Since first collaborating in the early 2000s as Juilliard classmates, piano duo Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe have made a career out of performing and composing together, elevating four-hand keyboard music into an art form. While each is a virtuosic powerhouse pianist in his and her own right, what sets the pair apart is an ability to make emotional and spiritual connections with their audiences, not only through their merry music-making but also their intelligent and witty commentary in between playing.
Kicking off the Washington Performing Arts’s Hayes Piano Series on Saturday afternoon, Anderson and Roe performed a recital of works at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater that spanned centuries and were packaged into an operatic first half and a transcendental second half.
Facing each other at two Steinway grands, the duo tackled British composer Thomas Adès’s “Concert Paraphrase,” based on his chamber opera “Powder Her Face,” as well as their self-penned “Carmen Fantasy for Two Pianos,” based upon Bizet’s opera. In the former, the pianists created gossamer melodies, rippled chords and a sardonic tango. In the latter, the two displayed dizzying technique in a smoky “Habanera,” and filigree “Aragonaise.” The partners also played up the humor and drama of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” in a separate duet.
As dazzling as their pyrotechnics were in the operas, it was the duo’s haunting “Hallelujah Variations” on the theme by Leonard Cohen that stole the show. Brimming with defiance and triumph, grief and acceptance, the duet set the tender melody against an intricate backdrop of harmonics and countermelodies. In juxtaposition with John Adams’s “Hallelujah Junction,” where the pianists generated an interminable rhythmic soundscape, the Variations became an emotional refuge.
A jazzy take of “Let it Be,” inflected with the gospel flavor of John Lennon’s original, plus three encore duets, including a sassy rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s “America,” rounded out the concert.