A head nod. A sway. A shift in their shoulders.
Caribbean-American pianists and siblings Michelle and Kimberly Cann do not need a conductor. Even with their backs to one another or two separate pianos between them, the women change tempo and fall into their music, always managing to stay together without seeing one another’s hands.
Kimberly Cann calls it “some sort of magic sister connection” mixed with a strong dose of ensemble experience, which they will debut as a professional duo on Saturday, April 6, during the fourth concert of the annual “Rising Stars Piano Series” at the Southampton Cultural Center, now in its 10th year.
Series organizer Liliane Questel said she is thrilled to celebrate the milestone anniversary, and that nobody has been more surprised with its popularity and staying power than she.
“No, no, no, I never thought we would still be here,” she said last week during a telephone interview. “And this year’s pianists are all performers from years past.”
A decade ago, the series began on the second floor of the Veterans Memorial Hall in Southampton with pianists plucked by Ms. Questel from “Pianofest,” an intensive piano study program in East Hampton run by director Paul Schenly.
It was a hot summer evening, recalled Russian pianist Konstantin Soukhovetski last week in an email exchange. He was the first pianist to ever perform in the series, he said, and he remembers it well.
“We had to open the windows to keep from fainting,” he said. “I was beginning my concertizing career and it felt so wonderful to be among ‘family’ of PianoFest, my Hamptons friends.” He added, “It’s a pleasure and an honor to be performing on the 10th anniversary season. For me, it has a special added meaning as I look at the beautiful Levitas stage and play the fabulous Steinway. How the series has grown since that first, hot summer evening concert 10 years ago.”
During his encore performance on May 18, Mr. Soukhovetski will bring a program of pieces from Richard Strauss’s final opera, “Capriccio”—which is “some of the best music ever written,” the performer said—plus a selection from Philip Glass’s film score for “The Hours” and his own version of Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse,” which he said he brings closer to the orchestral sound while juxtaposing the sensuality and terror in the music.
“It’s one of the most striking and deductive compositions ever,” Mr. Soukhovetski said. “Originally meant to be a ballet, but then rejected by Diaghilev as un-choreographable, this whirlwind waltz represents the final moments of the old world ball culture before its eminent extinction.”
The Cann sisters will also perform “La Valse,” but the duo piano version that actually preceded the solo version. They will also perform variations on a theme of Nicolò Paganini by Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski; Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, Op. 17;” and “Rock-a-My-Soul” by Dolores White.
“As an African-American female composer, she’s in quite the minority,” Kimberly Cann said of Ms. White during a telephone interview last week. “And duo piano music is scarce as it is. Michelle and I have been trying to step outside the box of our conservatories and search for these composers who might not otherwise hit the spotlight on a broader basis but have amazing works to offer.”
Six years older than her sister, Kimberly Cann first found herself in front of a piano at age 3 while growing up in Bermuda. Her father, Leonard, had moved back to his native country to launch a music education program in the school system with his brother, Michael—one of the young girl’s strongest influences.
Kimberly’s earliest childhood memories are of sitting with her uncle, listening to him play classical guitar and being enthralled by the sound, she said.
“Unfortunately, Michelle never met him,” Ms. Cann said. “He passed away the same day she was born in 1987. It’s ridiculous. Michael was amazing. He had lung cancer. And he was only 36. He made such an impact in Bermuda, as well as my dad. Previous to them, there was no formal music program at the few schools there. They gave back a lot to really start those programs up.”
The family moved back to the United States and Michelle Cann was born in North Carolina, where they lived for six years before relocating to Florida. It was there she officially began her training—apart from imitating her older sister.
For a number of years, anything Kimberly Cann said about piano was law, Michelle Cann explained last week during a telephone interview. Then, the younger sister hit her defiant age.
As they both grew older and became more invested in piano, the girls—both multi-instrumentalists—had to split up their practice time. When Kimberly Cann was finished playing, her younger sister would sneak into the piano room and take a seat at the bench, in front of her sibling’s more challenging music.
“I’d be like, ‘I’m big and bad.’ I’d try to play one of the music pieces she was working on, figure out the notes,” Ms. Cann said. “I’d hack away at it, but obviously, I knew very well that it annoyed Kim to no end. Think about it. ‘This is a piece I’m working on. Who are you, trying to come and show off and act like you can play it? You’re playing it badly. Play your music.’”
She burst out laughing at the memory and continued, “She would run into the room and snatch the music off the stand. I’d sometimes time her to see how long it would take for her to hear me. It was hilarious. I thought it was funny, but I’m sure she didn’t.”
The sisters know each other inside and out, they said. They have the same influences—most notably their parents—and similar modes of thought about music.
But even though they’re made of the same genetic material and have a staggering number of similarities, their personalities and musical approaches are drastically different. While Kimberly Cann is more introspective and looks at music as a whole, Michelle Cann is more flamboyant, her sister said, and enjoys breaking down a piece note by note.
“We get into these little musical arguments that maybe go differently when it’s two professionals who are colleagues,” Michelle Cann said. “We’re siblings. Let’s not act like we’re not going to be honest with one another. We might come out on the stage smiling, but you can imagine it’s not exactly like that every single moment. It’s just not possible. Anyone with siblings can almost immediately relate to that. We’d have to be some type of weird, robotic creation if there was never any discord.”
While distance can make the heart grow fonder—650 miles to be exact, with Michelle Cann currently living in Pennsylvania and her sister residing in North Carolina—it makes rehearsals hard to come by. But that is the least of their concerns.
They’ve had a lifetime of practicing, from their early days playing in church, Michelle Cann said.
“We’d be on opposite sides of the church, playing piano and organ duets,” she said. “We’d be so far apart. I think that’s where we started getting a lot of experience, just feeling, listening. People say all the time, ‘How in the world are you two together? How can you start a piece, change tempos, do everything at the same time and not have a conductor?’ So I must admit, I tell people, ‘Being sisters helps.’
“We know each other’s playing, but also because we have that experience, not being able to see each other on the other side of the sanctuary, of if we did, just seeing Kim nod her head, listening to the way she does her phrasing and making sure we were together,” she said. “And it has only gone on from there.”
The 10th anniversary of the “Rising Stars Piano Series” will continue with Michelle and Kimberly Cann on Saturday, April 6, at 7 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center. Additional concerts include Di Wu on Saturday, April 27; Konstantin Soukhovetski on May 18; Anna Polonsky and Orion Weiss on June 8; Anthony Molinaro on October 5; Awadagin Pratt on November 9; and Qi Wu on December 14. All concerts are 50 minutes and will be followed by a reception with the pianists. Tickets are $15, or free for students. For more information, call 287-4377 or visit scc-arts.org.
One fine body…