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The phenomenon of electricityKatia and Marielle Labèque
The “Great Soloists” (“Große Solisten”) concert series at the Musikverein is of course a showcase not only for male but for female stars, a group to which Katia and Marielle Labeque quite naturally belong. On 23 February, the Labeque sisters perform Mozart, Schubert, Ravel and Gershwin in the Goldener Saal. Two days earlier, they also appear at the Gläserner Saal with a programme for children. Audiences both young and old can therefore look forward to a programme with two sisters, four exceptionally gifted pianists’ hands and a wealth of creative ideas!
Two sisters are one less than the three in Chekhov’s renowned drama. Katia and Marielle Labeque are also quite different in personality to Chekhov’s Olga, Irina and Mascha. Where the characters in “Three Sisters” present a picture of studied boredom, in which the wider world is rejected and deliberately kept at a distance (albeit one in which a suppressed and great longing for fulfilment is also present), the opposite is true of the extraordinary Labeque sisters. Since their first concert appearance on the world’s stages, they have lost not one iota of their energy and aesthetic commitment. However, in one aspect, echoes of Chekhov’s dramatic characterisation can be detected. The sisters exhibit quite different temperaments, at least on stage, with Katia providing the spirited, if one may say so, the dramatic talent, and Marielle in contrast being the personification of restraint and empathy - one might characterise hers perhaps as the lyrical talent.
This may be the secret of their success (a success which of course is built upon their individual achievements as renowned pianists in their own right). Their popularity stems from a dialectical relationship of the classical and most felicitous kind, one for which a physical metaphor, the phenomenon of electricity, may be used to describe a musical interpretation that is charged with excitement and esprit. To put it more simply, Katja and Marielle Labeque complement one another in the most delightful way, because as duo performers they are capable of employing their interpretative (and human) skills to bring a necessary ambivalence that is latent in all art to life. In granting Mozart, last year’s anniversary regent, one last celebratory reference, we might note that his music is never entirely serene, eloquent and charming but also always contains a darker, almost demonic aspect, which is by no means limited to his works in minor keys. Beethoven, meanwhile, is never solely the furiously determined humanist, idealist and seeker of Elysium but also from time to time the gentle, the melancholy, even the dreamer and hedonist. To complete the triadic constellation of musical geniuses that take us to the beginning of the Romantic period, Schubert is always two souls in one breast, the apollonic and dionysic, serene yet filled with a deathly sorrow, laughter and weeping combined.
Strong foundations that allow ideas to take flight
For more than 20 years, the Labeque sisters Katia and Marielle have been supreme exponents of uniting antinomies – the demonic and the charming, the joyful and the troubled – on two pianos. Over time, they have swapped and realigned their character roles within the duo, a development that is as natural for most observers as the changes in their relationship with music, indeed with the music industry itself. A key development took place in 2004, when the sisters founded the institution behind the Anima Mundi Festival in Pisa. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of attending this festival, a visit to the Fondazione Katia & Marielle Labeque’s website www.fondazionekml.de gives an immediate overview of the institution’s goals. Two paramount aims stand out: firstly, the foundation is dedicated to research, development and support of literature for piano duo; the second aim builds on the first and involves opening the doors to classical music for young musicians as widely as possible by bringing together artists from all creative disciplines, whether musicians, film-makers, video artists or writers.
A multimedia approach
The foundation’s philosophy is not only a worthy one but also one that suits the times – especially since we know that music education in schools is in decline and that if we wish to retain education standards, other, independent means are absolutely necessary to improve, indeed to make possible at all, the aesthetic education of today’s children and young people.
The model developed by the Labeques is based upon an idea that takes this approach further, by inspiring the interest of children worldwide not only in classical music but also with a sense of the connections between different artforms, and a crossover approach is deliberately nurtured. One example of this is a project in which Katia Labeque played a key role. “Across the Universe” encompassed a re-interpretation of a number of Beatles songs as a form of musical installation using auditory and visual performance. This multimedia performance presented re-worked Beatles songs in collaboration with video artists and arranged by Nicola Tescari, Giovanni Sollina and David Chalmin. Although the original piece remained untouched, the performances produced a kaleidoscopic rearrangement of the parts, presented in other, expanded contexts, thus creating a new and utterly individual, whole. All in all, it is an exciting concept, which the foundation justifiably hopes will succeed in attracting youthful audiences.
Young Persons Unlimited
Just how important such communication can be has been demonstrated by various similarly-structured projects which the foundation has organised in the past. One theory in particular that is central to the efforts of the Labeque Foundation has been confirmed in practice: children and young people whose social backgrounds have previously excluded any exposure to classical music can also be won over by such music. This was evident during the collaboration between the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Labeques as part of their youth programme Zukunft@Phil, and the same impact is anticipated at the Musikverein, where the Labeque sisters are performing in two consecutive concerts for children as part of the “Young.Persons” concert series. In Berlin, the Labeques managed effortlessly to engage young people who had never even heard of Stravinsky before with the sounds of “The Rite of Spring”.
It is no wonder, then, that the Labeques worked again with the Berlin Philharmonic in a Zukunft@Phil concert entitled “Karneval” in December 2006 in Berlin. Two Berlin schools were asked to produce artistic responses to Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals”, using drawings, paintings and sampling. The resulting artworks were photographed, filmed and presented in a multimedia performance into which the Labeques introduced Saint-Saens’ music.
The following anecdote provides food for thought: A study conducted by the University of Wisconsin (Madison) showed that cows that were given classical music to listen to reacted in an extraordinary way. For the duration of the experiment, the milk production of this bovine audience rose by a significant 7.5 percent. A true “carnival of the animals” indeed!
Perhaps Chekhov’s Three Sisters should listen to more classical music...
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Jürgen Otten is a music journalist based in Berlin. He writes for “Frankfurter Rundschau”, “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, “DeutschlandRadio” and the monthly magazine of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
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