Talk to pianists Robin McCabe and Craig Sheppard for any length of time and you’ll learn some fascinating historical tidbits.
Like the fact that pianists used to play with their backs to the audience, until a Bohemian named Dussek (circa 1820) decided the audience needed to see his beautiful profile. The piano was turned sideways, thus throwing the sound out to the audience, and pianists have been showing off their profiles ever since.
Or the fact that some composers created four-hand music to get cozy with their students. When two pianists are playing the same piano, you see, it’s inevitable their fingers will touch.
McCabe, director of the School of Music, and Sheppard, professor of piano, will show off their profiles and nimbly avoid finger entanglement when they perform together next week, presenting works for duo pianos and piano four-hands. The concert is at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 25, in Meany Theater.
The concert — their first full program together — has been in the works for about a year. “It grew out of our mutual admiration for each other’s work,” McCabe said. “It’s a natural, when you have two strong minds, you think it would be fun to put those musical minds together.”
The two will open with Shostakovich’s Concertino in A minor, a work written in 1953 for the composer’s son. Then comes Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor, a work McCabe calls “one of the great pieces of four-hand music — a complete odyssey of moods, from the most contemplative to boisterous to reflective.” They close out the first half with a group of dances by Brahms and Dvorak.
In the second half, there will be more dances — the Andalusian Dances, written in the 1930s by a “minor composer” named Infante. “They’re very colorful,” McCabe said. “I might call them the poor man’s Ravel.”
In fact, in the second of the dances, Sheppard has what McCabe calls “two or three pages of filigree, which is very delicate and very rapid.”
“Also very difficult,” Sheppard added.
“So when I know that’s coming I look over to see if I can see the sweat on his brow.”
“She’s playing all this lovely melody and I’m (here he mimed vigorous movement).”
The concert ends with Percy Grainger’s Fantasy on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, a piece Sheppard became familiar with when he lived in England.
“I have a friend who is a BBC television producer and also a terrific amateur pianist,” Sheppard explained. “Every time I’d go to his house for a family party, it would be the Grainger that would come out, or parts thereof, so that’s how I got to know it.”
“It’s quite a delicious arrangement,” McCabe added. “All the themes of the opera, they just sort of roll out and melt into each other. It uses both pianos very well.”
“Percy Grainger was not one of those people who thought that less is more,” Sheppard said. “The more notes for him the better I think. He followed in the Lisztian tradition.”
McCabe and Sheppard both say they’ve enjoyed the experience of preparing for the joint concert. Their conversation about it goes like this:
“He’s very fun to play with because the chemistry’s there,” McCabe said. “At the very highest level, when you’re playing with someone, you hear what this person is doing, and you absorb that and think ‘wow, that’s beautiful voicing.’ And you want to comment on it.”
“It inspires you. You spark each other off,” Sheppard replied.
“That’s the ideal. It’s not, ‘OK, he said last week he was going to do that here.’ It’s listening to each other and saying ‘ooh, what can I do to enhance that, or be a foil to that.’ So it’s all semiconscious.”
“It’s wonderful because Robin is so flexible this way. So many times you get people who want to follow the prescription you did in rehearsals and the fact is that we’re different every day of the week and you have to be flexible in order to respond to the moment.”
“That’s very exciting to experience. There’s an incredible freedom in that.”
All that said, McCabe and Sheppard think the concert will be an uplifting experience for the audience.
As McCabe puts it, “There is something about two people making music together which is inevitably more festive than one. It’s social and implies a great deal of trust in each other.”
And Sheppard adds, “With the Infante pieces and Gershwin, if they don’t go out dancing, I don’t think we will have done our job.”
Tickets for the concert are $15 ($10 for students and seniors) and are available at the Arts Ticket Office, 206-543-4880.