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Area music lovers always look forward to the Adams Foundation Piano Recitals, given in the acoustical jewel box that is Whitley Auditorium at Elon University in fall and spring; now in the 11th season, the series is co-presented by the Burlington Times-News. The foundation is the creation of Stephen Adams, who was the roommate of Richard and John Contiguglia at Yale University. The identical twin brothers are internationally known duo-pianists who studied with Dame Myra Hess for four years. A major goal of the foundation is to support the vanishing piano solo recital and to bring great music and performers to underserved smaller communities. The brothers were instrumental in bringing the series to Elon and, every few years, they appear to perform unique programs, the most recent being a Schubertiad evening and an all-Liszt rarities concert.
Selections from Percy Grainger (1882-1961), both as composer and as skilled transcriber, made for a rich pre-intermission menu. Four folk song settings, three for two pianos and one for one piano-four hands, opened the recital. When the brothers were 12 years old, they played a group of two-piano pieces in the middle of a solo-piano recital by Grainger in their home town of Auburn, New York. The legendary pianist presented the brothers with two of his scores, "Molly on the Shore" and "Shepherd's Hey," which were played first on this recital. Grainger ingeniously combines two Irish reels, "Molly on the Shore" and "Temple Hill" in the first setting. The second setting abounds in Baroque counterpoints and harmonies. Grainger so heavily utilizes original and melodic material it overwhelms the original melody of the third setting, "Spoon River," an American fiddle tune. The one piano-four hands setting, "Lets Dance Gay," is based on a Faroe Island dance folk song in which 7- and 12-measure phrases are abruptly alternated. These wild, rather daunting dances can go on for eight hours at a stretch. To convey this sense in a brief setting, Grainger stops his score in mid-dance. The Contigulia brothers made fine use of Elon's superb pianos, conjuring a wide palette of tonal color while maintaining precise rhythms and close co-ordination between instruments.
According to the Contigulia Brothers' excellent, succinct program notes, Grainger was one of the first important musicians fully to appreciate the greatness of Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin (1898-1937). While the Australian-born Grainger focused his attention on the folk music of Scandinavia and the British Isles, Gershwin was heavily influenced by jazz and Gospel music of Black Americans. Barely a decade after the opera's truncated Broadway premiere, Grainger took some nine of the best solo songs and choral pieces and wove them into a twenty-five minute suite called Fantasy on George Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess'. After distilling the composer's short, whirling opening including Jazzbo Brown's piano blues, the nine major pieces receive extended treatment beginning with "My Man's Gone Now," followed by "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Clara, Don't You Be Down-hearted," "The Strawberry Call," "Summertime," "Oh, I Can't Sit Down," "Bess You Is My Woman Now," "Oh, I Got Plenty O'Nuttin," and "Oh, Lawd, I'm On My Way." The Contigulia Brothers captured the mood of each selection within the suite superbly, suggesting Gershwin's inventive orchestral colors and distinctive rhythms.
The Contiguglia Brothers ended the first half of the recital with a lovely performance of Grainger's signature piece "Country Gardens."
There is little on the surface to suggest folk songs in the Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion by Béla Bartók (1881-1945). Much more than either Gershwin or Grainger, Bartók systematically recorded folk music extensively throughout Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, and drew upon it to develop his own style. The score calls for two percussionists to play three timpani, two side drums, one with and one without snares, a suspended cymbal, a pair of cymbals, a bass drum, a triangle, and a tam-tam (gong). It is in three movements. The first and longest movement has an enormous dynamic range and (according to program notes by the artists) is layered with "numerous contrapuntal devices, canons, inversions, ostinati, and even a fugue." The rhythmic relationships between the pianists and the percussionists are very complex. The gorgeous second movement mixes Impressionism with Bartók's characteristic "Night Music" using "shimmering chromatic effects, glissandi on black keys in thirds, simultaneous scales on black and white keys, and chromatic phrases between the pianos and xylophone" conjuring the natural world. The third movement, a rondo, is melodic and whimsical. There is a deliberate section of "out-of place" accents meant to evoke a drunken pianist!
Richard Contigulia described the Sonata as a one-of-a-kind masterpiece during brief remarks before the performance. The brothers were joined by the very able percussionists John Beck from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and Greensboro Symphony principal percussionist Wiley A. Sykes III. From a front row balcony seat, the Sonata was a feast for the eyes and ears and a constantly evolving puzzle for the mind! Balance between the pianists and percussionists was excellent and the co-ordination was very precise. The execution of the complex contrapuntal layering of the first movement was breathtaking. The eerie night music of the second movement was perfectly spun out. The high jinks of the finale brought the unusually large audience to its feet in prolonged applause for a wonderful performance of a too seldom heard masterpiece. May the Contigulia Brothers return to Elon soon with, maybe, another memorable Schubertaid or an evening of Mozart?