A ZOFOlicious experience

ZOFO duo Eva-Maria Zimmerman and Keisuke Nakagoshi perform works by contemporary composers based on selected art works.

Well,  thanks to YourTime magazine and the generosity of beloved Musica Viva I get to see and hear this year’s concert program – always a thrill!

So off I went to the season’s kickoff at the Queensland Conservatorium – the extraordinary piano pairing of Keisuke Nakagoshi and Eva-Maria Zimmerman as ZOFO whose four cunning hands take audiences to the very precipice of contemporary musical expression, without quite dropping into the chasm of musical nihilism.  It’s touch-and-go for those of us who have traditionally got our thrills from Rach 3 and any sonata by Beethoven and certainly not for those whose love of music is enshrined in their CDs featuring the second movement of every famous piano concerto ever written.

But for those who like to test their boundaries and go beyond their musical comfort zones the ZOFOMOMA experience is truly thrilling.  Luckily I took along my friend Pauline, pianist and cellist, who embraces the shock of the new with fervour and understands the keyboard in a way I, a mere string digitalist, cannot!

Musica Viva has put out a very good program which explains the music and the vision better than I ever could and so, having already written a brief review for the middle-brow YourTime readership, I shall devote this article to my own take on the show.  And “show” it is, make no mistake!  The mere word “concert” does not do ZOFO justice because Keisuke and Eva are showpeople who don’t just play – they perform with a capital P.  In his day, Liszt was considered a flamboyant virtuoso whose keyboard antics drew audiences likes moths to the flame of his passion. But I’m willing to bet that even with his flowing locks and priestly garb the romantic Franz was never as exciting as ZOFO.

All the music performed in the ZOFOMOMA tour sponsored (in Australia at least) by Musica Viva is original.  It was commissioned by the duo from 15 contemporary international composers whose brief was to base their short piano pieces on favourite paintings that represented their respective cultures.  So, when we in the audience read this in our programs we know we are in for an evening of out there music.  For some of us – certainly for me – this is going to be a challenge.  I have very mixed feelings about what my traditionalist husband calls “plink” music.  How well I remember years ago going to a performance of Mahler’s Ninth and first having to sit through a piece by Richard Mills entitled something to do with the rainforest.  I mean, do Australian composers EVER come up with anything that is NOT inspired by the landscape or indigenous culture?  Small wonder we have produced no Mozarts – but I digress – Mills’ composition, which I would probably understand better today, seemed to consist mainly of pianistic “plinks” (hence the name which we gave to Australian contemporary music for years afterwards!) and an occasional plucked string, with long silences between.

And there was a fair bit of plinking in some of the ZOFOMOMA pieces.  But, in these four sure hands the plinking seemed to work, though it was still a bit of a challenge for those of us who like an accessible melody.  Take for example Cecile Marti’s Wendung (Turn) based on a painting by the same name which, apparently, was in turn based on the concept of opposite-perspective.  Whatever that means.  I found this strange sliver of a painting utterly incomprehensible but the music with its fourths segueing into clumped octaves, though dense, did intrigue my ear.  Perhaps because I respond more easily to music than I do to paint.  And then there was Gabriel (yes, he’s the grandson) Prokofiev’s edgy Untitled Etching 3 –based on  a sort of darkling cartoon by Robert Fry, Pawelk Mykietyn’s SM 34 which appears to be inspired by an eyeball – the painting, that is.  The music, according to the composer “is a technique founded on an algorithm using a formula for uniform acceleration of the tempo”. Well, why not?!  Just because this idea seems eccentric to me (and, I bet, a lot of others in the audience) doesn’t mean it is without musical logic.  I seriously disliked Englishman Jonathan Russell’s composition based on the Untiltled (Skeleton) work by street artist Stormie Mills – definitely not for those of us who think art should exalt life not imitate it or even reflect it. Again, though, the music was interesting.  I don’t mean that to be condescending – it WAS interesting if you did what I did and just opened your mind and tried to embrace strangeness of a work which forces the two pairs of hands to switch and swap, back and forth, shambolic but weirdly compelling.  Like the cartoon itself.

It was a relief, I admit, to sink softly into the spiritual solace of Lei Liang’s Will You Come into My Dream based on a fragment of a traditionally-inspired Chinese landscape painting and, even more so, Kenji Oh’s exquisitely misty and mystical Sacred Chichibu Peaks at Spring Dawn.  Both these works were performed with immense subtlety and sympathy by Eva and Keisuke and of course this is the ZOFO secret – they can, as a duo, put themselves inside each very different composition with the same suppleness and apparent ease with which they occasionally astonish the audience by entwining their bodies.  While still sitting on the stool!  While still hitting the keys!  I’ve never seen any other pianists behaving like beings from La Cirque du Soleil!

So this is the part where I should mention that between each piece one or other of them gets up from the stool and wanders slowly yet compellingly (they are dressed in charcoal/black and move like shadows) around the stage before swapping stools – and thus piano ends – with the other, who keeps on playing the promenade theme that links the separate works in a way to heighten audience anticipation.  These are arranged by Keisuke and are traditional in form; according to the program they are a nod to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and of course this program takes Mussorgsky’s idea and expands it into something much bigger and bolder and globally diverse.  For example I Wayan Gde Yudane takes a Bali street scene painted by his fellow countryperson as an inspiration for a work that throbs with optimistic human life while Sahba Aminikia turns exiled Iranian artist Nicky Nodjoumi’s politically powerful Inspector’s Scrutiny into a dark, discordant paean to human struggle.  My friend Pauline was particularly taken with the painting by Sattar Bahlulzade entitled Spring Morning in Baku which inspired Franghiz Al-Zsdeh’s eponymous composition.  Like the composer, Pauline  was attracted by the painting’s reflection of a new day dawning, with its Caspian breezes and wildflowers.   The music did indeed seem to reflect this; a hint of Azerbaijanian threnody overlaid by western jazziness.

My personal favourites came at the end – Argentina followed by Cuba.  The Argentinian painting was a black-and-white abstract in which I vainly searched for what the program referred to as “tango idioms”.  I couldn’t find them there but detected them in the music which called for some dramatic fingering from the two pianists. It was splendid, stimulating stuff!  And then the grand finale with a vividly naif tropicana on the screen which apparently had a political message but reminded me delightfully of something Ken Done might have painted after too many pina coladas!  This music has Russian as well as traditional Cuban elements and demands much of those who play it – including some glissandos that seemed to surge along the keyboard like musical tsunamis.  I found myself carried away by the sheer bold, syncopated exuberance of this marvellous work – one of three in the selection by women composers.

I have mentioned only a few of the compositions here but all fifteen fitted beautifully together to make for 75 minutes of simple enjoyment spiced by constant challenge to the musical intellect. And, much as I, too, revere Chopin and never tire of a melodic nocturne or three, it IS exciting to go to a concert where the music is so new and different.  Keisuke and Eva are a fortuitous pairing.  Born respectively in Japan and Switzerland both now live in San Francisco. They met when Keisuke, having  crushed the fingers of one hand in a lift door (bad enough for anyone, but for a concert pianist!) found himself turning pages his replacement artistes, one of whom turned out to be Eva whose  arm-crossing technique with difficult piano pieces really impressed him.  And indeed Eva DOES appear, on stage, to have amazingly long and flexible arms that remind me of ballerina Darcy Bussell  dancing Odette in Swan Lake. Offstage, you see her arms are actually quite normal but when she is playing the piano they seem to have a life – and a length – of their very own, quite independent of the rest of her body.  As for Keisuke, he has a hard-man fitness unusual in a pianist.  Together, they move and play and twist and twine and throw their hands in the air or along the keys with such apparent ease and abandon – and they even sing a bit too, or make sort of singing noises when the music demands it – all part of the show!

Ah, but the skill!  The technique!  Those twenty fingers (some of them back in action after the crushing) tackling with such assurance some devilishly difficult sections written by composers who obviously think pianists should be tested to the utmost. This is music at its most physical.

That’s why I so enjoyed the privilege of seeing and hearing ZOFO in action.  Two pianists and one piano is an unusual musical duet form today.  Keisuke explains that it was very popular back in the 19th century when most middle class western homes had pianos and people played together as a form of entertainment.  When, if we enjoyed music, we had to make it ourselves.  Then along came the gramophone and the radio and the cinema and the TV and the webcast and composers stopped writing music for duetting on a single piano because there seemed no demand for it.   Keisuke and Eva are reviving this art form and to keep audiences coming back for more they need new works – thus ZOFO will always be at the cutting-edge of contemporary music, taking us on journeys that cross the boundaries of culture and harmonic possibilities.

Full marks to Musica Viva for having the vision and courage to help Australian audiences make that journey.


About Tamborine Dreamer

I am a horticulturist, writer and photographer who lives on Tamborine Mountain, one of the world's beautiful places to live with plenty of sunshine, good rainfall, moderate temperatures, lush rainforest, splendid views of both the ocean to the east and the mountains to the west. I love writing about the place in which I live, in all its moods and seasons. Besides gardening I love good literature and poetry, bushwalking, birdwatching, history, Japanese language and culture, and music of several kinds.
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