The Washington Post
By Geoffrey Himes
November 9 2021 - 8 a.m. EST
In May 2015, Katia and Marielle Labeque were rehearsing Philip Glass’s “Double Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra” with conductor Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As the two French sisters were preparing to record this premiere, they encountered the young composer Bryce Dessner, who was readying the premiere of his own composition, “Quilting,” with Dudamel. That meeting led to Dessner writing his own “Concerto for Two Pianos,” which the Labeque sisters will play at the Kennedy Center this week.
“As we got to know him,” Katia recalls, “we were struck that he could write whatever he wanted. I’d never met anyone like him, because he can articulate his music in both the classical and rock worlds with the same facility, the same passion. He’s not afraid to show all his love for different musics; Bryce is an amalgam of them all.”
This reference to the rock world acknowledges Dessner’s best known gig: lead guitarist and co-songwriter (with his twin brother and fellow guitarist Aaron Dessner and lead singer Matt Berninger) for the indie-rock band the National.
“When I was growing up and heard John Fahey and Jerry Garcia make the guitar sound like a fiddle, I didn’t know how they did that,” Dessner says. “I wanted to figure it out, so I studied music. That led to classical music; I fell in love with Bach and started composing. Notated music has been in my life since the beginning; it’s always been part of my DNA. I’ve never separated the two worlds.”
“After we heard his music,” Marielle adds, “we went to see him with the idea of asking him to write a concerto for us. In the music he wrote for us, I can hear all the connections he has with French music and Stravinsky. Writing for two pianos is complicated, but I like the way he develops the music for us.”
As it so happened, Dessner had moved to Paris with his soon-to-be wife a short time before this meeting in L.A. The composer knew few people in France, and the Labeque sisters took him under their care. Soon he was refining his compositions at their studios in Paris and on the Basque coast of France. His first composition for them was “El Chan,” a 15-minute, six-movement piece for two unaccompanied pianos. It was inspired by Dessner’s collaboration with the Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu on the film score for “The Revenant.”
“It had all these hovering polyrhythms that don’t easily fit together,” Dessner says. “I wasn’t sure it could be played as written, but Katia and Marielle rehearse more than any musicians I’ve ever known, 10 hours a day. They give as much attention to a piece of mine as to anything else they play. Music is music to them. They did a beautiful job.”
That led to an enduring friendship among the three musicians and their partners; Dessner even bought a house on the Basque coast. And it also led to the “Concerto for Two Pianos.”
“From the beginning of our careers,” Marielle points out, “we have always wanted new music in the repertoire. Our first album was with Messiaen; then we did Berio and Boulez, but I also love Schumann so much. Everything we play we should love. If we don’t, there’s no chance the people listening will love it. And I love the development from the second movement to the third movement in Bryce’s concerto. The pleasure is different from Schumann but just as strong.”
The concerto was included on the album, “El Chan,” released in 2019 by Deutsche Grammophon and produced by the Labeque sisters with Dessner and Katia’s partner David Chalmin (who plays guitar with Dessner on the album’s “Haven”).
“Classical music has always taken elements from popular and folk music and transformed them” Katia says. “But there was that terrible period after Schoenberg when composers weren’t drawing from popular music and classical music became more and more intellectual. We lost part of the audience, but Bryce brings feeling back to the music. He’s an amazing songwriter also, which makes him a unique composer.
“He has a great love for both, and he won’t choose one or the other. His is one of the most beautiful concertos that have been written for us.”
Katia and Marielle Labeque pic by Stefania Paparelli
Bryce Dessner Photo by Kyle Gustafson/for The Washington Post
Washington (United States)
November 11 2021, 19:00, November 12 2021, 11:30, November 13 2021, 20:00
National Symphony Orchestra
Juanjo Mena conductor
«BRYCE DESSNER'S CONCERTO FOR TWO PIANOS»
Columbus, Ohio (United States)
November 16 2021, 20:00
project: «PHILIP GLASS & LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES»
Cleveland (United States)
November 26 2021, 19:30, November 27 2021, 20:00
The Cleveland Orchestra
Gustavo Gimeno conductor