On May 7th, AMSF had its Inaugural Conference at Jordan Kitts, Fairfax Showroom. I had been looking forward to this event for months because AMSF invited not one but two world class pianists to discuss three different topics and perform all afternoon. On that Sunday, not only did we have two world class pianists performing for AMSF, but we also had those two world class pianists in the flesh! How about that? People had been clamoring for in-person special events. This is what you asked for. And not only did we have two world class pianists perform for us in the flesh, but they were also in front of our very eyes in close quarters! We were not among 2,400 other listeners craning our necks trying to get a thumb-sized glimpse of these artists! We were in a small hall where each of us was only about six to 12 feet from them! How exciting!
DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI (George Lopez and Gulimina Mahamuti, pianists) opened the three-part conference with the huge sound of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition on two pianos. They graced our afternoon with lectures on Russian and Spanish music of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as solo, duo, and duet performances of Romantic era pieces and contemporary compositions. They began with European music rich in tradition and ended with highly innovative 20th century music!
Part I: Russian 19th and 20th century music
DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI took us from Peter the Great, a lover of French culture, who was integral in cultivating Russian art and music, to the two camps of Russian music. First, the nationalist camp, driven by The Russian Five, sometimes called The Mighty Five. The Russian Five consisted of Balakirev, Cui, Mussorgsky, Korsakov and Borodin. They were all self-taught amateurs who developed Russian nationalistic music. Interestingly, all died of cirrhosis of the liver! To be Russian is to be a heavy drinker! Second, the new/blended western camp, represented by Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Scriabin and Kapustin. DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI ended the first part of the conference by playing a piece by Kapustin, who exclusively wrote in the American jazz style, to illustrate how Russian music has come full circle from Russian nationalism, embracing other styles. Kapustin’s composition began with a long glissando from the lower registers all the way up, a dramatic entrance!
The lecture was sprinkled with personal stories of composers, such as the oppression Shostakovich experienced under Stalin’s iron fist shortly after debuting his composition, Lady Macbeth.
George Lopez gave AMSF tips on playing, whether solo or in an ensemble. First, he mentioned that once the hammer hits the piano strings, the sound is created. There is no need to hold the keys beyond that moment. For those of us who have sensitive hands and must find ways to minimize stretching our hands for long periods of time, this tip is helpful not simply for comfort, but perhaps for piano-playing longevity. Second, he suggested that we should always keep our hands in motion.
“It was very informative, that’s for sure, done in an entertaining way. I liked the content and musical examples.”
Part II: Spanish 19th and 20th century music
DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI talked about how flamenco and zarzuela were not the rage in Spanish music in the 19th century. It was opera! Just as there were two camps of Russian music, there were also two camps of Spanish music: the European and Nationalistic camps. DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI discussed Glinka, as well as French and Italian influences on Spanish music. Mr. Lopez played a piece by Antonio Soler, a Spanish composer, which sounded so much like Scarlatti. Ms. Mahamuti followed Soler’s piece by one written by Scarlatti. Lo and behold, the Soler composition sounded more like that of Scarlatti than Scarlatti’s himself!
Albeniz, de Falla and Granados represented the nationalistic camp. They created what is considered authentic Spanish music.
Just as the discussion on Russian music history, the lecture on Spanish music history was peppered with stories of personal tragedies, such as the untimely death of Enrique Granados, as he drowned trying to save his wife from drowning. DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI ended the second part of the conference with a heart-pumping duo piano rendition of de Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance.
“What resonated: the music history, placing the composers in context with their time, and then the actual playing of the composers’ work. What a great format! It was very engaging, a terrific learning experience.”
Part III: Duo and Duet Playing
DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI discussed challenges and ways to overcome challenges in duet and duo piano playing. They talked about hand positions and constant negotiations on who plays certain notes in duet playing, regardless of how the music is written. They also discussed the positions of the pianos for duos. DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI “invented” the “winged” duo piano position where the pianists are almost aligned with each other, so that they can see and sense each other better, while the sound boards face opposite directions of the stage. This piano set-up is now being imitated by other duo pianists.
DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI performed piano duets with extended techniques. A duet written by Ms. Mahamuti’s German professor created sounds from the piano that I had never heard. The sounds necessitated movements at the piano I had not seen before! They used multiple plucking, strumming, damping and sliding techniques on the strings of the piano, taking turns playing and standing and reaching into the piano. There was a technique where they slid their thumb and forefinger on specific strings, creating a moving sound; a technique where one hand was on the keys, and the other applying pressure on the strings with their hands flat, creating a pizzicato sound; there was a technique on the bass that created a gong-like sound from far away. As a person who used to play classical guitar, some of the techniques and equivalent sounds reminded me of the Spanish guitar. Those of you who play string instruments would probably have been amazed to hear equivalent sounds to your instruments. Personally, I found DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI innovative, incredible, mesmerizing, and captivating! They test new ideas, push boundaries. Absolutely awesome!
As if everything they had given us were not enough, DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI concluded with a beautiful, soft and gentle duet rendition of Bernstein’s Somewhere from West Side Story. Words do not do justice. You had to be in the audience to feel it.
Mr. Lopez and Ms. Mahamuti have led successful music careers as pianists and teachers. Recently, however, they have been more focused on performing as DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI and they are becoming quite known as such. Hearing them left no question as to why.
“The event was terrific. I was so glad to have attended.”
The conference was a two-way exchange between the AMSF audience and our distinguished guests during all three parts of our planned program.
“It was a very informative conference and even though it was 4 hours long I did not get bored. I liked the relaxed atmosphere that was so conducive to spontaneous interaction, and George didn’t seem to mind at all. I got the feeling he actually liked fielding questions.”
Our guests were warm and welcoming. In fact, during the first intermission, one
of our AMSF friends mentioned she is learning a Granados composition. Guess what? Mr. Lopez indulged our friend and the rest of us. He played the piece as he discussed Spanish 20th century music. What an honor!
Mr. George Lopez is the Artist in Residence at Bowdoin College, Maine. He studied in Amsterdam, Paris and Connecticut and has performed recitals at prestigious music halls around the world, including Carnegie Hall in New York City. He has performed in London, Amsterdam, Australia, and other big cities. Mr. Lopez is a gifted music historian, communicator and pianist.
Ms. Gulimina Mahamuti is an internationally acclaimed Chinese American pianist who hails from Xinjiang, western China. She is the first Uyghur from China to receive a Doctor of Musical Arts in Piano Performance in the US. Ms. Mahamuti has performed in the US, China, Canada, Denmark, Hungary, and Turkey, with broadcasts in state and national television.
I personally had such a wonderful learning experience. In my mind DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI gave us much more than I expected, more than anyone expected. Those who ventured to attend were richly rewarded. Those absent missed a great opportunity.
Special events like this are among the privileges of AMSF membership. They are designed to broaden our minds, deepen our understanding of music with which we may or may not be familiar, thereby making us better musicians.
This was our first conference. Please feel free to ask those in attendance whether they enjoyed it. Every AMSF member who has attended a George Lopez event in the past found the experience worthwhile. DUO MUNDI GEORGE & GULI made it even more pulsating, more romantic, more culturally and historically enriching.
We hope to see you at future special events like this!