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FEATURE | Piano Duo Celebrate 40 Years Of Musical Alchemy

By Robin Roger on November 14, 2016

James Anagnoson, left, and Leslie Kinton
James Anagnoson, left, and Leslie Kinton.

One day in 1974 two young piano soloists who had befriended each other at the Aspen Music Festival, took their places at facing Steinways in the Recital Hall at the Royal Conservatory on Bloor Street, and launched into their first attempt at the Allegro non troppo from the Sonata for Two Pianos in F Minor opus 34b by Johannes Brahms. Though they’d never rehearsed with each other before they found that they were remarkably in step, as if they had practiced it multiple times. So much so that the principal of the Conservatory, who had arrived, unnoticed, while they were playing, complimented them.

“How long have you two been playing together?” he asked. “Around 11 minutes” was Kinton’s reply.

21,102,400 minutes later, they are still performing.  As James Anagnoson and Leslie Kinton recounted at their 40th-anniversary celebration at Mazzoleni Hall last night, they discovered that they had a musical chemistry that is as essential to four hand piano playing as it is rare.  Between performances of pieces by Brahms, Gallant, Poulenc, Dvořák, Strauss, Gershwin and Bartók the two men took turns recounting how they took keyboard compatibility and turned it into a four-decade career. While the performances were virtuosic, it was the anecdotes about how each piece they chose became a turning point in their career that transformed the evening from a concert to a celebration.  What they openly acknowledged in these anecdotes was that while they supplied the talent, discipline, and commitment to their craft, they were also the recipients of life-altering mentorship, generosity, and support.

They made special mention of Anagnoson’s teacher at the Eastman School of Music, Eugene List, who not only told Anagnoson that he had to relocate to Toronto to facilitate practicing, but also had his agent arrange for them to give a concert at Wigmore Hall. For those of us at the concert who remember dozing off while listening to Ted O’Reilly’s nightly radio show for 37 years, it was pleasing to learn that he had been the first to record the duo on vinyl, on his label Scrimshaw.  And while they played on two venerable Steinway Concert Grand Pianos (one with its lid removed) that have been on the Mezzoleni stage since time immemorial, they were frank in their gratitude to Yamaha for supplying them with two high-caliber pianos wherever they wanted to play throughout North America.

“We became, ‘have pianos, will travel,’” said Anagnoson.  Yamaha’s support enabled the duo to take their act to small centres such as Meadow Lake Saskatchewan that would not have been able to host them for lack of two pianos of comparable quality.  An audience in Toronto, which is accustomed to venues with an inventory of instruments, might not appreciate what an important gesture this was.

It’s more than a turn of phrase to say that a piano duo needs to be attuned both at the keyboard and away from it, and in Anagnoson and Kinton’s case it’s clear that they have a firm friendship. There are a number of spousal duos, including the prominent mid-century duo Gold and Fizdale, who pre-dated same-sex marriage, but lived and performed together for close to 40 years (Arthur Gold was from Toronto). The French piano duo Katia and Marielle Labèque are baby boom sisters born two years apart.  And let’s not forget the charming duets played by Harpo and Chico Marx. These relationships away from the keyboard allow other kinds of synchrony, convergence, and emotional dynamics to form between the couple that contributes to the musical product. With Anagnoson and Kinton the friendship began with the music and developed from there.

“We both love to laugh, and that has taken us a long way,” Anagnoson told the audience.

Their repertoire is also associated with a lifetime of personal milestones. At Anagnoson’s wedding, they performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue for two pianos, which features a big flourish before the entrance of the signature theme.  Normally, Anagnoson’s part gives him an ascending decorative figure, and Kinton gets the bravura moment to come down in grand octaves.  But on that occasion Anagnoson said to Kinton:  “Leslie, it is my wedding — today can I go up and down?” and when they got to that part of the piece, he glanced at Kinton, who gestured to him to “take it away.”

Watching a piano duo synchronize and blend their playing is especially interesting.  While playing two piano compositions they sit ten feet away from each other and have to communicate with eye contact from opposite ends of the instrument.  In one movement alone, I counted at least 15 nods and glances between the two men.  When they sit side by side for a duet written for one piano, they have to become “one twenty-fingered pianist” as Kinton put it.  They only played one such piece last night, Antonin Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances, Op 72, No. 2 in E minor, but they have recorded all 16 of these dances.  Kinton was so impressed with this composition when they first learned it that he went on to do his Ph.D. on Dvořák.  According to Anagnoson, they love the one piano duet repertoire as much as the two piano works, but the second kind is much more comfortable to play, giving them each a lot more physical space.

It may be that because the pieces chosen were ones that represented leaps forward in their career, there was no music that expressed the dark side of human existence and no anecdotes about loss, setback, or painful struggle.  The Lawrence Welk-like rendition of “The Blue Danube Waltz” was frothy and charming, and the excerpt from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was deliciously stimulating, proving the duo’s ability to create a range of moods and musical feelings.  The Variations on Land of the Silver Birch, which they commissioned from Pierre Gallant, and is now regarded as a major contribution to two piano literature, really plucked the Canadian heartstrings.  But I would have liked to hear something of profound gravitas from them, especially at an event celebrating longevity. The unexpected encore of “The Dying Swan” by Saint-Saëns, with the extremely fine COC principal cellist Bryan Epperson was a lovely move in this direction, though it was difficult to redirect the euphoric surge of energy from the forceful bravura performance of Bartók’s Sonata for 2 pianos and Percussion, Sz. 110, for which Timpanist David Kent and Percussionist John Rudolph joined them.

I hope they will add a piece of this nature to their 50th-anniversary program, which is bound to occur because the duo has no plans to retire. “Performance is so satisfying,” Anagnoson asserts, “the only challenge is finding practice time.” Besides, after summiting such virtuosic Everests as the Beethoven “Grosse Fugue” duet for one piano and the Brahms Sonata in F for two pianos they are entitled to stay at the top for a while.

I’ll just have to wait the 5, 256,000 minutes until the next celebration.  It’s the only consolation I can think of for being ten years older than I am now.


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Robin Roger

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