The first time I saw piano duo Linda Ruan and Charissa Vandikas perform the Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D Minor by Frances Poulenc in the Glenn Gould Concerto competition in 2017, it felt to me as if they were having fun. It might have been the lively and percussive composition itself, but beyond that, the way they smiled at each other across the soundboards, nodded in apparent agreement at points in the music, and appeared to be having a musical dialogue, added charm to virtuosity. The judges apparently agreed, as they were one of the winners of the competition.
Five years later, after graduating from Glenn Gould and relocating to separate cities — Ruan to Juilliard in New York and Vandikas to l’Université de Montréal in Québec — to earn master’s degrees, that musical affinity and virtuosity has won them second place in the 70th ARD International Music Competition in Munich. Judging from the video of their ARD performance of the same concerto, they still manage to make it look like they are having fun. That’s no mean feat, given the extreme pressure of the competition itself, the added complication of preparing for the ARD while living in separate cities, and the risks of competing in person during COVID. The duo’s spark of playfulness and verve — expressed in the name they chose for themselves, La Fiammata, or the burst of flame — kept them going.
Preparing for the ARD International Music Competition
For 70 years The ARD International Music Competition, and its precursor, the Radio Frankfurt Young Soloists Competition, has been a springboard for many luminaries at the outset of their careers, including Christa Ludwig, Jessye Norman and Mitsuko Uchida. The competition categories rotate from year to year, making 2021 the first piano duo category since 2015, which intensified La Fiammata’s determination to compete, long distances and COVID restrictions notwithstanding.
“We began planning a year in advance,” Charissa explained when I caught up with the duo by Zoom after the competition. She spoke to me from Montreal, where she is doing a one-year Artist’s Diploma.
Linda joined from Vancouver, where she had been living during the pandemic. “We started to learn our parts separately as soon as they released the repertoire requirements. The first time we were able to meet in person was March of 2021 when I travelled to Vancouver so we could play for the online pre-screening process to get into the competition. We heard that we got in a month later. In June, I moved to Vancouver, and we had our noses to the grindstone and did nothing but practise for the whole summer.”
“We were used to doing that for the past two years because we’ve been in separate cities for our master’s. We’ve been sending lots of recordings back and forth, so we can practise with the other person’s recording instead of in person,” Ruan added.
Digital natives that they are, La Fiammata still found time in their jam-packed schedule to film themselves during their preparation process in order to create a Vlog of their experience.
This reveals the military precision with which they planned — setting memorization targets, using digital progress trackers, researching learning and memorization techniques, livestreaming performances on Twitch, finding practise pianos, contacting teachers to set up coaching sessions and arranging online and in person mini-concerts, including three small-scale performances of their second and semi-final rounds. They also made a point of managing their relationship with each other by building in time apart to allow them each to focus on their own learning and to prevent overexposure.
Competition in Munich
After playing the first round, which was digital, the duo learned that they had advanced to the second round, and would therefore be competing in person in Munich in September. After that, they put the finishing touches on their entire 2 1/2-hour program, which included the Bach Concerto for Two Keyboards, Strings, and Basso Continuo in C Major, BWV 1061a with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, the Rachmaninoff Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, Op. 17, and the Mozart Concerto No. 10 for Two Keyboards and Orchestra in E-flat Major, K. 365 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, in addition to the Poulenc concerto.
Vaccinations and testing made it possible for the musicians to live, eat and socialize together safely and comfortably. The duo greatly enjoyed living with the other competitors in nearby housing, from which they were shuttled to the competition site. “It was a lot of fun, with great camaraderie, mutual support, and it was really inspiring to hear all the different duos, each pair is so different in their dynamics, and how their personalities complement each other,” observed Ruan.
“In the piano duo world, you see a lot of siblings and couples who play together,” added Vandikas, “often because cohabiting facilitates the logistics. So, the musical and personal dynamics are interesting. Whether the duo are friends, siblings, or partners, they have to make it work.”
The two pianists acknowledge that their own musical personalities contrast in a highly expressive fashion, allowing Vandikas’ introspective and lyrical style to complement Ruan’s more outward and energetic playing. “We feed off each other,” says Ruan.
“We feel more comfortable with different kinds of music, and so we can push each other to other areas of playing,” Vandikas agrees. “We learn a lot from each other.”
A special duo
Their contrasting musical strengths struck James Anagnoson, Dean of the Glenn Gould School who was their coach from the start, during their time there as students. “It was immediately apparent to me, from the very first time I heard them, that these two had that magic extra something as a duo. They played naturally extremely well together, a must for any ensemble, but rather than being similar players, as is often the case, they are quite different, and bring different strengths to the duo. This is the x factor found in all great duos — as individuals they must be strong, but together they become more than twice as good.”
Ruan and Vandikas consider themselves fortunate to have been coached by James Anagnoson when they were at the Glenn Gould School. According to Ruan, the veteran duo player, who has been half of a renowned piano duo Anagnoson and Kinton for over 40 years, has, “[…]been playing duos for so long, and he could really help us bring out the best in our playing.” They consulted about their repertoire selection for the ARD, and had coaching sessions with him on Zoom and by phone.
“It was immediately apparent to me, from the very first time I heard them, that these two had that magic extra something as a duo.”
“What they did was extremely impressive,” Anagnoson comments. “They were playing against duos who had been together for years, most often playing rep that was well seasoned. By contrast, La Fiammata had a lot of rep that was new, which is always very difficult, including the Mozart concerto they performed with orchestra in the finals. I thought that if they had a jury who heard music the way they do, (crucial for any competitor in any competition), and if they kept their nerves together and brought their A-game (which they clearly did!), they could make the finals, which in and of itself would be a tremendous achievement. But, to make the finals and also be awarded second place was truly wonderful, and a reflection of just how unusual a duo they are.”
Now that the competition is over, and each pianist has returned to her home base — Vandikas to Montreal and Ruan to The Tianjin Juilliard School in China — they face even more complicated logistics in the future. But, there’s no question that after this major achievement, La Fiammata will find a way to continue to perform.
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