Allow music to transform you. The prerequisites for transformation: the openness to experience events and the willingness to be changed by them. — Anderson & Roe, A Music Listening Manifesto.
Performers around the world are coping with the pandemic-induced shutdowns in many ways. For one of America’s most celebrated classical music duos, the sudden deprivation of the thrill — not to mention the income — of touring and live performance drove them to drink. But not quite in the way you might expect.
Alcohol — specifically, mixology — will be on the menu at Anderson & Roe’s live-streamed Saturday and Sunday performances presented by Portland Piano International. But the duo’s Virtual Piano Extravaganza program also boasts birds, video, photography, and plenty of Portlanders. Plus, yes, alcohol.
It’s a wildly experimental two-day presentation — make that party — that creatively tries to solve a pressing dilemma. How do musicians create substitutes for the very elements — intimacy, spontaneity, connection — that make live performance so attractive to audiences and performers alike?
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Elizabeth Roe and Greg Anderson met in 2000 as freshmen at New York’s Juilliard School, where they earned their bachelor’s and master’s degrees. They immediately began varying the usual recital formula, mixing new and old music, and connecting to audiences via social media and dazzling, Emmy-nominated videos worthy of a savvy pop act. They’ve recorded five albums that appealingly mix deft two-piano arrangements of classical and contemporary pop hits, and garnered accolades like “the most dynamic duo of this generation” (San Francisco Classical Voice) and “rock stars of the classical music world” (Miami Herald).
What really caught attention, though, is their live performances. Fueled by potent pianistic chops and audience-friendly demeanor, they’ve toured throughout the US as well as the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Estonia, Israel, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, including dozens of festivals. They’ve also played with orchestras from Waco to Winnipeg, San Francisco to Santa Fe. So conscious are they to the audience experience that they’ve even created a Listening Manifesto, from which the italicized headings here are drawn.
And this weekend, they’re putting those principles into practice long distance, thanks to Portland Piano International. “These concerts are based in our mission to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society,” Anderson says. “Everything we do — what we play, how we interact on stage, the videos we stream — every element originated in us asking ourselves, How can we make it impactful for audiences? How can we bring in new audiences? How can we excite them and delight them and surprise them with new perspectives?”
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Their ardor for live performance and audience connection is what made the Corona-cancellation of this season’s concerts — including a March show in Portland — especially distressing for the piano pair. For the first time in years, they were stuck at their respective homes in New York and Los Angeles, trying to figure out what to do next.
Being homebound had its virtues, especially after spending years away on the road. “I get to see my husband every single day,” Anderson says. “With all these points of familiarity around me, I feel more grounded. Even among a whole host of struggles and frustrations, it’s nice to see some areas of life I didn’t know could be so luxurious.”
Moreover, the break from the touring routine gave them a chance to take a deep breath, rethink, and reassess. “We’re so used to being on the road every week so we’ve gotten into this zone,” Roe explains. “Airport, hotel, then there’s the thrill of live performance and connecting with audiences. But on tour, you get in a routine, play similar programs.”
That makes it hard to find time to reconsider what they do. “We try, but when you’re on the road, it’s a struggle,” Anderson agrees. “We’re on planes, trains, we don’t get much sleep.”
As part of the recharging process, they checked out various livestream and other video performances, both contemporary classical and pop (Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Fiona Apple etc.) that have provided (often inadequate) substitutes for the real thing.
“The things I’ve enjoyed have been the honesty and casualness of the performances,” Roe says. “People who seemed like such giants, even pop stars like [Coldplay frontman] Chris Martin who seem larger than life when you see them in a stadium, now you’re seeing them in t-shirts and are invited into their living room. The level of fame almost doesn’t matter. Everybody’s going through the same thing. Everybody’s yearning for some kind of connection and expression and a way of dealing with anxiety and confusion we’re dealing with as a society.”
Still, they found something missing from the streams. “We did notice that virtual productions were becoming very global,” Anderson says. “And while it’s exciting to see people around the world coming together, what I was missing from live concerts was that localized feel.”
That was only one of the aspects they missed about playing live, including the sense of adventure that comes with travel, with seeing new people and places, and most of all, the excitement of tearing it up onstage.
“What I miss is being in a room full of people and feeling their sense of anticipation,” Anderson says. “What we latch on to as live performers on the concert stage is sensing the audience’s anticipation and using that to fuel our own performance. I miss that sense of grandeur and risk taking that comes with a live performance, the sense that it could all break down and go terribly wrong if somebody misses a note. It’s so different when it’s virtual and you’re sitting in your living room.”
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“Amid all the complexities and challenges of this period, we’ve discovered that music has been such a lifeline,” Roe says. “The break is giving us the chance to explore things we wouldn’t have had opportunity to in midst of recitals night in and night out, to experiment with certain ways of collaborating and presenting music. The grounding and creative stimulation of being in one place can allow you to be mercurial in your imagination.” One example: Two Piano Tuesdays, a weekly Facebook Live show that gives them the chance to interact with fans, talk about issues, and play some music.
Batteries recharged, they were itching to perform a real concert. But with performances still suspended, it would have to be a virtual offering. How could they create a different kind of online experience that might approach the spontaneity, adventure, and community connection they loved about live performance, yet weren’t seeing on screen?
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They decided to reschedule and revisit the postponed Portland performance. Not literally, of course, but virtually. But they didn’t want to just play onscreen in August the same Brahms-Bizet-pop hits program they’d planned for the PPI audience onstage in March. Instead, they wanted to create a new show that suited the new medium, music that responded to the pandemic (on Saturday’s program), and for the Sunday show, since they couldn’t be here in person, something really Portland specific — a “love letter to Portland.”
“We’ve both always loved Portland — the people, the food, the natural beauty — it’s so glorious and beautiful,” Roe explains. Anderson had even come close to moving here when his husband was offered a medical residency. “There’s a wonderfully quirky quality of the city we wanted to pay tribute to. We had this massive brainstorming session in the middle of spring where we went through all the places we loved,” from Powell’s Books to Salt & Straw, and the many outdoor treasures that Anderson and his husband love hiking around.
That included birds. They decided to include images of Oregon avians contributed by many Portland photographers and artists in a video accompanying Anderson & Roe’s new arrangement of the delicate instrumental “The Cascades” by the great Seattle pastoral pop band Fleet Foxes.
Anderson: “People who are stuck in isolation were noticing the world around them in different ways. On our social media platforms, we noticed friends of ours, not necessarily birdwatchers, drawing or painting or photographing birds. So we asked our Portland audience to send photos of birds they’ve taken, and we’re putting that into a video.”
Roe: “We put a bird on it!”
Anderson: “It’s a way for people to see themselves in the show, and a tribute to Portland and the Cascade mountains. We want people to feel like they’re with their friends. So many Portlanders will be appearing on screen. It should feel like it still has that sense of community you get in a live concert.”
Local luminaries will also be involved in narrating the words accompanying some absurdist Satie pieces on Sunday’s program. The winner of a competition among Portland pianists 16 and younger will perform live on Sunday and (virtually) join the duo in a new three-piano music video based on Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” And Saturday, a passel of 30+ Portland pianists will join in with Roe and Anderson (playing from their respective New York and LA homes) on an aleatoric new composition, Corona Meditation, inspired by guess what, by Austrian composer Gerd Kühr. And audience members (including ArtsWatch readers) can participate.
“We wanted actual interactivity, more than in a typical concert,” Roe says. “We found playful ways where people were tangibly included, not just as viewers and enjoying cocktails but sharing the screen with us.”
Along with Kuhr’s piece, Saturday’s program includes a mix of recorded and live performances of solo and duo music by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Cole Porter, Piazzolla, Amy Beach, Vince Guaraldi’s greatest hit, and more. Sunday’s show blends compositions by Brahms, Glass, Schubert, Portland composer (and erstwhile A&R Juilliard classmate) Ryan Francis, a new multi-piano fantasy based on Balakirev’s Islamey and more, along with Satie, Joplin and Fleet Foxes. Along with world premieres of five new Anderson & Roe arrangements and nearly a dozen brand-new music videos, they also added question & answer sessions, curated commentary, and an “immersive” musical trivia contest about Portland music history to the expansive mix.
Speaking of mixes, they’re also bringing longtime obsession with cocktails to the virtual party. Over the years, the pair has crafted blends to complement the music of specific composers and their works, even created entire recitals based on the concept, “my premise being the effective pairing of music and cocktails enhances the potency of both,” Anderson told Classical Post. “We believe any great artistic experience has the potential to engage all the senses, and we’ve discovered that music and cocktails, properly paired, can lead to new revelations in sound, taste, and smell.”
Musical mixology fits their larger vision. “We’re always looking for new ways to demystify classical music for those who might view this genre as inaccessible,” Roe told Classical Post. “Sipping a well-crafted cocktail while taking in a concert can amplify the listening experience, engender positive connections (with the music, performers, and fellow audience members), and create space for greater relaxation and, yes, fun.”
Saturday’s concoction features “a floral, meditative gin-based cocktail” to imbibe with Corona Meditation, while Sunday’s Portlandphilic performance is enhanced by “a Cascade-inspired, rustic old fashioned with marionberries and Portland-based Freeland Spirits Bourbon.
Recreating the thrill
Woah. The music doesn’t always happen where we think it ought to. Instead, it happens somewhere else – in the silence, in the reverb on the walls, in the performer’s gasp for air. Music comes charged with a palpable energy created by its surroundings at that very moment. Under any other circumstance, it would be different.
True to their inspiration from the pop/indie music worlds, Anderson & Roe created their extravaganza in true DIY style, which required learning new skills, acquiring new tech, and more. “We don’t have luxury of having a crew,” Roe says. “Everything we’re producing, we’re doing on our own— all the music, all the audio, the live stream itself. Our husbands are in a lot of the shots.”
“We’re being particularly ambitious with these Portland events,” Anderson says. “We’ve done months of preparation, lots of sleep deprivation, long days and nights finding ways to recreate the thrill of live concerts. That’s why we’ve tried to bring some things to make it a special moment in time. You can share it online later, but it’ll be very different watching in the moment.” For example, unless you’re tuning into the virtual event, you won’t get to see the young competition winner’s reaction to how A&R have turned their recorded performance into a video.
That excitement goes for the young pianists and readers and other local participants, but also the viewers. “As always with our concerts, we hope to present a wide range of psychological states and emotions,” Roe explains. “We always like to represent the fullness of the human experience. By involving so many wonderful people, we’re really pushing ourselves to make this feel like a vibrant and once in-a-lifetime experience.”
If something strikes you as strange or incomprehensible, don’t panic. Welcome the confusion and enjoy the music without preconceived ideas or predetermined goals.
As much of a stretch as this exceptionally creative production has been for the pianists, it’s also new territory for presenter Portland Piano International, whose regular seasons have hitherto rarely ventured beyond solo recitals of classic repertoire by celebrity soloists.
“Its all uncharted territory for everybody,” says interim director Bill Crane. “Anderson & Roe is a big experiment for us. The online thing is new territory. But Greg and Liz are wildly creative. I admire them. They said, Portland has a great reputation for its weirdness — let’s do something really interactive with Portland. It’s been an overwhelming amount of work on our end, including the insanity of learning so much technology and even vocabulary, but I’m not complaining.”
The organization plans to survey its enviably loyal audience about their reaction to the concerts, and those results will help guide its future course. Crane mentions more work with the Rising Stars, promising young performers PPI has showcased in a separate series for the past few years. He also muses about adding performances in other Portland neighborhoods (he used to play organ in a historically Black Portland church), putting more music online, and continuing its collaborations with other music institutions like Portland Youth Philharmonic.
Anderson & Roe also expect these groundbreaking concerts to help inform their future course. “We’ve learned so much!” Anderson says. “Little tricks like how the video camera should be aligned, to knowing how long things will take, new ways we can interface with a local community from afar. Now that we know more, we can be more efficient if we do something like this again. We’re also hoping to learn from events themselves. That’s part of the excitement.”
Constant learning and evolution — embracing new experiences and methods — is actually old hat for Anderson & Roe, who never really had a template for success in a performing world that was all about solo, not duo recitals. “As we’re approaching our 20 year mark, we’re staying open and curious,” Roe says. They’re thinking of more collaboration with other artists, more commissioning music from composers of our time, merging their twin passions for music videos and new music. “We’re staying on the pulse. I’m always listening to what’s coming out, learning from what people are doing creatively on the indie scene, the pop scene. We’re trying to be as true to our impulses as we can. Our passions will dictate the direction we go in.”
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