A Very Different & Delightful Piano Duet Concert
– by Lee Greene
In the November print issue of the Jacksonville Review, I describe the Rogue Valley as a “cornucopia of performing arts” for the volume and variety of performing arts events available. That point has been validated over the last two weeks, by the wide variety of available concerts which I have been able to enjoy and discuss in The Jacksonville Review. Those have included several big concert hall events, like the opening concert of the Rogue Valley Symphony season, the debut concert of a Piano Duo composed of internationally recognized and locally based musicians Alexander Tutunov and Martin Majkut, and a remarkable concert by internationally renowned concert pianist titan, Joseph Banowetz that unexpectedly morphed into a legacy concert featuring 3 generations of virtuoso piano soloists. On Sunday afternoon, October 19, I attended a very different concert, in a very different setting, which served to underscore the expansive variety of quality performing arts talent and events available to us in the Rogue Valley: a Piano Duet concert in the Naversen Room of the Jacksonville Library.
The Naversen Room of the Jacksonville Library is a very intimate setting, which can comfortably hold seats for an audience of around 75 people, and it was filled for this concert. The room also holds a very nice looking and sounding Wm. Knabe & Co. small grand piano that was donated several years ago by the Jacksonville Friends of the Library, who sponsored this concert as a benefit for the Jacksonville Library.
Into this intimate setting stepped Duo-pianists Michele Alspach and Joyce Stevens. The two are each active forces to be reckoned with in the local chapter of the Oregon Music Teachers Association. Both have long chops as piano teachers, Ms. Alspach in Ashland and Ms. Stevens in Jacksonville. Ms. Stevens received her BA in Piano Performance from the Univ. of Oregon in 1951, an MM in Piano Performance from Colorado State Univ. in 1970, and taught piano as a faculty member at Univ. of Wyoming from 1970-1986. She has enjoyed a long career as a teacher, adjudicator for student competitions and exams, as a program presenter, and as a performer. Ms. Alspach received her bachelor’s degree in Piano Performance from Chico State University in 1976 and was trained in the Suzuki method at San Francisco State University in 1980.
When the Rogue Valley Chapter of the Oregon Music Teachers Association organized its annual benefit concerts to raise funds for the Julia Frantz Memorial Scholarship Fund in 2006, Ms. Stevens signed on as a regular performer, and it was in the context of those annual concerts that the two began to perform as a Piano Duo. Ms. Alspach explains: “We enjoyed working together and began putting together recitals, as well as performing in that event each year. Yesterday’s recital was our second one for Jacksonville Library. Others have been given in retirement homes. We hope there will be many more in the future.”
So we’re in a very different venue, with a very different category of performer: these are, first and foremost, music educators, not prima donna touring soloists. Not surprisingly, the focus of the concert was more on music education, than it was on showing off exemplary piano skills. Which is NOT to say these two lacked piano skills; it was clear that each of them expertly knew their way around a piano – but the entire emphasis during the concert was different – educating the audience was key. Rather than just launch into the pieces on the program, each segment began with a little presentation, illuminating the context and background of the piece about to be played, which composing era it was from, what was special about the elements of the piece, etc., e.g., Bach hated the piano and wouldn’t compose for it which is why we only have transcribed Bach piano music, Debussy was impressed by the Impressionist painters of his era and so invented Impressionist music, Bizet was a Romanticist and tried to romanticize the world around him by composing recognizable representations of it in his music, so in the various sections of his Children’s Games (The Doll, Spin The Top, The Ball, etc.) he has written music that sounds like the objects in the titles. You can get a good idea of the nature of this concert, its educational components, and the skilled piano playing which anchored the event by watching the 2:42 min. video recording excerpt from the beginning of the Debussy segment of the concert, which is presented below.
For this concert, the Duo played four pieces: Bach’s Jesu, Man’s Desires; Mozart’s Theme and Variations in G; Debussy’s Petite Suite; and Bizet’s Children’s Games. The audience’s attention and entertainment was particularly peaked during the last piece, Bizet’s Children’s Games, as the Duo unveiled a vintage toy box near the piano and with each section of the piece, withdrew a vintage toy matching the title of the piece, first a bugle and drum, then a doll, next a top, followed by a small couple “Playing House” and ending with a large ball. If I had to pick a couple of words to describe this concert, I would choose delightful and educational. The packed audience contained a number of small children for whom the educational value of this concert had to be invaluable, but don’t kid yourself, many of the adults came away learning something about music they didn’t know before too.
To provide you with a very brief representative sample of what this concert was like, here is a 2:42 min. excerpt video recording of the beginning of the Debussy’s Petite Suite segment of the concert:
If you have an opportunity in the future to catch Duo-pianists Michele Alspach and Joyce Stevens performing in concert, I highly recommend it, particularly if you have young children to educate about the joys of music. Aren’t we fortunate in the Rogue Valley to have such a rich diversity of performing arts and artists to take advantage of?
This review was originally published by the Jacksonville Review on October 21, 2014 at http://jacksonvillereview.com/different-delightful-piano-duet-concert/