Reviewed by Lee Shepherd
The concert was erroneously named “Dueling Pianos.” The exact opposite was the case. Pianists Michael Lewis and Cheryl Humes executed an intricate, intimate and ecstatic dance of long-time romantic partners who are perfectly in tune with each other’s emotions and moods. There was no competition involved, just perfect teamwork.
Lewis, Tri-Cities Opera Assistant Music Director, and Humes, his long-time musical cohort, gave two different programs titled “Dueling Pianos – Two Grands, Four Hands” on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon last weekend (May 17 and 18) at the Opera Center in Binghamton. That was a feat in itself to give two such extensive concerts in two days. They alternated between playing duets on one piano and performing two-piano works for which each had his or her own keyboard. In the cabaret-style setting, we in the audience were close enough to be sharing their piano benches. The acoustics are so fine in that hall that we might have been inside the pianos!
A short explanation of my credentials to review this concert: I was part of a two-piano team for most of my music conservatory training and gave many recitals and concerts in tandem. I found my perfect piano mate, both technically and emotionally. So, too, have Lewis and Humes found their perfect match. They’ve played together off and on since 2009, when Lewis was a high school student and Humes, now a DC-area attorney, was a church organist in Lewis’ hometown.
Communicating with smiles and grins throughout the concert, the two pianists’ joy in making music together spread to everyone lucky enough to hear them. The chemistry between them was evident to all.
Let me tell you: Performing duets and two-piano music isn’t easy. A good team has to subdue individual egos for the greater good. The artists must merge and blend styles and temperaments. They must play some of the most difficult music in the piano repertoire. And to top it off, they must negotiate sharing piano benches, pedals and one keyboard – often crossing arms and hands to play notes in the lower, upper and middle octaves. With the relative freedom of two pianos, they must synchronize their interpretations of the pieces – sometimes sounding like one instrument, sometimes like a whole orchestra.
Lewis and Humes accomplished all that and much, much more – playing works by Bach, Ravel, Brahms, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff, Faure, Dvorak, Milhaud, Mozart, Debussy, Barber and Schubert with great verve, virtuosity, sensitivity, energy and wit.
The pianos themselves also took star billing. They played on the Bechstein Concert Grand Piano –- a 9-foot, shiny black and ornate behemoth of an instrument that lives in the TCO Center through the generosity of the Frances M. Jennings estate — and a beautiful Baldwin concert grand that held its own in tone quality and volume, despite the size difference.
At Sunday’s performance, Lewis and Humes shared “the heavy lifting,” alternating first and second piano parts, switching from duets to two-piano pieces and back again. They flawlessly performed the sweet and sensitive fairy tales in Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose suite) and the tender and touching children’s tunes in Faure’s Dolly Suite, the ferocious and technically demanding Tarantella by Rachmaninoff and the cathedral-worthy grandeur and majesty of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. The catchy folk-like dances in Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and the wild tango rhythms of Milhaud’s Brazileira had both pianists bouncing on their piano benches while we, in the audience, could barely sit still.
After a standing ovation and shouts of “encore!” they offered one more treat – Lewis’s arrangement and tribute to TCO’s “65 and So Alive” season. It was a clever medley of a dozen best-loved opera tunes punctuated with comic shtick – like swapping positions on the piano bench mid-tune – and exaggerated reaching over each other to play the topmost and bottom-most keys on the keyboard.
NEXT ON THE TCO SCHEDULE: “Broadway Night,” featuring TCO stars and guest artists, with Michael Lewis on the piano. The cabaret-style event takes place from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday (May 22) at the Opera Center, 315 Clinton St., Binghamton. Tickets: Call 772-0400 or visit tricitiesopera.com. The cost for entertainment, open martini bar and food is $45.