February 18, 2020
Costume changes, three encores, and classic Brit-rock: No, these don’t describe the latest pop-music sensation. The piano duo Anderson & Roe brought all these and more to the Herbst Theatre on Saturday. The pair are known for their inventive reimaginations of classical and popular music, and have released three critically acclaimed albums and their self-produced, Emmy-nominated music videos, which have garnered millions of views on YouTube. Presented by Chamber Music San Francisco, Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe brought their unique blend of genres and performance style to an enthusiastic audience.
The first half was dedicated to Brahms’s Hungarian Dances Nos. 4 and 5, followed by the two-piano version of the famous Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34. While the pair are undoubtedly impressive pianists within this classical repertoire — both earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard — their innovation emerged during the Capriccio on Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, their own creation. Brahms’s Hungarian Dances were originally intended to shock and amaze his 19th-century audience, but that effect has been dulled today. Anderson and Roe’s new version revitalizes the work, reimbuing it with freshness and vigor by way of their virtuosic playing. As Greg Anderson explained, it was “a shot of adrenaline” to complete the first half. The pair managed to pay homage to Brahms while making his music both accessible and exciting for their modern audience.
Their version of “Shepherd’s Song,” the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, functioned similarly, and also provided inspiration for the remainder of the concert. It was followed by “Hallelujah” Variations (variations on a theme by Leonard Cohen) and “Let It Be” by the Beatles. Both pieces received a classic Anderson & Roe–style makeover: They added virtuosic flourishes and classically inspired writing to the familiar tunes, and amped-up the gospel influences of Let It Be. Their treatment of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” proved particularly powerful; it was all at once intimate, fiercely intense, profound, and captivating. I found myself becoming emotional, which, thanks to our musical over-saturation, rarely happens to me.
Anderson & Roe exemplify what contemporary artists should aspire to be. They approach the audience differently than the way many classical musicians do. They are more akin to rock stars, recognizing that people simply want to be entertained and excited by the performance. They also speak directly to their listeners, explicitly drawing the connections between their selections rather than relying on program notes. It was clear that the evening was about something more than sitting and listening to them play piano: the atmosphere made it apparent that we were all participating in the music-making, just by virtue of our presence.
Crucially, nothing about their outfits (Roe changed from a glittering emerald gown to a fuchsia number) or stage presence felt like a gimmick, or something to mask the music. Supporting all this are the talents of two incredible pianists who know innately how to make all genres of music feel fresh and genuine. They paid due respect to Brahms and Beethoven (and Bernstein, in an encore rendition of West Side Story’s “America”) while bringing new life and vigor to the concert hall. They are more than welcome to stay.