Mabel Kwan is a pianist of impressive range and artistry. Last Saturday she presented a stunning performance of Georg Friederich Haas' Trois Hommages for one pianist playing two pianos tuned one quarter-tone apart. Having completed this 45-minute virtuoso marathon, Mabel faces yet another imposing test from Haas this Thursday when she plays the accordion part in Dal Niente's performance of In Vain. Simply put, these works present unique and uncompromising physical and mental challenges. With that in mind, I asked Mabel the following:
D.B. I think the first question that comes to mind is very straightforward: How did you practice the Trois Hommages? More specifically, how did you acclimate yourself to the physical challenges that stem from sitting between two pianos arranged in a V-formation?
M.K. The first movement is the most demanding and worrisome from a physical standpoint-- I started out playing a three-minute version of the piece, and gradually upped the duration to fifteen minutes. I had access to a room with two pianos and even though they were both regularly tuned, it was helpful to practice the first hommage on two pianos. I practiced the second and third movements at home with my piano and a keyboard which I programmed a quarter-tone lower. For those two movements it's essential to practice with the different tuning between the two pianos. I had to take a lot of breaks while practicing and often I had to quit sooner than my brain would've liked just because my arms were shaking and I couldn't control in my fingers. It was strange to experience this law of diminishing returns to such a degree in practicing this piece.
D.B. Aside from a possible dress rehearsal, did you have a chance to practice on pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart?
M.K. The pianos in the hall were tuned two days before the concert so I got to practice for real those two days which was fantastic. I had to figure out some pedaling issues which I hadn't dealt with when practicing at home with the piano and keyboard setup, and another thing I had to get used to was the different timbres between the two pianos.
D.B. Can you describe the on-stage experience of performing all three Hommages?
M.K. It was unexpectedly scary. I've never been so aware of the possibility of mechanical failure. So I was pretty much worried about that the whole time while playing. I didn't know that was going to happen until I was up there. It was kind of awful! But I would totally do it again.
D.B. You are in the very unique position of performing the Trois Hommages and the accordion part for In Vain within the same week. In the case of the latter, you are once again in foreign territory from a physical standpoint, this time as a pianist playing a related but nonetheless very different instrument. How have you approached the challenge of the In Vain accordion part?
M.K. First I really want say, EVERYONE PLEASE COME TO THIS CONCERT. IT WILL BE INCREDIBLE!
This is another case where I had to gradually build up the physicality in order to play a piece. Learning the part at first was very unnatural because the only way I could learn it was to play it on the piano and then "translate" it to the accordion. It was kind of maddening, but as I got more accustomed to playing the accordion and I stopped having to doing that. It's been fascinating to play this part on chromatic accordion because the intervals--lots of tritones, whole steps, half steps--are perfectly suited to the arrangement of the buttons on the accordion-- three rows, each a diminished 7 chord. While I can't recommend a piece by Haas being the first thing you learn on a new instrument, it's been an interesting way to get to know the accordion very well.
D.B. Do you have any plans to perform the Trois Hommages again? Are there any other pieces on your agenda that place similar demands on the pianist?
M.K. I would love to play the Trois Hommages again. I'm also interested in your piano solo, Stress Position, and a piece for three toy pianos by Evan Johnson, Positioning in Radiography.
Note: I very much appreciate Mabel taking time to answer my questions and it would certainly be an honor to have her perform Stress Position. After playing Haas' Hommage to Ligeti, however, I'm sure my piece will seem rather tame!