In 2006, piano duo Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe had to step in for John Williams. Just over a month before Juilliard's Cinema Serenades concert, plans for Williams—the film composer behind many of the most recognizable scores in cinematic history—to compose an original piece for the performance fell apart.
"It was very ambitious of us," Anderson says. "We only had a couple weeks to write it all and learn it and perfect it. But…I think there's something exciting about having constraints."
Constraints are the creative lifeblood of Portland Piano International's Virtual Piano Extravaganza, a two-day Anderson and Roe concert that will feature live performances, music videos, Q&As, trivia and even cocktails (more on that later). It is the duo's attempt to instill fiery spontaneity into virtual performance—and Anderson believes it "will be among the most creative things we've ever done."
In the world of contemporary piano, Anderson and Roe are royalty. After meeting as freshmen at Juilliard in 2000, they forged a friendship and creative symbiosis that led to performances in North America, Europe and Asia, as well as ambitious music videos, including a film featuring Stravinsky's entire Rite of Spring. Anderson and Roe's partnership was ignited by a two-piano recital that they did together during their junior year at Juilliard.
"The sort of ironic thing is that neither of us was that interested in the piano-duo genre. We were there as soloists," Roe says. "But that concert was such a thrilling and exhilarating experience for us, and we realized we had this natural musical chemistry, but also this shared mission to make classical music a powerful and relevant force in society."
The Virtual Piano Extravaganza continues that mission—and forces Anderson and Roe to do battle with an army of COVID-related challenges. While they are currently on opposite sides of the U.S., they are determined to play together, technical difficulties be damned.
"There is a latency problem, performing across the country," Anderson says. "So there will be world premiere music videos that we filmed either before or during isolation—and we're going to make an attempt to perform simultaneously in live, call-and-response-style improvisatory performances."
Anderson and Roe have also decided to feature other musicians. Dozens of Portland pianists will join them for Austrian composer Gerd Kühr's "Corona Meditation," and the concert will include the yet-to-be-named winner of a "Maple Leaf Rag" contest. The duo called on young pianists to submit their performances of the iconic Scott Joplin piece, one of which will be folded into what Roe describes as "a three-piano music video."
While the concert promises plenty of musical ebullience—Anderson and Roe's website features cocktail recipes tailored to specific parts of the performance—it won't ignore COVID-19. With its dreamy flow of discordant sounds, "Corona Meditation," which was written last April, captures the alienlike quality of life during social distancing.
"I think we all have that need for some kind of comfort and maybe even nostalgia," Roe says. "And we're trying to kind of do those things in the [concert]—we're celebrating and we're joyful, but we're also offering, we hope, some beauty, and with 'Corona Meditation,' actual commentary on the time in which we're living."
The pandemic has impacted the duo's partnership in other ways. Anderson's husband is an ER doctor, so he and Roe are remaining physically apart for now.
"Aside from our husbands, our pianos have been our main quarantine companions," Roe says. "We always believe that music is significant and important, but especially now. We're so grateful to have a form of communication and expression."
If the Virtual Piano Extravaganza is a success, it will help close the gap between Anderson and Roe and their audience. After that, Roe thinks that she and Anderson should rest on their laurels for a while—literally.
"I think we're going to take a nice long nap after this," she says. "Like, a two-weeklong nap."
SEE IT: The Virtual Piano Extravaganza streams at 4 pm Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 15-16. Pre-show programs start at 3:30 pm. Viewers will receive a link via email to access both programs by purchasing tickets at portlandpiano.org. $45.