Playing four-hand piano presents its own unique set of challenges, according to the duo piano team of Joanne Pearce Martin and Gavin Martin. There’s the inevitable bumping of elbows and the fact that each player is off-center, giving the experience an odd, somewhat unsettling feel.
And then there’s the issue of the pedals.
“You have to either use no pedals, or you have to pedal for someone else,” noted Gavin. “That’s like sitting in the passenger seat and operating the clutch while someone else is driving!”
If you’re racing down Rachmaninoff Road under those circumstances, it had better be with someone you know and trust. And that’s certainly the case with the Martins, who have been married for 23 years and piano partners for three decades.
As part of the Camerata Pacifica chamber music series (Joanne was a founding member of the acclaimed ensemble), they will give two concerts on Thursday, December 5, at the Music Academy of the West. The duo will mainly play works for two pianos, but they’ll share a bench for one of the most sublime pieces in the classical repertoire: the Fantasie for piano, four hands by Franz Schubert.
“It’s one of the last pieces he wrote for piano,” Gavin said during an interview at the couple’s Hollywood Hills home. “Much of Schubert’s music is beautiful but a little rambling, but this one is such a distillation. It’s so compact, and it has such poignancy.
“He had an amazing gift of melody. He’s also the master of form in this piece: Architecturally, it’s just perfect. There’s something very special about it. It kind of intimidated us over the years.”
They overcame that trepidation earlier this year, for a very practical reason. “This summer, we were contracted to do a concert in Gor, my hometown in India,” Gavin said. “They only had one decent piano there, so we decided to do a four-hand concert. We learned it for that.”
And they couldn’t be happier they did. Playing it “is almost a spiritual experience,” he said. “At the end of the piece, you feel like a changed person.
“We decided to make that one of the cornerstones of this concert, and we wanted to find a matching piece of substance for two pianos. We picked something else from the classical period, which I consider one of the two or three greatest pieces for two pianos: the Mozart sonata. He was at the peak of his career when he wrote it. It’s just amazing.”
Their program also includes an arrangement by Ravel of a Debussy orchestral score; an excerpt from a Mozart piano sonata with a second piano part, by Grieg, layered on top; and a set of variations by Lutosławski on that famous theme of Paganini that also inspired Rachmaninoff and Brahms. Joanne calls it “a real party piece.”
She and Gavin met, and first performed together, while they were students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. After graduating they moved, separately, to New York, where Joanne freelanced and Gavin continued his studies with legendary pianist Gary Graffman.
While they were close friends, romance didn’t blossom until Joanne moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s. (She eventually was named principal keyboardist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.) Gavin moved out to be with her and to start afresh, his dreams of a solo career curtailed by a wrist injury.
He spent years working in the personal-finance industry and performing on the side before quitting two years ago to devote his life to music. (His wrist is completely healed.)
So what are the pros and cons of working so closely with your spouse? “There are mostly pros,” Joanne said. “It takes a long time to become comfortable with a two-piano partner. It’s one of the most difficult musical partnerships.
“You’re always going to have conflicting ideas when you have two musical personalities. We run into situations where we disagree. We try different things and work it out. I don’t think we fight as much as some couples!”
“We do have very different styles,” added Gavin. “But we have a lot of respect for each other, and we’re willing to adapt.” Which is good advice for any duo — personal, professional, or both.
Camerata Pacifica presents Joanne Pearce Martin and Gavin Martin in concert at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall (1070 Fairway Rd.) on Thursday, December 5, at 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Call (805) 884-8410 or visit cameratapacifica.org for tickets and info.