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Talking Dueling Pianos With Katia and Marielle Labèque

Photo by Labeques used with permission
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When your duo gets mentioned in the same breath as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his sister Maria Anna (Nannerl) Mozart, you're kind of a big deal. Katia and Marielle Labèque are no strangers to Los Angeles and have performed at every major venue in L.A. in the last 25 years. They're coming back this weekend to perform the world premiere of a "Battlefield" concerto (no relations to the new "Battlefield 3" video game) composed by Richard Dubugnon. Concerts are this Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm. Former Orchestre de Paris conductor (and current husband of Marielle Labèque) Semyon Bychkov will conduct the performances.

The concerto for two pianos and double orchestra, "Battlefield", op. 54, is taking the concept of a duo concerto and making it into a duel between the two pianos. The orchestra will be divided in two, like two armies facing each other, and the movements will follow the various stages of a 15th century battle, with Ringings, Parley, Parades, Battle, Truce, Coup de grace, Funeral & Triumphant march, Peace & reconciliations, and Feasts .

Dubugnon said the concerto was written with the two of you in mind, and tried to compose music “which would serve and bring out [your] contrasting personalities.” Did the two of you begin arguing everyday to prepare for the “Battlefield Concerto” - and if not, where did you find inspiration to prepare for this piece?

Funny question but, no fights. We needed all of our energy and concentration to prepare for this piece, so no time for arguments. The main inspiration was the beautiful Paolo Ucello painting "Battaglia di San Romano", that we had many opportunities to see while we were living in Firenze.

The two of you also premiered a piece by Louis Andriessen at the Disney Hall a couple years ago...
This is one of the most amazing halls in the world. Everything is perfect, from the architecture, to the sound, to the backstage area and facilities (which is so important for us because we always need pianos to rehearse!) and the people who take care of all of that, this is the most important element to give life and spirit to a place

And you have worked with the likes of Ligeti, Boulez, and Berio. What was the strangest (or most challenging) piece either of you had to perform?
Certainly Boulez "Structures", especially the first book, it is the most challenging piece of the composers you mention above...but the music we performed the most is Luciano Berio, and in fact our debut in L.A. was with his Concerto for two pianos and Luciano himself was conducting!

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There have been quite a few performances by you two in the Los Angeles area since 1986. How has the Classical music scene changed in Los Angeles?
Thanks to their marvelous team, LA Phil has kept the adventurous spirit that Ernest [Fleischmann] brought there, and it is constantly evolving and growing, they have such beautiful concerts..

And have you had a chance to work with Dudamel?

Yes, in Vienna for Poulenc Concerto for two pianos, pure pleasure.

Is there anywhere you like to go while staying in Los Angeles?

We definitely go to the beach, but I doubt that we have time with the premiere of Richard [Dubugnon's concerto]. We miss the sea. We grew up in the Basque Cost, and we live now in Roma where we have the opportunity to escape to the beach very easily!

The Rapsodie espagnole was also performed in L.A. back in 1991. What has changed in your approach to the piece since then?
We are more free. We learn to play "not together" but together... we totally trust each other.

How do the two of you pick which part which sister will play?
Usually Marielle picks up the bass, she just loves it and she has the best sound in the world to play the bass!

The two of you have been praised for your performances of a broad range of works, from Mozart to Stravinsky or Baroque to Jazz. How do you keep yourselves from getting pigeonholed into performing the same few pieces over and over again like Martha Argerich with Ravel and Prokofiev?
It is not something we planned, we just love so many different kinds of music. We are working now on a new project based on 50 years of minimalist music and it is amazing the amount of scores we are discovering! Very exciting :-)

All we ever hear about your mother is that she studied with Marguerite Long. What else did your mother provide that contributed to your musical foundation?

She taught us to approach music with love. She would have convinced the entire world that one cannot live without music, and she was right.

(To Katia) Are performances any different when your sister's husband is conducting the performances?
Of course, not only because he is Marielle's husband, but he is such an amazing musician, and it is so easy to make music with him.

Does she get any preferential treatment?
Definitely, but not on stage :D

(To Marielle) Can we expect a future collaboration with B for Bang? Are you doing anything on your own?
I am doing the Minimalist project "Dream House," and some of the musicians of B for Bang are also participating on this project. It is a mixture of some solo pieces, duet pieces and I will also play a few pieces with the band like "IN C" by Terry Riley and also " FOUR3" from John Cage.

Do you have any pianists or pieces you’d like to recommend?

Right now we are in the middle of our "Dream House," so we would definitely recommend for piano scores: William Duckworth, Phil Glass, John Cage, Gavin Bryars, Colin McPhee, Arvo Pärt, Howard Skempton...

Finally, you are both very couture-minded (note: it is de rigueur to use a French phrase when talking about the French) Would you care to tell
us what designer you will be wearing for these performances?

Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy because it has always kept his gothic style which is perfect for the battle!