Piano duo Anderson & Roe provides transformative experience through chamber music at Herbst Theatre

Anderson & Roe/Courtesy

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Sporting nothing but two sleek, black pianos and mahogany-colored drapes, the classic, minimalistic stage made the Anderson & Roe piano duo its focal point. The two sat opposite two grand pianos set amid the vivid, intricate paintings and glistening chandeliers of the Herbst Theater.

The extraordinary, youthful duo — composed of Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe — strove to reinvigorate and nurture the majority of society’s latent passion for classical music on June 5. Through this captivating performance in San Francisco, the pair made the allure for its craft abundantly clear.

Behind the duo’s charm is its ability to fill its music with vivacity and innovation without ever straying too far from the original compositions. The added flourishes were strikingly evident, however, giving each piece a dash of customized flavor. Yet, though altered, the music remained familiar.

The musical repertoire of the night might have initially appeared disjointed. Members of the audience likely scratched their heads over some of the selections in the program — the tragic “ballet from Orphée et Eurydice” was presented in between the more lively and seductive pieces from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” and those of Astor Piazzolla. The melancholy undertones of the former greatly contrasted with the exhilaration present in the latter two.

However, these divergences in stylistic mood were a small side effect of the duo’s appreciated attempt to incorporate other forms of art, such as theater, dance and poetry, into its musical repertoire. For instance, at the peak of a crescendo in Mozart’s “Grand Scherzo,” the two pianists stopped to cover their mouths and stare at each other in surprise. Near the end of “Carmen,” the two exchanged sultry looks, inducing light snickers from the audience. These theatrical gags not only animated the classical pieces, but showed Anderson & Roe weren’t afraid to have a laugh, even though classical may be considered solely a “serious” musical genre.

The duo’s meticulous selection of pieces further illustrated its concern regarding the stigma of elitism surrounding classical music. In order to establish a more inclusive atmosphere, the pianists integrated nontraditional pieces to keep everyone in the audience — not just classical music fanatics — engaged.

The three encores of this variety were just as impressive and entertaining as the main lineup. The duo performed its own creative renditions of songs including “Let It Be” by the Beatles, “America” from the musical “West Side Story” and “What a Wonderful World,” popularized by Louis Armstrong. During “America,” the duo even briefly got up to clap and dance — this technique doubled as a clever method to switch seats.

The pair took the time to explain background information about each piece without pretension, conveying an understanding that not everyone in the audience likely came from a background of classical music. The two artists accommodated those with only a passing interest in classical music, actively nurturing any budding excitement by inserting humor in their explanations. They refused to be the unapproachable and stoic classical musicians for which the genre is famed. As a result, the concert’s atmosphere remained warm and inviting throughout.

The artists’ individual presentations differed stylistically and dramatically, making their act as a synchronized group all the more intriguing. Anderson’s method of performance was effortless, with everything from his posture to facial expressions making the audience feel at ease, encouraging them to fully immerse themselves in the music. The sound he delivered was marvelously fluid and yet meticulously controlled.

On the other hand, Roe’s presentation was undeniably dynamic, her movements exhibiting a sense of passion with every flourish. Occasionally, she would lift off from the seat of her bench, leveraging herself to deliver powerful thrusts of sound. As musical partners, they impressively balanced and accommodated each other’s performance styles, embracing the other’s quirks in a polished yet inviting routine.

Each facet of preparation for this concert, from visual aesthetics to the clear reverberation of sound, was acutely polished. Anderson & Roe — through its exceptional friendliness and consideration of its diverse audience — aims to make classical music a relevant force in the contemporary world. And for that night and that audience, at least, it succeeded.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].