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Piano Four Hands at Pausa

Amy Williams and Helena Bugallo

The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo makes its Pausa debut

Pianists Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams formed their piano duo in 1995 as graduate students at the University at Buffalo. They have been concertizing to critical acclaim in both Europe and the Americas ever since, even though their personal career paths have led them to dwell literally an ocean apart. Williams, who was raised in Buffalo, is an associate professor of composition/theory at the University of Pittsburgh, while Helena Bugallo, a native of Argentina, is based in Basel, Switzerland, where she is a member of the contemporary music group Ensemble Phoenix Basel.

In 2007, the duo gave an unforgettable performance of their arrangements of music previously considered unplayable by humans, composed for player-piano by American maverick Conlon Nancarrow, in the newly opened Babeville. Their last local appearance, a few years ago at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, featured the music of John Cage. The duo returns to Buffalo this Saturday at 8pm to make its debut at Pausa Art House, the city’s hippest new venue for classical music.

The biggest disappointment of the local music scene last year was the lack of a centenary performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of the most influential musical works of the last century. Luckily, Friday’s concert will include Stravinsky’s own piano version of his work.

Williams explains: “The Stravinsky is such a pleasure to play, partly because Stravinsky composed at the piano, so it really feels like piano music, as opposed to many other transcriptions. The revolutionary qualities of the music really come out in the piano version—without the colors of the orchestra, you can really hear the rhythmic intricacies and complex pitch relationships. Though Stravinsky says it can be played four-hands or two-pianos, we prefer four-hands. There is tighter coordination between the players, more sonic power can be built up and the choreographic elements make it fun to watch as well.”

The duo will offer the US premiere of Joseph Michaels’s Together in Perfect Harmony. “Joe studied with me when I taught at Northwestern,” says Williams, “and in February we premiered this piece in Stuttgart, where Joe now lives. It explores clusters, particularly black note clusters and white note clusters, and this relates as well to several of the Kurtág pieces that we will be playing. Joe says of his piece: ‘The initial spark which led to Together in Perfect Harmony came while daydreaming about the lyrics from the 1982 pop song single “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. The idea was born to have two chord types, one build from the black keys and the other from the white keys. While there is certainly some irony intended with the title, whose allusion to popular music brings to mind something entirely different than what is heard, when used in reference to music ‘perfect’ will always be a subjective word.’”

The György Kurtág pieces that will be performed are selections from his Jatekok (Games). “We have not met him,” says Williams, “but we did get permission from him to record his complete original works for piano duet and two pianos for a CD due to be released on the Wergo label this fall. We feel very privileged to have now played every piece of his for piano duo—they are extraordinary pieces. Intimate, personal, colorful, some quite experimental, others very romantic and lyrical. There is no other living composer so intimately and profoundly connected to the medium of the piano duo as Kurtág. His own performances with his wife, pianist Marta Kurtág, have led to the creation of nearly 100 pieces for piano, four-hands and two pianos. The composer began his series of Games in the late-1970s as a collection of didactic piano pieces very much in the spirit of Bartók’s Mikrokosmos.

“As the series progressed, Kurtág’s Games have become more personal, close to a musical diary, often reflecting his thoughts and recollections of the music of other composers. These pieces are juxtaposed with arrangements that Kurtág has made of early music, including J. S. Bach chorales,”which ties in with Williams’s own work on the program.

“I wrote Crossings as a commission for the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society,” says Williams, “to celebrate the 250th birthday of the city if Pittsburgh, using the 250th chorale by J. S. Bach, Ein’feste Burg ist unser Gott, as a bare framework onto which original harmonies are inserted and superimposed. The chorale appears numerous times at gradually accelerating speeds and in different registers, transpositions and voicings—though always well-hidden beneath the accumulating texture. The word ‘crossing’ has multiple meanings that are appropriate to the piece: the action of moving across or over something, in this case, the crossing of the two pianists’ arms, an intersection, a journey, a mixture or compromise of two things.”

Tickets are $10, $7 for students. Find more information at www.pausaarthouse.com.

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