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Two pianos, four hands

IN CONCERT What: VCM Presents: "Dualling" Pianos in Concert, with Robert Holliston and Jamie Syer When/where: Saturday, 7: 30 p.m., Alix Goolden Hall Tickets: Adults $25, seniors and students $15, VCM students, faculty, and staff free.
Michelle Mares


What: VCM Presents: "Dualling" Pianos in Concert, with Robert Holliston and Jamie Syer

When/where: Saturday, 7: 30 p.m., Alix Goolden Hall

Tickets: Adults $25, seniors and students $15, VCM students, faculty, and staff free. Call 250-386-5311; in person at the Victoria Conservatory of Music front desk (900 Johnson St.)

What: Victoria Symphony (Classics Series): Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2, conducted by Tania Miller, with Michelle Mares, piano

When/where: Sunday, 2: 30 p.m., Farquhar Auditorium (University Centre, University of Victoria)

Tickets: $33 to $53. Call 250-721-8480; online at; in person at the UVic ticket centre

There have been piano duets for about as long as there have been pianos - since the mid-18th century - and they have always come in two varieties: those in which four hands play on one keyboard and those in which two pianists sit at separate instruments.

The four-hand duet has the larger repertoire, including masterpieces like Schubert's Grand Duo, but it has prestige issues, too: Historically, it has always been associated with domestic

music-making - think middleclass sisters at the parlour piano - and with workhorse transcriptions of orchestral and operatic music; also, the sight of two performers butt-to-butt on one bench cannot exactly be called glamorous.

The two-piano duet, on the other hand, offers the more dramatic spectacle of two soloists each in command of a complete keyboard and able to give full rein to their virtuosity. And this medium, too, boasts an impressive repertoire: sonatas by Mozart and Clementi; variations sets by Schumann and SaintSaëns and Reger; suites by Rachmaninoff; works by Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Messiaen, Britten, Cage, Lutoslawski, and many other modern composers; oddities like Grieg's two-piano expansions of solo sonatas by Mozart and Ives's pieces for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart; and countless arrangements.

On Saturday evening, two well-known local performers, Robert Holliston and Jamie Syer, who are colleagues in the Victoria Conservatory of Music's keyboard department - Syer is also the VCM's dean - will partner for the first time as what they are calling "dualling" pianists, to present three monuments of the two-piano repertoire.

The concert will open with Debussy's En blanc et noir, a three-movement work from 1915 that, Syer says, is full of "shadows" of the First World War, while the centrepiece of the program will be the grandest and best-known of Brahms's various piano duets, Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn (1873), which was a two-piano piece before Brahms dressed it up in orchestral garb.

The second half will be given over to a revered work of 20thcentury chamber music, Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937), featuring percussionists Masako Hockey and Jonathan Eng (who is also on the VCM's faculty). This 25-minute, three-movement work is not only a technically challenging masterpiece but, as Syer notes, a "barnburner" that makes a big impression in concert.


Another pianist on the VCM's faculty, Michelle Mares, also appears in concert this weekend as a soloist with the Victoria Symphony. She will perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major on Sunday afternoon, in a Classics Series program that includes the suite from Stravinsky's neoclassical ballet Pulcinella and Haydn's Symphony No. 91 in E-flat Major. (The orchestra has lately programmed at least one major work by Haydn each year, and gets no complaint here.)

Mares, a former child prodigy who was born in Vancouver, last performed with the Victoria Symphony in 1996, when she was in her mid-20s, and was based in Europe for two decades before settling here in 2008. Since then, in addition to teaching at both the VCM and the university, she has performed publicly in a varied repertoire (last year including Bach's Goldberg Variations, chamber music by Mozart, and Chopin's Op. 10 études); in November, she joined soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian in concert in Sidney, and in December, on Gabriola Island, she performed with English cellist Adrian Brendel, an old friend whose famous father, pianist Alfred Brendel, had mentored Mares when she lived in London.

A teenage effort aside, the B-flat-major was Beethoven's first piano concerto (though the second to be published - hence "No. 2"), and it is often underrated.

True, it is Beethoven's most delicately scored, most Mozartian concerto, not one of his heroic utterances, yet the music is vital and assured, full of delicious details.

"I love this concerto," says Mares, who will be performing it for the first time. She draws particular attention to the poignant slow movement and witty finale. The concerto is "absolutely gorgeous," she adds, but also "a lot of fun," despite a solo part that she describes as tricky.

Mares is not scheduled to perform again until this summer, when she will appear in the VCM's Summer Series and in the Victoria Summer Music Festival (joining the Alcan Quartet in Franck's Piano Quintet). But now that she has fully recovered from a broken wrist she suffered late in 2009, she is considering offers that would make her concert schedule considerably busier.

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