The very classical Labèque sisters in modern mode

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, International New York Times, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition. 11.01.2014
When Katia and Marielle Labèque, the French piano duo, brought their New York minimalist avant-garde show to Bordeaux recently (Jan. 10) I was afraid for them. True, their act was sugar-coated with some Arvo Pärt and an accessible piano composition by Philip Glass but it also included pieces by Brian Eno, Terry Riley, Radiohead and Glenn Branca’s “monstrously loud and audacious” Lesson No. 1, the program notes warned.

The audience, dominated by the usual gray-haired season-ticket holders, at first looked irritated, then mystified, then curious and intrigued by such unsettling sounds. This was not the Bach-Brahms-Beethoven diet of dead Europeans they were used to.

The Labèques and their band finally won them over, though, eliciting enthusiastic applause and scoring one more point for contemporary sounds in a traditional environment. Only a few walked out.

The concert was performed in Bordeaux’s new 1400-seat concert hall, a hollow, cave-like structure of blond wood and perfect acoustics.

The three-hour program lulled the traditionalists into acceptance by easing them into Erik Satie’s le Fils des Etoiles and Cage’s rather mild-mannered (for him) Experiences No. 1 pour Deux Pianos and other quiet pieces. The women performed to perfection, with the tranquility and precision that minimalism often calls for.

After an intermission, the mood changed radically.  The mischievous sisters brought on four casual rockers: Nicola Tescari on keyboard and electronics, David Chalmin on guitar, Raphaël Séguinier on percussion and Alexandre Maillard on bass. Chalmin, Tescari and Séguinier contributed their own boundary-stretching pieces to the program. Séguinier’s percussion work brought cheers from the audience. 

Marielle disappeared from stage for most of this phase, leaving her enthusiastic twin sister Katia to carry the piano part alone. Katia’s stomping, hammering attacks reflected her commitment to the untamed near-rock blasts from the band.

Katia helped sway the audience with a charming explanation of the 1950s-1960s minimalist movement and how important it is to accept experimental music today. She warned that part three of the evening was going to be even more experimental, and it was. The evening wrapped up with pieces by James Tenney, Henry Flynt the band’s own Tescari and in conclusion an electronic conceit by La Monte Young himself  (The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys), available here:

The program was titled “Minimalist Dream House” after Young’s concept for financing and developing avant-garde music. Also prominent in promoting the movement was Yoko Ono, prior to meeting John Lennon. Young, often cited as the creator of minimalist music, remains an active evangelist for it.  He would approve of Katia’s presentation. As he once said in an interview, “People don’t know what to think. You have to help them. You have to make work available to them in such a way that you give them keys that unlock doors.”

The program will be on the road this year, appearing in Antwerp and Los Angeles, worked in among a busy calendar of traditional music.

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