Monday, December 7, 2009

Quo vadis after 30 accomplished years, piano duo Rolf-Peter Wille and Lina Yeh?

By Nancy T. Lu

Thirty years of professional career life tied to each other like inseparable Siamese twins add up to quite a remarkable feat for Taiwan’s best-known piano duo Rolf-Peter Wille and Lina Yeh.

Playing simultaneously on separate grand pianos whether placed back to back, next to each other or in every imaginable way still requires communication of some sort. Is it a glance, a gesture, or just body language? When the chosen composition calls for running fingers on four hands on just one keyboard, finding comfortable elbow room sometimes does pose a very big challenge. Losing control of the pedal especially when playing on a single piano is very annoying, even likely to bring about the height of stress in a pianist. In the worst scenario, performing as a piano duo in the long run allegedly triggers a murderous if not suicidal streak in some pianists.

But Rolf-Peter Wille and Lina Yeh – big hands as against smaller ones – have graciously emerged from years of performing as an enduring piano duo on different continents to tell a beautiful success story. Their scrapbook of memories eloquently says it all.

Years ago, they stopped pedestrians on busy Zhongxiao East Road in Taipei with their open-air piano playing. A shower of rose petals capped the event. Not very long after, they also performed together next to tall and sacred trees high up on Jade Mountain.

“No matter how hard we separately practiced our solo pieces for our concerts,” candidly pointed out Lina Yeh, “our listeners always only remembered the piano duets in our programs.”

As an uncommon piano duo (most pairs consist of siblings) from the West and the East, Wille and Yeh blazed a music trail on different continents, receiving very heartwarming response from their listeners. The well-traveled pianists got all kinds of invitations, participating for the first time one cold winter years ago in an international piano duo festival in Russia. Through the initiative of the German Cultural Center, they were featured as special guests at a concert at a park in Manila, entertaining a crowd with score sheets flying all over the place. The Taiwan government saw them as ideal ambassadors of goodwill through their music in the absence of official diplomatic relations, once sending them touring five faraway countries in South America.

As perhaps suggested by Wille when he was asked directly if he would live life similarly all over again, he and his wife have made choices in a haphazard way just like in a Milan Kundera existential novel. One episode has led to the next one, a chapter has paved the way for another new one. Their life story has gone on this way, eventually coming full circle.

After first meeting in Austria and truly getting to know each other during their student days in Hanover, Germany, the two pianists came to Taiwan. The young and curious Wille wanted to explore a new world. Although Yeh was eyeing a move to New York for further music education and experience, she followed him.

Opportunities in music pedagogy in Taiwan at that time sealed their fate. The pair conveniently filled a void and they have not turned back from the calling since then. Wille, in fact, was to positively write years later in “Pianist: Wake Up and Dream!” (Volume I): “Confucian societies pamper their teachers and make sure that they feel extremely important and busy.”

Wille wrote “Pianist: Wake Up and Dream!” (Volumes I & II) in English and Lina Yeh did the Chinese translation primarily for piano students or would-be musicians. Recreated encounters with music students in Taiwan even included an episode with ex-President Chen Shui-bian’s daughter-in-law Huang Jui-ching, according to Yeh. Huang, however, was not identified by name in the book.

Wille’s fascination with Taiwan, Formosa more recently, has not faded after all these years. During his last six-month sabbatical, he accidentally discovered that Robinson Crusoe, the fictional character created by Daniel Defoe, visited Formosa while on his way to China. Such interesting travel adventure detail, which Wille came across in “The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe,” led him to do further research on the Internet.

Where did Defoe encounter the information about Formosa? Wille went to work with his search engine, downloading his findings along the way for useful reference in his own book. The preposterous tales of George Psalmanazar, the Frenchman posing as a “native of Formosa,” absolutely baffled him. The great liar’s wild stretch of the imagination led him to even invent the Formosan alphabet. But in those days, Psalmanazar probably deceived a lot of gullible readers with his bluff.

The observant Wille himself enjoys writing though usually with a satirical streak, having published several books and through them made known a colorful life outside of piano playing and teaching. He also fills his blog with rib-tickling snippets. Yeh’s smooth Chinese translation of his writings showing humor and wit has revealed the spice of his life to Taiwanese readers, often too lazy to wade through the original English text. His readers remember to this day his obsession with urinals. But friends who are invited to the couple’s home on Dunhua South Road in Taipei nowadays are likely to notice that he has moved his unusual collection of conversation pieces completely out of sight.

The Taipei apartment with three grand pianos taking up so much space is indeed crowded even without outsiders popping up. Here and there visitors come upon travel souvenirs, giving away the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the German occupant with a serious (or just shy) mien.

Wille’s drawings from earlier published books can be spotted around, too. In his book, “Taipei Salad,” he naughtily depicted the city residents as roaches or plain survivors in an artificial environment. He likewise sketched a Chinese panda scaling Godzilla-style with a conquering spirit to the top of Taipei’s tallest building long before the Taipei 101 was built.

Embarking on creative activities has seemed to come about naturally. Wille and his supportive wife Yeh would readily admit to the ease in experimenting and initiating something artistically different and unforgettable in Taiwan like “piano theater” through all these years.

Getting Sun Yueh to narrate a story to keep the children in the concert audience interested was not enough. Adapting and changing the story of “Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf” into the tale of “Little Red Hat and the Big Black Piano” proved fun but also a lot of work. Wille even transformed the grand piano into the wolf-like villain with a menacing toothy smile.

Brain-picking for new and fresh ideas with an eye on the target audience has kept this duo busy. New-fangled notions about the dialogue between two pianos, comparable to a game of pingpong sometimes, must constantly be found.

The pair recognized early on the Taiwan audience’s preference for technical virtuosity at a concert. Franz Schubert’s poignant music most suitable for airing in an intimate atmosphere tends to be less appreciated even though the composer is considered the most prolific in writing for four hands and for two pianos.

As pianist, Franz Liszt found his place among the greatest, if not as the greatest. His piano compositions are in a category of their own, influencing even other big name composers after him. Universal Music has just released “Rolf-Peter Wille and Lina Yeh: 30 Years of Piano Duo,” consisting of CD and DVD recordings of Liszt compositions, on the occasion of the 30-year milestone of Wille and Yeh as piano pair.

Wille wrote in the introduction that few of Liszt’s two-piano pieces – with piano solo works outshining them – are known. Majority are “brilliantly crafted” arrangements, he noted. Wille’s own arrangements of Liszt’s music were included. Again, “piano theater” came in handy at the concert devoted to Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz” for two pianos and Concert Paraphrase on “Dies Irae” (Totentanz) for three pianos. An actor (mime) got incorporated into the unusual music performance to dramatize the death theme. The Grim Reaper and the dancing skeleton sent cues to get all three concert pianists into the theatrical act.

But for the special concert with a formal format in celebration of their 30th anniversary as piano duo on December 12 at the National Concert Hall in Taipei, the repertoire will include Bach, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Poulenc. Rolf-Peter Wille’s “Danse des Pagodes” will require a prepared piano though. Screws, rubber bands and even wood will be inserted or added as learned once directly from minimalist composer John Cage. The interesting piece with a tune familiar to the Taiwanese public will sound like an exotic Indonesian gamelan melody.

To both Rolf-Peter Wille and Lina Yeh after 30 accomplished years as piano duo, the question now is: Quo vadis (Where are you going) ?

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