Q&A with Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe of Anderson & Roe
Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, of piano duo Anderson & Roe, were kind enough to sit down and answer a few questions for us, ahead of their performance on Sunday, March 2, 2014, at the Moss Arts Center.
We didn’t think it was possible to love them any more than we already do–but after reading their answers, it’s official: we’re smitten.
Center for the Arts: A big part of what you do as musicians centers around making classical music a relevant and powerful force, as you’ve mentioned in your biographies. When did you first realize that classical music and the piano were going to play huge roles in your lives?
Greg Anderson: About ten years ago at Juilliard, I remember falling asleep at virtually every concert I attended (Liz can certainly attest to my lion-sized yawns). Something about the music I loved—the classical music that I loved playing and listening to—was making me fall asleep. I’d look around at the audience and performers, and they seemed to be practically bowing their heads in reverential prayer, worshiping these musical works deemed to be great.
While I can respect that attitude, I think it misses the point. This music was composed to change our lives. This music was composed to offer simple joys, or compassion when we’re sad; it was composed to give us a reason to live, to touch our hearts. I asked myself, as classical musicians, do we dissect Mozart’s music in a scientific study and merely comment on its perfection? Or do we approach it as the mirthful and reckless Mozart would while playing with friends?
Basically, it forced me to create some kind of mission statement that would reorient my priorities as I was presenting these awesome works to the public. That mission is to make classical music a relevant and powerful force in society.
Elizabeth Joy Roe: My musical epiphanies and inspirations date back to childhood. Growing up, I was lucky to grow up in an arts-loving family and to be exposed to the excellence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Ravinia Festival; when I was a young girl, I had the privilege of seeing the great pianist Murray Perahia in recital, and in that moment I knew I wanted to be a concert pianist.
Additionally, rock music has played a crucial role in shaping my musical affinities. I still remember my “discovery” of alternative rock music: when I first heard “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins on the radio, it left an oddly indelible impression on me. Plus, the Beatles have hugely influenced me since childhood; to this day, I am inspired by their fearless risk-taking, all-encompassing creativity, and striking eclecticism. Because I’ve had such powerful encounters with music—classical or not—I feel extra passionate about making the music we play just as visceral, memorable, and transformative.
CFA: You’ve recently released the final installment in your “Rite of Spring” video project. What were some of your favorite moments throughout the project, from working on the concept, to realizing your artistic visions? What was that day like to film, when you sacrificed that 135-year-old organ? (Without a doubt, that seems like a pretty intense scene to shoot.)
GA: The music itself is so inspiring that every day of the filmmaking process was filled with incredible, inspiring moments. At times if felt as if we were insane; while filming naked in the ocean with a piano, I managed the rip off my toenail! And if course there were the dancers, paint, bubbles, fire, and bugs!
And yes, we truly did destroy a 135-year-old organ without the help of CGI; that really was us performing on a blazing instrument. It was a painful process, both physically (to state the obvious: it was really hot!) and emotionally. We had become quite fond of that organ after working with it for nearly a year. Though the total destruction of our film’s crucial prop was heart-wrenching, we did it for the music. We felt we no other choice: the music demanded it of us. We had to stay true to the colossal scope and vision of the music.
EJR: One episode was particularly memorable (and insane!) to film. It takes place just prior to the explosive finale, and at this point in the narrative everything is in the process of degeneration. We decided to have millipedes emerge from the organ as it rots, to represent the decay of material splendor and excess; this idea was inspired by the ancient organ (with its macabre aesthetic) and the music itself (which sounds creepy and ominous).
In any case, as inspired as our idea was, the execution (i.e. making the bugs move according to our wishes) was considerably less so—let’s just say I did not enjoy filming with the millipedes, and just thinking about the experience makes me shudder! All in all, this project pushed us to explore some strange and exhilarating situations, literally and figuratively!
[Ed. note: Check out the 10th installment of their “Rite of Spring” video project!]
CFA: Outside of the “Rite of Spring” project, which videos have you most enjoyed filming?
GA: Liz and I love to laugh, and we undoubtedly laughed the most while filming our “Moonlight Sonata” video. Throughout the short film, we impersonate various YouTube commenters responding to performances of legendary pianists (such as Argerich, Kissin, and Rubinstein).
Their comments are a bit inane (“I heard Beethoven play it, and he played it slower.”), so it was really fun to bring these characters to life in the most ridiculous way possible. In one scene, I physically had to leave the building because I couldn’t stop laughing at Liz’s portrayal of a loopy piano teacher; I was ruining the shot!
CFA: What are some moments from your new album that you’re the most proud of as artists? Can you speak to some of the artistic growth you two have experienced from your last recording to this one?
EJR: It is always such a beautiful challenge to delve into the music of Mozart—although his music sounds effortless and natural, it takes a tremendous amount of finesse, thought, and care to do it justice. We’ve put our heart and soul into the interpretation, execution, and reworking of his music in order to bring its spirit to life.
In terms of artistic growth, I think we’ve just grown so much as a duo throughout the past few years as a result of our constant touring and collaborating. We’re closely attuned to each other onstage, and we continue to push each other (and ourselves!) artistically in rehearsals and video-making, but beyond that we’re endlessly conversing about life and sharing incredible travels, discoveries, and adventures, which undoubtedly reinforces our connection.
CFA: In looking at your program notes for the performance at Virginia Tech, it goes without saying that classical music plays an enormous role in your lives. However, Radiohead seems to have inspired you as well. How do you marry your interests in classical music and some contemporary works? What are some other contemporary works you enjoy performing?
EJR: We believe that great music is great music, regardless of genre, style, etc. In that sense, we are not attached to labels; we actually find them to be limiting! What matters about music is not what “category” it fits in; what matters is its impact on you—if it moves, excites, soothes, or uplifts you.
In that sense, we aren’t concerned about fitting in the “classical” box; in fact, it’s actually more historically accurate to infuse one’s music with improvisation, innovation, and individuality. After all, great composers like Mozart and Beethoven continually adapted and reworked music of their time. We aim to follow in their footsteps by drawing upon tradition while paving new pathways. Whenever we arrange or reinterpret a piece of music, we always make sure to honor the spirit of the original. It’s incredibly valuable to treat older works as if they are newly created, to approach them with the same sense of discovery and curiosity as one would with a brand new score.
And speaking of new compositions, we feel lucky to live in such an exciting time for music. The composers of our time—and especially those of our generation—have blurred the lines between genres, fusing diverse styles and revealing fascinating connections between ostensibly disparate traditions. Today’s musicians—ourselves included—are influenced not only by the classical/art music tradition, but also by technological innovation and the worlds of non-classical music.
CFA: Suppose you could construct a dream performance, during which you could play any pieces you want, and you could play with any musician (dead or alive): what would that program look like?
GREG: My answer will seem like a cop out, but it’s totally true: every performance is my dream performance. On Sunday at Virginia Tech, I’ll be playing my very favorite pieces with my favorite pianist and person ever. I couldn’t be more lucky.
Music is so transient; it’s in-the-moment and deeply personal. I’m affected differently every time I hear a piece, depending on my mood and the environment. As such, it’s hard for me to define my all-time favorite piece or composer. Instead, I find myself fully invested in whatever I’m playing or hearing, falling in love with the music and the experience.
EJR: I agree with everything Greg said! That said, I actually have many dream collaborations/programs, so here are a couple:
- performing Brahms’ D minor Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle, and
- rocking out onstage as a guest singer/guitarist/keyboard player with Radiohead (I’m a huge fan!)
Making history: a season of firsts
As we wrap up our inaugural season (how did that happen?!), we look back on a year of firsts–from our first public event in this beautiful building to our first performance in the new Street and Davis Performance Hall. One of the most exciting firsts of the season, however, was our first proposal on stage–in front of a crowd!
Ken Knott, a research specialist in the Chemistry Department here at Virginia Tech, made history when he asked his girlfriend, Jen Sharp, a special education science teacher at Floyd County High School, to marry him while on stage in the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre. Knott’s golden opportunity came when he was selected to assist vaudevillian comedian Tomáš Kubínek during his performance on Friday, April 11, 2014. There were a few empty seats in the front of the full house, and Kubínek invited a group of patrons from the balcony to move forward during the performance. Knott, Sharp, and Sharp’s two children (Ellie and Killian), were among those lucky few, and as the group was getting seated, Kubínek asked Knott to help him out on stage. Little did he know, Knott had a surprise up his sleeve!
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Knott and Sharp sat down with us to tell us a little more about the proposal, what their kids thought, and whether they’ve set a date!
Center for the Arts: I think what everybody wants to know is, was it planned?
Ken Knott & Jen Sharp: No! [laughs]
KK: Well I bought the ring–I had literally gotten it that day–and I had plans to propose. Soon. We are both very big into the outdoors, and she has two kids, so I was thinking of doing maybe a scavenger hunt, treasure hunt, something. I happened to have it [the ring] with me that day. It just happened to be in my pocket; I hadn’t left it in the car. We were up in the balcony and he called us down to fill up the seats, and we were kind of waiting around for hopefully enough seats for all of us to sit together. We happened to be the last people to get seated, and I was the last person [in line]. I think that’s why he grabbed me. And as soon as he did, I was like, “Did someone else plan this?” It had crossed my mind to try to contact him, but I was like, “Oh, it’s too late; I don’t know how to get in touch with him.” So then he grabbed my arm and I was like, [whispering] “someone else is involved….” But I got up there and the whole time I was up there, the idea was running around in my head and I’m just like, “Should I do this? Can I do this?”
CFA: So what you are saying is that your concentration was not entirely with him!
KK: That’s why we were unable to pull off the trick! [Laughs] I could tell he was getting ready to send me back and I was like, “You know…might as well.” How many times do you get pulled up on stage in a building like this with a full house and you happen to have an engagement ring in your pocket? He [Kubínek] was shocked too, because he even made a comment that that was the first time.
JS: Oh yeah! He was like, “That was the first time this has happened…. this week!” [Laughs] But we emailed him afterwards and he emailed us back that he was so glad he followed the instinct and went on and did that.
KK: He was super nice. We’re inviting him to the wedding.
JS: He said he would check his schedule. [Laughs]
CFA: So what about you, Jen? When he went up on stage did you have any idea it might be coming?
JS: I wondered, because I knew he had the ring. He had been teasing the kids, letting them see that he had a box. And the kids are like, “Is that a ring? Are you going to ask Mom to marry you? Is that a ring? That had better be a ring! What’s in the box?” And he was like, “It’s just a box, there’s nothing in it! It’s just a box. Maybe there’s a mouse in it!” So when he went up, I knew he had the ring in his pocket. I was like, “Oh my gosh!” I was excited.
CFA: When he asked you, what was the very first thing that went through your mind?
JS: It was so sweet, just very sweet. I was just very excited. And the kids were very excited too.
KK: I remember when I asked and I looked into the audience, I could see Jen was smiling and Ellie was crying, with her hands over her mouth.
JS: They [Jen’s children Ellie, 8, and Killian, 9 and a half] were very excited. Killian had been the one saying earlier, “Is that a ring in your pocket? That had better be a ring!”
KK: I was surprised how excited he was.
CFA: So you said you had the ring already, how long had you known before you bought it that you wanted to marry her?
KK: I don’t know, since the moment I met her! [Laughs] Several months, for like three or four months I guess.
CFA: And Jen, did you know anything was coming before he went on stage?
JS: He had asked a few weeks before. He said, “You should tell me what kind of ring you would like.” So I’d given him a few suggestions about what style of ring, because I like vintage jewelry. I have my grandmother’s ring, so I wanted something that matched and…look how perfectly it matches! [Ed. note: Check out that ring in the photo slideshow above–so gorgeous!]
KK: I wasn’t going to try to pick one of my own. There were too many choices. I went into the store, and said “I would like the engagement ring.” [Imitating a sales person, slowly] “There are…more than one, you know…” “Oh.” [Laughs]
CFA: How did you all meet?
JS: We actually met through the Meet Up Appalachian Hiking Group. We started dating in January a year ago.
KK: The first date was at Natasha’s Cafe in Floyd.
JS: And then we went hiking like three days later on Mount Pleasant, and it was 17 degrees.
CFA: So have you started making any plans for the wedding?
JS: Yeah! We are getting married on June 21. We are just going to have a backyard barbeque and invite some friends, just be at home and plant a tree, have a quick ceremony, and then grill burgers.
KK: None of us are interested in a big, giant, extravagant wedding. It’s a lot easier to plan a wedding when its going to be in your backyard and at your house.
CFA: I assume a lot of people heard about it–how many people knew that you got engaged before you even told them?
JS: Oh my gosh, it was all over Facebook!
KK: I knew a few people in the [Chemisty] Department that were in the audience, and she actually had coworkers in the audience. Some of our friends’ children were in the audience without their parents and they came home and their parents asked how the show was. They said, “Really funny, really neat…”
JS: “…and he proposed to Jen on stage!”
KK: And the parents are like, “What?! This is a magician show, what are you talking about?” One of them said, “Ken my kids think you are a superhero now!” [Laughs]
JS: It was definitely very exciting. I called my parents afterwards and my dad was like, “This is the kind of thing you hear about on the news and you read about in the newspaper, but you never know someone that this has actually happened to!”
CFA: Where are your parents living?
JS: They are in Floyd. My mom and my sister both work at Tech, and they both have coworkers who were here [for the performance]. As soon as I got off the stage, I was like, “I had better call my parents now!”
KK: I was still numb. I couldn’t operate a phone for a few days. [Laughs]
JS: We stopped by his brother’s house on the way home to tell him. We had better tell everyone before word spreads and people are mad at us for not telling them in person! (laughs)
CFA: Did you have any moments as she was walking up on stage where you thought, okay I’ve really committed now I have to do it.
KK: It was surreal, I mean I was amazingly calm and it was really just like a decision. I was in the moment and I was choked up a little bit. I was not nervous, I was just caught up in the emotion of it all.
JS: It was interesting leaving. Dozens of people stopped us and were congratulating us.
KK: They were all calling us superheroes.
JS: And everyone was like, “So did you plan that?”
KK: And I was like, “I would have tucked my shirt in!”
CFA: I know he was a little choked up, what about you? (If it had been me, I’d have been weeping…)
JS: I was just excited, I was happy, and it was just perfect because the kids were there and it was very sweet and wonderful. I didn’t cry, I was happy. I think our hands were both a little shaky afterwards for a while.
CFA: Well you got engaged in front of almost 1,000 people, I think that’ll do that to a couple!
Congratulations to Ken and Jen! We’re so thrilled we got to play a role in the story of their engagement (and our fingers are crossed that Kubínek will be able to make it to the wedding!).