DUO Stephanie & Saar preview: Cosmic dances

Piano pair performs starry works by American composers.


Think about what it means to explore the stars, those exploding nuclear reactions dangling above our tiny heads, those mesmerizing glints of blue and gold, those fiery hells each sparkling like some lost heaven. Now translate that stratospheric imagery into sound. This Sunday, pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia collaborate as DUO Stephanie & Saar for a FREE concert at Portland Piano Company.

Ahuvia grew up in Israel, Ho grew up in Portland, and the now married couple are based in New York City. The main piece on their program is the fourth volume of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos.  Crumb’s maddeningly creative soundscape, Celestial Mechanics: Cosmic Dances for Amplified Piano, Four Hands, depicts four stars: Alpha Centauri, Beta Cygni, Gamma Draconis, and Delta Orionis.


Completed by Crumb in 1979, Celestial Mechanics is the only piece he composed for four hands at the piano. The page turner is an honorary performer in this piece, too, helping to place steel rulers into the piano (Yes!). The plucks and strums of the piano’s steel strings, the taps on the piano’s crossbeams, and the crystalline execution of melodic passages alternately streak across and cannonball into sound baths of sensitive pedaling and intimate attention to pianistic resonance. In one of the most important pieces in 20th-century repertoire, let alone piano repertoire, Crumb expanded the orchestra of the piano into a universe of star beams and pulsing fire.

This Sunday, DUO will also give the West Coast premiere of Fantasia de Tres Mundos,  a new two-piano work written for them Miami-based jazz pianist Martin Bejerano that combines classical, jazz, and Afro-Cuban musical styles.

First invited by Portland Piano International in 2011, DUO Stephanie & Saar made a splash with their performance of a two-piano version of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Petrouchka, and have returned to Portland semi-annually ever since. Last February, as part of Oregon Music Teachers Association’s Portland Contemporary Music Festival, they performed works by American-born composers, including Conlon Nancarrow.

Along with the West Coast premiere of Bejerano’s 2014 piece and George Crumb’s exploration of infinity, DUO will also perform Debussy’s own two-piano version of his orchestral work “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and a two-piano arrangement of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 18, No. 1.

DUO performs Celestial Mechanics as a kick-off for the Makrokosmos Project they are bringing to Portland in June. This new festival directed by DUO focuses on contemporary American music and Pacific Northwest musicians, and for its inaugural year will celebrate George Crumb’s 85th birthday. Volumes I and II of Makrokosmos will be performed by Pacific-Northwest musicians Susan Smith, Alexander Schwarzkopf, Deborah Cleaver, Julia Hwakyu Lee, Harold Gray and Katy Luo. In addition Monica Ohuchi and Kenji Bunch will perform some of Bunch’s music for piano and viola, and DUO will present a world premiere of two-piano works by Crumb’s former student, Swarthmore College faculty member Gerald Levinson, and perform two-piano works by David Crumb, the University of Oregon composition professor who happens to be George Crumb’s son.

DUO Stephanie & Saar perform music by George Crumb, Debussy, Beethoven, and a west coast premiere of Martin Bejerano’s jazzy Fantasia de Tres Mundos on Sunday, February 15 at 7:00pm at Portland Piano Company, 711 SW 14th Ave, Portland, OR 97205. FREE!!

Jana Griffin is a piano teacher living in Portland.

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