Thursday, 13 February 2014


Jeffrey & Karen Hsiao Savage, 2 Pianos
Conservatory Orchestral Hall
Tuesday (11 February 2014)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 13 February 2014 with the title "Soaring to cloud nine on two pianos".

88 Squared is the name of the award-winning piano duo formed by husband and wife, Jeffrey Savage and Karen Hsiao who are based in Washington State University. Their debut recital here was unusual as it featured mostly 2-piano works from the 20th and 21st centuries, including several Singapore premieres.

Opening with Witold Lutoslawski’s Paganini Variations, based on the virtuoso Italian violinist’s famous Caprice No.24, was an astute move. The music was familiar, but the ear-catching dissonances, abrupt rhythmic shifts, syncopations and sly surprises gave the impression of a distorting mirror in a carnival fun house. More importantly, its ostinatos and prestidigitations, played with no little panache, set the tone for the rest of the concert.  

Rachmaninov’s First Suite Op.5 is less performed that the very popular Second Suite Op.17. It is also the more Slavic of the two, with movements inspired by Russian poets. The Barcarolle began simply and slowly but gradually blossomed into florid filigree. A Night For Love conjured images of a ballroom radiant in the glow of chandeliers from a Tolstoy novel.

Then the ostinatos began, with the four-note descending motif of Tears, a catharsis quite different from the finale’s joyous peal of carillons on a Russian Easter.  The duo opted for caution and safety rather than outright abandon, which lent greater clarity and fewer dropped notes than attempted at a higher velocity and octane level.

No inhibitions were countenanced in Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, the most famous of his four North American Ballads. Based on a socialist anthem decrying mill workers’ toils, its motoric rhythms took on a mechanistic and inhuman intensity. Single repeatedly drilled notes soon became tone clusters, hammered out by palms, fists and forearms on both keyboards. Out of this sprang an unlikely source of jazzy blues, a lone voice against the tide of modernism.

The fearless performance alone was worth the price of entry, but that would be ignoring Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Two Pianos (2011), receiving only its fourth performance by its dedicatees. Tonally based and highly engaging, its four movements explored diverse keyboard textures and idioms.

The scherzo-like 2nd movement delighted in grotesqueries, mirroring the earlier Lutoslawski work, while the 3rd movement’s parade of chords traversed from solemnity to serenity. The finale was a double fugue on a perpetual motion theme that seemed almost impossible to play. In these secure hands, impossibility became not just reality, but totally pleasing music.

As an encore, the two pianists converged onto a single piano for William Hirtz’s Wizard of Oz Fantasy. All the tunes were rehashed in this clever medley, including Harold Arlen’s immortal number, leading the appreciative audience Over The Rainbow and into cloud nine.       

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