Much is being made of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary this month – concerts, tributes, even a Google doodle. But I know of only one related event that took place just a few minutes’ walk from the composer-conductor’s grave: a two-piano concert by Christina and Michelle Naughton, twin-sister pianists, at the Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs in Brooklyn, NY.
The event, part of a remarkable series called The Angel’s Share, began with a reception followed by a humid, torch-lit hike through the night-black cemetery – these walks seem much longer in the dark! – to the cooler Catacombs. Two pianos had been placed centrally in the damp, narrow, arched corridor with rows of seats fore and aft.
After series curator Andrew Ousley introduced the pianists, I unconsciously expected them to emerge from the dark crypts to either side – it was that kind of night and that kind of setting.
Opening and closing with Bernstein, the challenging program alternated between American and French composers with works scored for either piano four-hands or two pianos.
Bernstein’s Candide overture lends itself well to the four-hands treatment. (I remember playing music from the opera arranged for wind ensemble in high school – my first exposure introduction to the music of Leonard Bernstein.) As its familiar melodies and motifs flooded the stone-grey hall, the sisters’ synchrony became immediately clear, playing their subtle rubatos as one.
Sound carries brilliantly loudly in that narrow, hard space. From a front-row seat the sound of two Yamaha pianos with their bright sound is almost too much, especially when the music leaps into a high register. Of course, we don’t expect perfect acoustics in non-traditional spaces. And a concert event in Green-Wood Cemetery is a magical experience start to finish, not an illustration of the finer points of classical-music connoisseurship.
Christina and Michelle Naughton are devilishly talented, and perform with showmanship that touches on the flamboyant without overspilling the bounds of taste. They wrangle their almost unearthly sibling link and natural charisma with a firm intelligence that was on vivid display in the intricate nooks and crannies of Ravel’s Ma mère l’Oye (“Mother Goose”) suite, from the dark, softly smoldering “Sleeping Beauty” section through the harp-like passages and striking glissandos of “The Fairy Garden.”
They showed off in a different way with Colin Nancarrow’s “Sonatine.” I had never heard Nancarrow’s music played live by human pianists, and with good reason. Known for writing incredibly difficult music meant for player pianos, in this rambunctious piece he afflicts human hands with almost-impossible rhythmic changes and odd meters requiring extreme precision and jet-focused energy. Though these passages are broken by slower, bluesy passages, they quickly explode back into kaleidoscopic splinters. I was literally shaking my head in wonder by the end of the performance.
The sisters took some of the rhythms of Poulenc’s “Sonata for Four Hands” with a buttery looseness that helped emphasize the piece’s playfulness. Then they switched to two pianos and again displayed remarkable synchronization through the polyrhythms and grandiosity of William Bolcom’s “Recuerdos.”
Debussy’s “En Blanc et Noir” was another showpiece with its darkness, lightning strikes, celestial harmonies, and the forceful, dissonant phantasmagoria of the remarkable second movement, which the composer dedicated to a friend who had died in World War I.
Finally, they brightly conveyed the good-natured spirit of Bernstein’s arrangement of his mentor and idol Aaron Copland’s Mexican-themed “El Salon,” navigating the rhythmic surprises with lighthearted pizzazz. Returning for an encore, they gave a strong yet sensitive reading of the classic “Simple Gifts” from Copland’s Appalachian Spring.
Given the technical brilliance and ironclad power these pieces call for, it’s not surprising that youthful flash dominated some elements of the program. But a mature emotionality also emerged, especially in the French pieces. These sisters are more than excellent musicians. Together they are a phenomenon – performing the whole program by heart, locking together with an almost unearthly connection, making the monstrously difficult look easy, and generously taking the audience on a journey through their own musical universe.