Twin duo pianists to perform ‘Rite of Spring’ at the Terrace

Naughton Sisters.
Duo-pianists, the Naughton Sisters. (Courtesy of their website)

WASHINGTON, November 11, 2014 – It’s an “Upstairs, Downstairs” week for Igor Stravinsky at the Kennedy Center. As we reported earlier this week, the NSO will be performing two concerts “Downstairs” in the Concert Hall Thursday and Saturday featuring Stravinsky’s pathbreaking “Rite of Spring,” plus a special “Beyond the Score”® educational concert Friday evening providing greater insights into this early modernist classic.

Meanwhile, “Upstairs” in the Terrace Theater, the sensational new sister act, young dual pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton, will be offering an intriguing Fortas Series recital program whose centerpiece will be the challenging but infrequently heard two-piano, four-hands version of “Rite.”

Only in their mid-twenties, the Naughtons are among the newest duo-pianists to hit the scene and are already creating quite a buzz. Among other reviews, the Philadelphia Inquirer described them as “paired to perfection.”

Hailing originally from New Jersey, the sisters actually grew up in Madison, Wisconsin where parents and teachers alike spotted their talent early and helped nurture it along the way.

Early on they studied stringed instruments a bit, but the piano, which their mother began to teach them around the age of 4, proved to be their first love.

Their training eventually included studies at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia where they received their undergraduate degrees, and where each sister also was awarded that institution’s prestigious Festorazzi Prize. They completed graduate degrees at Juilliard in 2013, and currently reside in New York when they’re not on the road.

“We still love to go back and visit the Wisconsin hinterlands,” said Michelle. But these days, we actually live wherever we are at the time.”

READ ALSO: NSO, KenCen to offer three ways to make a Rite of Spring.

The sisters first began performing as a duo nearly a decade ago when they were asked to play a four-hands piece for an upcoming concert in their hometown of Madison.

The whole thing seemed to click, and the Naughtons have been a two-piano act ever since, although they do still solo on occasion. But they have a preference for performing together. “It’s great to be on the road with your best friend,” said Michelle. “And we simply love performing together.”

Initial page of 4-hands "Rite of Spring." (Via Score available for purchase.)
Initial page of 4-hands “Rite of Spring.” (Via Score available for purchase.)

And that they’ve done, even though theirs is still a fresh, new act on the classical circuit. They’ve performed with the Milwaukee Symphony and others, and have performances scheduled with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Houston Symphony this season.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with the sisters in greater depth by phone—an interview that proved to be an unexpected challenge. In addition to being sisters, Christina and Michelle also happen to be identical twins. More or less.

When interviewed by InstantEncore and asked about this, Michelle volunteered “We’re actually not 100% sure. Probably identical, though…everyone says we look really alike (although honestly the two of us have never noticed it!)”

So it wasn’t always intuitively obvious just which twin we were talking to during our interview, an interesting and amusing dilemma this writer had never encountered before and one that led to some hilarity in the process. (Hopefully, we’ve gotten our attributions correct here.)

Light, bright and funny, the sisters are refreshingly candid and lacking in pretentions—an increasing and delightful trend among today’s rising young classical stars. But it’s particularly evident in this pair of charmingly open-minded, Midwesterners.

Younger performing artists like the Naughtons are also actively reaching out and connecting to classical music aficionados of all ages. Impressively, the sisters themselves are dedicated to introducing younger audiences to the joys and challenges of the classical repertoire.

It’s very clear that they’re also having fun.

“Our audiences have been very receptive,” said Christina. “I think we do attract some younger audience members into the hall, too. Maybe they see that we’re doing this because we love it. Older audiences realize this, too. Classical music speaks to all ages. We just don’t worry about the ‘death of classical music.’ We’re optimists,” she said.

Even early in their individual and collective careers, the sisters have already developed an extraordinarily varied duo-piano repertoire, including a wide variety of composers. But why would they take on the notoriously difficult two-piano version of “The Rite of Spring?”

Christina dove right in. “Honestly,” she said, “it’s obviously withstood the test of time, and it seemed like a good idea to perform it together around this two or three-year period when everyone is celebrating the centennial of the piece.”

From a soloist’s point of view, she noted, it is in many ways very different from the full orchestral version. The piano version is “black and white, like a black and white photo, while the orchestral version adds many other colors,” she said. But the piano’s black and white “is just as beautiful and even more, the rhythms and the structure are intensified.”

Michelle agreed. “I think the piano’s black and white approach exposes the bare bones of Stravinsky’s harmony and rhythm,” she said, in ways that are not always obvious in the orchestral version.

The origins of the two-piano, four-hands version of “Rite of Spring” are not entirely clear. We know that Stravinsky pounded out a solo piano reduction of his score early on for his Ballets Russes collaborators, reportedly shocking more than a few in his small audience with its intensity. For years, a well-known and amusing drawing, purportedly of that event, was circulated among musicians and musicologists. Recent writers have tended to refute that attribution.

Stravinsky at the piano.
Igor Stravinsky, purportedly shocking small audience with piano version of “Rite of Spring.” Drawing by Granger. Now thought to be simply Stravinsky playing another composition for an appreciative audience. Still a good story, though.

But it is well known that a four-hand arrangement as Stravinsky’s ballet evolved, abstracted out by the composer to preview the orchestral version. This arrangement eventually became the first published version of “Rite.”

It was around this time (1910-1911) that French master impressionist/modernist Claude Debussy had come to befriend the young Russian composer, becoming an outright supporter after attending a performance of Stravinsky’s “Petrushka.”

Debussy teamed up with Stravinsky to perform this four-hand reduction of the score in 1912. “When we’re playing ‘Rite of Spring,’ said Michelle, “one thing I like to think about is how Stravinsky and Debussy played this version on the piano for a critic. It must have been amazing. It is hard,” she noted.

One of the difficulties of the piece is that it treats the piano in what was then a non-traditional manner.

Debussy and Stravinsky.
Claude Debussy (L) with Igor Stravinsky. (Photo circa 1912, Paul Sacher Foundation, Basle)

While technically, the piano is both a stringed instrument and a percussion instrument (the strings are struck by hammers), it was regarded as mostly the former until “Rite of Spring” hit the musical scene.

And the piano reduction of this work was, and is, very percussive indeed, something, perhaps, that inspired later composers like Prokofiev and Bartók to write modernist concertos emphasizing that aspect of the instrument.

Christina noted that this was the way they chose to approach the duo-piano version of “Rite of Spring.” “We did have to regard the piano in an entirely different way, as a percussion instrument,” she said. “Although we try not to always think about it,” Michelle added.

“This turned out to be quite the workout for us and for the pianos,” said Christine But it’s worth it for a great piece like this one.”

In addition to performing the Stravinsky, the sisters will also present an eclectic but industrial strength program featuring Brahms’ “Variation on a Theme of Haydn,” for two pianos, Op. 56b; a version of Claude Debussy’s difficult “En blanc et noir,” a late work roughly contemporaneous with “Rite of Spring”; and the “Variations on a Theme of Paganini for Two Pianos” of modern Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994).

“Brahms is an old friend,” said Christina, “and the variations are a great contrasting work on the program and it’s a piece that we love. The Debussy is in direct correlation with the Stravinsky, and its 3rd movement is dedicated to Stravinsky.”

And the Lutosławski? “It’s a fun piece, actually written during World War II to play in a bar,” Michelle pointed out with some relish.

Although he’s not on this week’s Terrace program, the sisters also particularly admire—and feature—works by Felix Mendelssohn, whom they regard as one of classical music’s most underrated composers—an opinion we endorse. They love the compositions of J.S. Bach. And they try as often as they can to perform works by American composers as well.

After their appearance at the Kennedy Center this Thursday evening, what’s next for these young duo-pianists?

“We have a lot of things coming up,” said Christine, “a whole lot of 2-piano concerts, including a European premiere, two-piano works by Bartók and Carl Czerny, solo works and performances with orchestras, including the Royal Flemish Philharmonic.”

“We particularly love playing contemporary music,” said Michelle, “and we’ve been performing commissions here and there,” something both sisters would clearly like to encourage.

Given their openness, their appeal, and their outright positive outlook, we strongly suspect there’ll be no shortage of interesting new music for them to perform in the months and years ahead.

Below: Christina and Michelle Naughton perform a movement from Mozart’s “Sonata for Four Hands in C Major,” K. 521.

For more details on the NSO’s and the Fortas Series’ “Rite of Spring” concerts and to purchase tickets, visit the Kennedy Center’s website.

NSO ticket prices range from $10 and up, and can also be obtained by visiting the Kennedy Center Box Office, or by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

Tickets to the Fortas Series concert program featuring the Naughton sisters performing the duo-piano version of “Rite of Spring” concerts are $36 and are also available for purchase as listed above.

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