As budding students are want to do, Elizabeth and Sonya Schumann exchanged ideas, made discoveries and artistically matured as they learned their craft on a well-worn upright piano given to their mother.As children with equally voracious musical appetites, however, the inevitable was soon revealed. In other words, one piano simply wasn’t big enough for both of them.
“When my sister started playing, my mother decided, ‘Okay. Let’s have some instruction’,” said Sonya Schumann, who will perform alongside sibling Elizabeth for two concerts this weekend with the Lexington Philharmonic. “So my sister started having lessons. Shortly thereafter, so did I. In our after school hours, having to share that piano became rather difficult. We fought a little. Well, maybe ‘fought’ is a strong word.
“They weren’t fights,” added Elizabeth Schumann. “They were emphatic discussions.”
“Well, our mother soon decided she had had it with our ‘emphatic discussions’,’ continued Sonya. “She found a second old upright piano at a yard sale and that was it. I was the younger one who usually got the hand-me-downs but this was the one time that I got the new thing.”
Listening to them in conversation, it’s hard to picture the two Virginia-born sisters at cross purposes. Their tone in discussion is bright, animated and susceptible to outbursts of laughter. Such temperament seems an obvious fit for Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, the immensely inviting work the two will perform on twin pianos with the Philharmonic tonight (for a program titled Fantasy that will also include Humperdink’s Suite from Hansel and Gretel and the Stravinsky ballet Petrushka) and again Sunday (for for an abridged family concert that will also reprise the Humperdink piece).
“I think (Carnival of the Animals) is a good introductory piece for many people because it shows off the expressive possibilities of not just the piano but of the whole orchestra,” Sonya said. “The piece has humor and color and virtuosity. The challenge comes in how much it can bring out of the orchestra.
“For instance, the most famous parts show off the cello and how tenderly and beautifully it can play. Then there’s the cuckoo played by the clarinet and the elephant played by the double bass in the most hilarious way possible. It is just a wonderful, evocative piece, with these incredible extremes. And there is the can-can theme, which is slowed down to create these creeping themes for the tortoises. If you recognize it at the snail-like speed that we play then you might find yourself kind of giggling at mental images of these tortoises dancing the can-can.”
The sisters are so taken with the work that they have built a series of e-books under the banner title Piano Carnival as a sort of portable multi-media outreach project.
“I look at this piece as a way for adults to experience childhood again,” Elizabeth said. “So we are working on releasing what is going to be three interactive e-books/i-Pad apps created around Carnival of the Animals. We wanted to create an experience that would allow us to integrate lots of multi-media contexts in ways that would reach the widest possible audience.
“It has always been essential to us as artists that we take creative risks and explore original ideas.”
Accessible as the Saint-Saens piece is, it also presents a number of technical demands for the sisters – the most prominent being articulating and contrasting the interplay between two pianos.
“It feels like a rock band,” Sonya said of the double piano setting.”We’ve got two nine foot pianos that sit side by side. Just that amount of sound alone makes you feel like you’re a rock star.
“Then you have to factor in that the other person is playing an instrument that sounds identical to yours,” Elizabeth added. “Playing two pianos is like walking on stilts, but you’re only in charge of the left leg. You don’t necessarily know when the right leg is going to move or how far it’s going to move. The only way that works is if you completely understand, to the point of almost having ESP with that other person, what that other leg on the stilts is going to do.”
But when the other player is your sister, someone you grew up beside and had “emphatic discussions” with over the piano, something akin to ESP takes over. With Elizabeth six years the elder to Sonya (they politely declined to reveal their specific ages), the sisters see the simple familiarity of their family bond as an advantage when communicating musically onstage.
“When you go to a performance hall, a lot is unfamiliar,” Elizabeth said. “The backstage area is unfamiliar. The audience members, of course, will be unfamiliar. But then you go to the piano and there is always the keyboard. And it’s like, ‘I’m home. I have a keyboard.’ It’s the same thing for me when I go onstage with Sonya.
Added Sonya, “You just know that person is there and has got your back. They know 100% where you are and how you feel. It just makes me feel like we’re playing at home again.”
The Lexington Philharmonic with Elizabeth and Sonya Schumann perform at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 ($20-$70) and 3 p.m. Nov. 17 ($10) at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Call (859) 233-4226 or go to http://lexphil.org.