Piano duo Anderson and Roe bring classical to the present

Lauren Nokes

Piano duo Anderson & Roe packed Harper Hall on Feb. 4 for an evening of brilliant and passionate music for two pianos and four hands. Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe are behind some of the most exciting work happening in the contemporary classical music world right now-including their wonderful music videos-transforming the often stultifyingly traditional and reserved medium of the modern classical music concert into an inventive, emotionally-charged auditory and visual experience.
While the concert opened with normal concert piano fare, “Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the pianists breathed new life into even this older composition. They bring a fresh, even earnest and idealistic, attitude to classical music that many other serious professional musicians seem to have lost in the pursuit of narrowly-defined success.
The vision of Anderson & Roe is anything but narrow. Their repertoire spans from pop and rock to tango and opera.  Their genius arrangements reimagine works with dazzling riffs, asides and layers that create a new experience of the music while staying true to the spirit of the original works.
The first piece that they played together on one piano was the first part of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Anderson aptly described their arrangement of the work as pitting the two pianists against each other, literally warring for space on the keyboard just as the ballet portrays a savage struggle of life and death. They played the primal rhythms with thundering intensity and their hands blurred across the keyboard.
Their remix of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” had the same kind of rhythmic intensity, but instead of evoking violent conflict, its sassy and fun driving beat proved a great crowd-pleaser, although the bass felt somewhat unhinged and not completely connected to the rest of the song at times. What impressed me more was their rendition of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android.” Their arrangement married an impressive complexity of interlocking rhythms and melodic lines with raw emotion, powerfully recreating the ferocious anger and aching sadness behind Radiohead’s music.
Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” had different but equally powerful emotional impact. The lyrical, melancholy, beautiful melody has never failed to move me, but Anderson & Roe played it with particularly tender expressiveness. The emotional intimacy of the music was mirrored in their playing as they weaved familiarly around and leaned into each other.
Their arrangement for Astor Piazzola’s “Libertango” evoked an intimacy of a different sort, sexier and more dangerous. The duo’s hands danced in and out of each other with risky virtuosity, flirting with disaster like daring tangoers. They even further evoked the spirit of tango by recreating some of the sounds of a tango band-singer, bandeón, percussion, and guitar-with extended piano technique.
They concluded the concert with a beautiful, fun, and impressive medley “fantasy” – of music from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” By the time they finished, the audience hadn’t had enough yet: their enthusiasm delivered two encores.
Anderson & Roe are truly a testament to the continuing power and relevance of classical music and live performance in a rapidly changing and digitalizing world. The room was literally packed to capacity: Standing audience members lined the space behind the last aisle. Anderson & Roe are consummate performers who undeniably know how to draw and captivate an audience. They use the concert space to build the emotional synergy between themselves and the audience, creating a triumphant and poignant experience that’s more than the sum of its parts.