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A Tale of Two Keyboards

Music professor Joanne Kong becomes a dual master of Michael Colgrass' “Side by Side.”



The harpsichord and piano command two very different musical worlds. The elegant archaic precision of the former is associated with, and largely confined to, the earlier strata of classical music, while the expansive sound of the piano spans virtually all of western music from Beethoven to rock 'n' roll.

First-rank players usually specialize in either one or the other. That University of Richmond's Joanne Kong is a master of both is the inspiration for Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Michael Colgrass' “Side by Side,” a composition that will make its Richmond premier at the Modlin Center's Camp Concert Hall on Oct. 22.

The project started with a photograph. “I saw Joanne's recording of [Bach's] ‘Goldberg Variations' where she was sitting in the V of two keyboards — a piano and a harpsichord,” Colgrass writes by e-mail, “and got the idea of writing for … these two keyboards in one piece of music; a kind of double concerto for one player.”

Colgrass is a musically omnivorous composer who balances bracing innovation with a yearning to connect with both the players and the audience. Born in 1932, he started his professional career as a jazz percussionist in New York City, playing in settings as diverse as Dizzy Gillespie's band, the New York Philharmonic and the original Broadway staging of “West Side Story.”

“Percussion often has a prominent place in Michael's work,” Kong says in her university office. “One of his greatest strengths as a composer is how he explores sonority, not just the sonority between the two keyboards but what he does with the orchestration.” “Side by Side” incorporates a variety of melodically struck objects: marimba, vibraphone, woodblock, cowbells and even tuned aluminum kitchen bowls. 

A similar approach informs the central challenge of establishing parity between the two very different keyboards. The piano is “prepared,” its tone and timbre altered by the insertion of rubber mutes at the bass end, bobby pins at the top, and bolts, some with nuts and washers, in the midrange. The tactic was famously used by avant-garde composer John Cage, who said that the technique transformed the instrument into a percussion orchestra. “By doing this the piano almost assumes a clownish personality, it's very humorous,” Kong says. “But it also makes the sound more compatible between the two instruments.”

The 25-minute work also includes some brief improvised sections, in which musicians have the freedom to play whatever moves them, or at least render the written score in their own rhythm. The program also will feature “Traces” a composition by UR graduate Heather Stebbins and a piece by Stravinsky chosen by Steven Smith, who will lead the Richmond Symphony in the performance.

It will be a sort of homecoming for the piece, which has been performed by the composition's joint commissioners, the Boston Modern Orchestra and Toronto's Esprit Orchestra. (The funding also was supported by a number of local contributors.)

Colgrass, who will give a free talk and sign his new book, “Adventures of an American Composer,” at CenterStage on Oct. 20, promises a unique experience. “See Joanne perform the feat of playing two keyboards and the same time,” he writes. “[And] meet the composer and ask him anything you'd like to know about the musical creative process or living a creative life.”

The performance and the talk are both free, but like most good things some forethought is necessary. Tickets are limited and required. S 

Joanne Kong will perform “Side By Side” with the Richmond Symphony on Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the University of Richmond's Modlin Center. For information visit Composer Michael Colgrass will speak at Richmond CenterStage on Oct. 20 at noon. Information at Both events are free.


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