Thursday July 4, 2013

NORTH BENNINGTON -- This weekend marks the beginning of the historic Park McCullough House Carriage Barn "Summer Sundays at Four" concert series. This season opens with husband and wife pianists, Allen Shawn and Yoshiko Sato.

The concert is made up of a mixture of classical music and original pieces by Shawn, a New York City native, who teaches at Bennington College with Sato. Sato, a virtuosa who began playing piano at the age of 4 in her home city of Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, Japan, has lived in North Bennington since 1999.

"I’m a composer more than a pianist," Shawn said. "I play when I can, I studied piano as a teenager, but I was always more of a composer. I took piano lessons because I wanted to write music."

The concert is split into three parts, Sato’s solos, Shawn’s solos, and a series of songs played "four hands" where the musicians play together on the same piano.

"It’s one super piano instead of two pianos in dialogue," Shawn said. "There are many things you can’t do four hands."

Two musicians on a single instrument creates a unique experience, unlike what an audience would see and hear otherwise. And it comes with its own challenges.

"There’s upper and lower range, (they’re) called primo and secondo," Shawn said. "As opposed to two pianos which is in many ways much easier because each person is playing as they normally do. When you’re playing four hands it’s a little bit like dancing with someone -- you have to be coordinated in a special way. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s a lot of fun to write for. But it’s tricky to play, you’re seated at an odd angle and you’reŠ"

"Bumping each other," Sato added.

"And you have to match sound. It really must sound like one player," Shawn finished.

While both Shawn and Sato play piano, they have very different styles, and according to Shawn different skill levels when it comes to actually playing the instrument.

"Yoshiko has a very incredible sound and I try to emulate it when we play four hands," Shawn said. "You can see she’s playing this virtuoso pieces and I think there’s a difference between a composer who plays the piano and a pianist who is ‘pianimal:’ someone who really lives and breathes piano playing as a professional."

Sato and Shawn worked tirelessly on choosing the pieces which they will perform. The process was deliberate and required a lot of trimming and compromise.

"I think in this kind of program there’s something intriguing about seeing the two people play separately and they how they sound as a team Š We actually play remarkably differently and yet when we play together I always feel something very magical happens Š We have to work out how to negotiate each piece," Shawn said. "It took us a while to settle on this program, I guess in each case you start with all sorts of ideas Š but there’s a moment of realism that sets in."

"(One question we ask is) ‘is it right for this program or not?’ Even if we can and we want to, (it needs to) work as a program," Sato added.

"It’s a little like planning a meal," Shawn said. "I think there’s a balance. It’s a summer concert so that makes a difference. It’s a little light Š certainly the last four pieces have a certain lightness to them. But there’s some darkness too and some intellectual weight in the music. Just as you wouldn’t want all desserts, you’re not going to be satisfied by a concert that doesn’t challenge you to a certain extent."

The couple began playing together in 2002, just over four years later they were married. They now live on Bennington College campus with their 5-year-old son Noah. This is the fourth time the pair has performed at Park McCullough together, but individually the pianists have played the venue several times.

In addition to composing music, Shawn is a published author. He is currently finishing a book about Leonard Bernstein set to be published by Yale University Press. Both he and Sato will be back at Bennington College in the fall.

"It’s a series that really has something very special about it," Shawn said of the summer series at Park McCullough. "The setting is lovely, the acoustics are lovely, and the audience is very loyal. (But) we always worry that not enough people know about it.

The show takes place at the Carriage Barn at 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 7, on the Park McCullough house property in North Bennington. Upcoming shows in the series are The Bryant Park Quartet on July 14, Music From Salem on Aug. 4 and an undetermined guest on Aug. 25.

Tickets are $20 and are available at the door. Children ages 8 to 18 get in free. For more information, visit www.parkmccullough.com or call 802-442-5441.

Andrew Roiter can be reached at aroiter@benningtonbanner.com, follow him on Twitter @Banner_Arts.