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CHAMBER REVIEW

Nicki Bell and Leslie Gardner After Playing Ravel's "La Valse"

SIX PEDALS AND 176 KEYS

by Terry McNeill
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Concerts featuring two pianos have been on the upswing in Sonoma County, due mainly to the work of the Twenty Fingers Club, a group of well-trained amateurs devoted to conventional and arcane repertoire for 176 keys and six pedals. Club members don’t perform as often as they would like, as two-piano venues are rare.

The Sebastopol Center for the Arts solved the venue problem with a February Two-Piano Festival, bringing in a second instrument for five concerts and a gaggle of performers – 24 in all. Due to schedule conflicts, I was only able to attend the final event, an afternoon recital Feb. 24 by resident Sebastopol pianists Nicki Bell and Leslie Gardner. Twenty-five rapt listeners found the eclectic program of Piazzola, Brubeck and Ravel a change from the usual Mozart and Rachmaninoff two-piano works.

Astor Piazzola’s tangos are popular these days, and one hears the Libertango and Infinity everywhere as encores. The Bell-Gardner duo chose six less performed tangos, composed from 1968 to 1988. Beginning with the mysterious Michelangelo 70, the set unfolded with snippets of dreamy and languid themes, some works akin to bad film music and peppered with raucous repeated dissonances. I found the contrapuntal lines and sharp contrasts of the Fuga y misterio the most convincing, along with the lyrical and somber fifth work, Soledad. Some of this music is sectional and plodding, with the pianists making every effort to keep together with too many score pages to turn quickly. Nonetheless, instrumental balance was excellent.

Dave Brubeck’s “Points on Jazz” ballet suite followed. Rather than a transcription, this piece was originally written for two pianos, and its six movements form distinct character pieces in Brubeck’s inimitable style. The syncopated modes quickly became the benchmark of the work. The opening Prelude was light-hearted, the following Scherzo up-tempo and bluesy. Bell’s ardent pianism was apparent in the torch-song slow Blues, ending with a brassy piano line from Gardner and 11 (were there that many?) insistent mezzo forte chords. The pianists were equally effective in a clamorous fugue with husky chords unfolding over an ostinato bass. A Tin-Pan Alley Rag with deliciously interwoven pop tunes led to a final Chorale. Here the performers were sometimes not together, even though the tempos was slow. The contrary motion ending, played beautifully, lifted the theme quietly into the ethos and resounding applause from the crowd.

Ravel’s masterful La Valse concluded the concert, and it seemed a work in progress for the performers. It’s a virtuoso handful with swirling waltz rhythms and insinuating rhythmic patterns leading to a powerful close, depicting the demise of the classic Viennese waltz era. The playing was muddy, the phrases tentative rather than ringing, the orchestral ending lacking impact. All through the recital the lack of vocal line clarity, due in part to the less-than-professional instruments and the room acoustics, hindered the music’s transparency.

The Bell-Gardner duo played with ardor and focus, a fitting end to a festival of unfamiliar music and congenial performers.