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The News-GazetteUI Piano Institute has opening with virtuosity of twins
The News-Gazette, Champaign/Urbana, IL
June 13, 2007
by John Frayne

Ian Hobson and his fellow pianists have decided to do something about that peculiar silence of classical music in our towns from Graduation Day to about Labor Day. Hobson's solution was a Summer Piano Institute which offered its opening concert Monday night with the famous piano duo of Richard and John Contiguglia.

On Tuesday night, William Heiles, head of the University of Illinois Piano Division, performed Johann Sebastian Bach on the harpsichord and Gyorgy Ligeti on the piano.

Tonight, guest artist Jeanne Stark-Iochman is scheduled to perform the complete Book I of Claude Debussy's Preludes and music of Franz Schubert and Frederic Chopin.

On Thursday night, Hobson, the organizer of this pianistic feast, will take to the keyboard with a program of music by Maurice Ravel and Chopin.

The major purpose of this institute is the teaching of pianists, and on Friday night, at a free concert, all the student participants at the institute will play at a closing gala concert. Admission will be free.

The piano duo of the identical Contiguglia twins is one of the most famous exemplars of this branch of the piano field. They have shown their superb discipline and fine musicianship here in years past as guest artists with Hobson's Sinfonia da Camera. On Monday night, they aroused to a high level of enthusiasm the members of a moderate-sized audience in Smith Music Hall.

The Contiguglias, beginning with Franz Liszt's own two-piano version of his tone poem "Orpheus," managed in fine form the opening glissandos and the surging emotional climaxes of this piece. Their playing demonstrated to me forcefully how close Liszt's music is to Richard Wagner. We might almost have been listening to the Prelude to "Tristan." Liszt's idealized evocation of the power of music was followed by Debussy's Suite "En Blanc et Noir" ("In Black and White"). Richard Contiguglia explained how this suite was Debussy's gesture toward the war effort in 1915 during World War I.

The piano duo brought out Debussy's characteristic wit and coloristic sparkle, but in the second movement, the composer slyly counterpointed Martin Luther's chorale "Ein Feste Burg" with some French-sounding liturgical sequences. And the Germans lost that skirmish. Even subtle flag-waving seems an odd function for Debussy, but he did usually sign after his name "musicien francais" (meaning French musician). Stronger meat was offered in Schubert's "Variations on an Original Theme in A-Flat major." This was the only piece of the evening played by the Contiguglias four-handed, on the same keyboard, with Hobson, no less, turning the pages. The duo played forcefully the livelier variations, but my favorite sections were the songful fifth and seventh variations, played with subtle inner feeling.

After intermission came only one work, but what a work! It was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Sonata in D Major, KV 448. This work acquired a peculiar reputation a few years ago when it was claimed that listening to this sonata enabled schoolchildren to perform better on math tests. I did not try to balance my checkbook right after the concert. My reaction was emotional; what a wonderful piece! The Contiguglia brothers built fine climaxes in the outer movements, and the gem of the piece, the "andante" movement, was played with splendid singing tone.

After the outburst of applause which followed the Mozart sonata, the duo played as encore Anton Arensky's famous waltz movement from his "Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos."

This sparkling piece by this friend of Peter Tchaikovsky brought back fond memories. Years ago, the pianist Abram Chasins used it as a theme song for his program "Piano Personalities" on radio station WQXR in New York City. I believe Chasins played it with his piano duo partner Constance Keene.

Memories aside, Smith Music Hall should be an oasis for the musically desiccated this week.

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