You’’d think 88 keys, three pedals and four hands would make for strange bedfellows. But for married musicians Elizabeth and Marcel Bergmann, the piano is part and parcel of their successful partnership.
If they weren’t one of Canada’s most successful piano duos, the Bergmanns would likely do well as relationship gurus, advising couples on how to merge a working relationship with love.
They have managed to succeed at both for the past two decades.
About to perform the second-to-last concert of the North Okanagan Community Concert Association’s 2014-15 season April 24, the Bergmanns are an established piano duo, where eye contact and communication is imperative. However, they are just as apt with four hands on a single piano, as they will demonstrate when they perform in Vernon.
“As Marcel says, when he talks to people, ‘what other instrument would you think of sharing?’ It does work for piano,” said Elizabeth (née Laich), talking to The Morning Star from the couple’s home in Vancouver. “It is a different experience. Obviously, you have less space and the pedalling is different.”
Marcel usually plays “secondo” (second), the lower keys on the left side of the piano and is responsible for the pedals, while Elizabeth plays the primo (first), the higher keys on the right.
For Elizabeth, playing the piano without pedalling is comparable to that of driving a manual car without using the clutch.
“The feeling it gives you makes you trust that your partner will take the pedals for you,” she said. “Sometimes elbows get in the way or it’s like ‘stop that, you’re on my note.’ We work out choreography of where you put your hand and get it out of the way so the other pianist can get there. It’s entertaining for an audience. We try to get the piano in a place so people can see. That’s why people love to watch pianists’ hands.”
The Bergmanns working relationship goes beyond just performing.
Residing in Vancouver for the past five years, the Bergmanns, who previously taught at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal, continue to share their love of music with students.
They are artistic directors of the Langley Community Music School and are largely involved with the music intensive program, a pre-college program which enables students to prepare for the future.
They also run a concert series through the school and have just announced they will be taking over White Rock Concerts (celebrating 60 years this year) from longtime AD, founder and bassoonist George Zukerman in the 2016-17 season.
“We were at Pacific Contacts (a trade show for presenters and artists) this past weekend, securing the season early,” said Elizabeth. “We also wore our artists’ hats, and already knew a lot of the presenters because of touring. It’s nice to reconnect with everyone.”
Married for 20 years, the Bergmanns met in the late ‘80s while students at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hannover, Germany, where they studied with the same teacher, Arie Vardi.
“We became good friends right away and started playing together after becoming a couple a year after meeting,” said Elizabeth, who is originally from Medicine Hat, Alta., while Marcel is from Munich. “It felt close the whole time. Friendship was the first thing, then it evolved.”
That natural evolution is also how they became a piano duo.
“We would accompany each other with concerti where another pianist would take over the orchestral part for our own class studies,” said Elizabeth.
A trip to Greece for a music festival solidified their partnership.
“Marcel came along and we had an opportunity to play with an orchestra. Our teacher suggested that ‘instead of a solo concerto, why don’t you play a double concerto?’ It was the Bach Concerto in C Major. We had so much fun and thought, ‘this is quite enjoyable.’ That’s when got into two pianos and the rest, as they say, is history.”
As performers, the Bergmanns also know their pianos, having played in just about every concert hall across Canada and beyond.
The duo will likely be the last four-hand piano performance on the NOCCA’s soon-to-be replaced Hamburg Steinway nine-foot grand, which was manufactured in 1887, reconditioned in the 1950s and subsequently purchased by NOCCA from the Steinway factory in Hamburg, Germany in 1955.
“We love playing on instruments from that period, especially with Steinway or any instrument. They have their own character and personality,” said Elizabeth.
Although it can be frustrating for a pianist to adjust to whatever instrument he or she is presented with, the Bergmanns say it’s also exciting to get to know the personality and sound spectrum of an instrument
“It’s all very subtle and intuitive and depends on the hall as well. An instrument can sound different from one place to the next. You take the acoustics and reverb, or if there’s lots of rug on the walls, or if there are curtains. You kind of adjust. Sometimes you have to adjust very quickly when the audience comes in. Sound can be different from rehearsing to when the audience is sitting there – bodies absorb sound.”
Besides the many Bach concerti written for two pianos (make that harpsichords), the Bergmanns say composers are continually working on new repertoire for piano duos. In fact, Marcel is one of them, as a respected composer and arranger.
For their Vernon concert, the Bergmanns will not perform in any of Marcel’s works, but have chosen a program showcasing some traditional and popular repertoire and one that is more obscure.
“We try to find a balance, the meat and potatoes of dual piano literature, and some lightness,” said Elizabeth. “Variations on a Theme by Schumann is actually by Brahms. It’s a wonderful piece. It’s serious and doesn’t get performed that often.”
The duo will also perform Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Rachmaninoff’s Six Morceaux, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, and The Ironien Op. 34 by E. Schulhoff.
“The Schulhoff is quite Dadaesque, but not as wild and crazy as people would think. It has a jazz influence. We like to make a bridge between the pieces as well. It helps the audience on the musical journey.”
The concert at the Performing Arts Centre starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35/adult and $17.50/student at the Ticket Seller box office. Call 250-549-7469 or order at ticketseller.ca.