And all of this without a sheet of music or an iPad to prompt.

During the first half, the sisters performed four-hands pieces on one Steinway. Among them was Felix Mendelssohn’s Andante and Variation in B-Flat Major for four hands, Op. 83A, which they played in a brilliantly layered fashion, sharing the keyboard so that the low register (played by Christina) was liberated from its usual subservient role. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for four hands, K. 381, which the composer wrote at 15 years old, followed, and then the Naughtons segued into Maurice Ravel’s charming Ma Mere L’oye for four hands that included five Mother Goose stories. If a bumble or a screw-up occurred, I didn’t hear it. All ears were open to their beguiling tone; all eyes were on the Naughtons’ flying fingers and enigmatic faces. How could identical twins appear so opposite with their changing expressions and individualistic playing styles?!

As for showmanship, the sisters had to be aware of their attractive, even slick, onstage presence, but neither was showy enough to be distracting. And this was a performance. As purist as we’d like to be, a stage performance is never only the music. Aside from their stunning dresses and fresh faces, they wore four-inch spike heels and took turns pumping the piano pedals. It’s true: Two pianos and four hands in the last hour for Frederic Chopin’s Rondo in C Major for two pianos, Op. 73 and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite can have more impact — and entertainment value — than one keyboard and two hands.

They were called back for an encore and played music from J.S. Bach’s sweet cantata, God’s Time is the Very Best Time, BWV 106, bringing down the audience’s blood pressure a few points.

Dismiss any idea that these twins are well-trained, well-groomed robots. If anything, each maintained her separateness, despite the synchronicity and harmoniousness required of four hands playing the same piece at once. Christina, in the red dress, had a romantic, balletic approach. Wearing blue-spruce velvet, Michelle, exhibited a playful, almost je ne sais quoi touch. To complement their festive outfits, two takes on a single fashion, the performance was strategically designed with a seasonal favorite (or groaner). P. I.Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite ended the program. As much as I dreaded to hear this overplayed music, the twins deftly pulled off the exhausting 23-minute suite, hardly coming up for air, urging along the familiar marches and candied waltzes at breakneck speed. I have a new appreciation for this Christmas chestnut. Tchaikovsky didn’t like it when he was writing it, either. But he learned to love it.

No one has to learn to love the Naughtons. They bring it on. —Angela Allen.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.

More than a Pretty Package

’Tis the season for gifts wrapped in shiny packages. Portland Piano International’s latest gift to Portland audiences, duo pianists and twin sisters Christina and Michelle Naughton, came enclosed in a pop star-worthy publicity package that emphasized their undeniable glamor, and their appearance on stage only intensified the allure. But don’t think for a minute it was all just for show. Once fingers hit keys in their performance Sunday before last at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall, packaging was matched by glittering performance: spirited, tightly coordinated, with murmuring soft passages and exuberantly loud ones. If the music they made rarely seemed soulful or even notably lyrical, in fairness, the program was not designed to highlight those affects.

Christina and Michelle Naughton performed two concerts at Portland State University. Photo: John Rudoff.

Mozart no doubt composed the opening set of Mozart variations (K. 501) variations to be thoroughly entertaining for players and audience alike. No need for laments or regrets. In Franz Schubert’s Life’s Storms — the title (Lebensstürme) was dreamed up by a publisherthe sisters, when required, did glide effortlessly out onto a still, lyric lake of sound, the kind Schubert in his last years (the late 1820s) created like no other composer before or since. But mostly their crisp delivery and dynamic range whirled out of the keyboard, corroborating the publisher’s instincts.

Contemporary American composer and pianist Paul Schoenfield’s edgy and highly colorful set Five Days from the Life of a Manic-Depressive was far more manic than depressive, and clever as a clinic full of monkeys run amok. If the encore, the brilliant and brilliantly performed “Trepak” from Tchaikovksy’s seasonal requisite Nutcracker, didn’t seem as brainy, it’s largely because we’ve forgotten how brainless ballet music tended to be before Piotr Ilyich got hold of it.

The highlight of the concert, though, was Claude Debussy’s late masterpiece In Black and White, a work no doubt buffeted by the storms of World War I that were raging as he wrote it, yet far from overwhelmed by them. The sisters were all business, driving the opening movement briskly along, yet without shortchanging the slightest of the many harmonic shifts hidden in the torrent of notes. Quicksilver details sparkled, yet sonorous bass tunes surged implacably. Two single-voice interjections, declaimed in unison on both pianos, were demanding if not anguished, and nearly flawless, as if from a 176-keyed stereo system.

In the slow movement, dedicated to a friend killed in the war, a newly patriotic Debussy applied a lifetime of experience in tone-painting the beauties of the world around him to the stillness of no man’s land between attacks. Drums, or maybe hearts, beat erratically; bugled and whistled tunes, mostly French, waft out of the trenches and across the surreal landscape. (The one German tune seems to run into a firefight and retreats somewhat worse for wear.) The sisters’ precise rendition allowed the eeriness of all these fragments to speak for themselves, throwing the defiant ending outburst into sharp relief.

In the finale, dedicated to Igor Stravinsky, Debussy seems to yearn for a return to the happier days before the war, when the premiere of Petrushka wowed Parisian audiences including Debussy himself. Much like that Stravinsky ballet, this movement alternates between intimate chromatic asides and expansive passages full of churning diatonic harmonies, as tunes drift in and out of awareness. The sisters infused all with an electric excitement that subsided (as it should) only towards the delicate, glowing and somewhat wistful ending.

Yes, the Naughton sisters make an attractive package and compete in the musical marketplace accordingly, but their real gift is their artistry. Inside all that glitter is musical gold. —JEFF WINSLOW.

Jeff Winslow is a Portland composer and pianist, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He has long felt a special attraction to the music of Debussy. 

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