Interview with the Jacobson-Brown Piano Duo

Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown, photo by Roger HarrisIt’s not a Jackdaws-first, but this Summer will certainly be the first time in many years that we welcome a renowned Piano Duo to lead one of our weekend music courses. We managed to get five minutes with Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown, in between performing together at such prestigious venues as London’s Purcell Rooms and across Europe (not to mention their solo performances!)

How did you come to start playing together?

Julian: Around 1999 I was doing a two-piano recording for the BBC in the Maida Vale studios. My page turner was replaced at the last moment by a friendly girl who did it so well that I asked her – Mariko – if she would be interested in turning for further concerts and recordings. This continued for several years until one day – knowing that Mariko was an excellent pianist and that we shared many similar musical tastes – I suggested that it might be nice to play some duets together and, in particular, that she could join me for a performance of Rhapsody in Blue. It was so much fun preparing and playing this that we decided to form our duo and work on it as a significant part of both of our musical lives. And it has now become a passion, from which we both get great satisfaction – and, still, fun!

You are two exceptional musicians but have extremely different experience and backgrounds. How does this influence the way you play together?

Any duo has to operate by give-and-take. At the beginning I was inevitably the more experienced partner, and this may have been a factor in our first concerts, but now it feels very much like an equal partnership. I think we each have different strengths and qualities that complement each other. My early experience as a jazz pianist probably influenced our Gershwin and tango playing! Fundamentally, though, our approach to music-making is the same, and also we have a similar touch, possibly because Mariko’s teacher Joan Havill was a pupil of my last teacher Louis Kentner. It’s difficult to be, literally, together with a duo partner whose touch is too dissimilar to yours – the attack is so direct and you really have to feel it in the same way.

What are the benefits of playing duet repertoire?

One learns humility! If things in your own playing are not coming across as you think then your partner won’t find it easy to play with you, and he or she may hear this better than you do yourself. But really there are benefits on so many fronts: rhythmic control and stability, learning to focus on the other person’s part as much as your own (which benefits any other duo and ensemble playing one is doing), tonal balance, the importance of sticking to what you have rehearsed and capturing it in performance, super-accurate pedalling which requires close listening as it has to work for the whole texture, not just your own part. In a nutshell, concentration, flexibility, discipline and reliability.

Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown lead their Piano Duets Weekend at Jackdaws from Friday 3 July – Sunday 5 July 2015.

What can people expect from your Jackdaws course? Will they need to sightread?

No sight-reading is expected. We are hoping to attract teams who already play together and so will bring their own, prepared repertoire. However pianists can also apply as “singles” and we will team you up with another single based on your experience, level and also location so that you can hopefully get together for a few rehearsals before the course. Or one of us will play the other part with you. We can recommend appropriate repertoire if this would be a help. In the course you will be coached as a duo by one or both of us, but there will also be the opportunity for help on your individual parts. It will be be a busy course and we hope it will be a lot of fun! There will as usual be a concert at the end with all the pieces that are ready for performance.

Julian Jacobson Mariko Brown Piano DuoIsn’t the four hand repertoire a bit limited – just some Mozart pieces and Schubert’s F minor Fantasie?

The Schubert Fantasie is a sublime masterpiece and one of our favourites – but the duet repertoire is enormous and contains every kind of music! The first known keyboard duet is by Thomas Tomkins, “Fancy For Two To Play” (c.1650), and very fine it is too. In addition to Schubert’s treasure trove, most of the major piano composers have written fine duets – Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt, Rachmaninov – and the French composers have absolutely excelled in four-hands music: we can mention Fauré’s “Dolly” Suite, Debussy’s Petite Suite, Ravel’s “Mother Goose” and Poulenc’s Sonata for starters, fabulous pieces and not too difficult. In addition there is the whole world of arrangements, from György Kurtág’s beautiful Bach transcriptions to Henry Levine’s classic transcription of “Rhapsody in Blue”. And simpler pieces in jazz style such as Richard Rodney Bennett’s delightful “Suite for Skip and Sadie” (his two cats)… the list goes on and on. You can click on our repertoire page for some ideas.

What about the logistics of piano duets – do you fight over who gets the pedals? How do you decide who takes the treble and who takes the bass? And do you knock elbows?

No fighting, or rarely! Normally the Secondo takes the pedals, though exceptionally we will change over – there is no point in the Secondo pedalling for a lengthy solo passage in the Primo part. Some duos always keep the same position but we switch freely – usually we just instinctively feel what will work best. Having decided, we then of course stick with the same part, though occasionally we might change over in rehearsal to get to know the piece better. Yes one knocks elbows, brushes hands and constantly gets in the way of the other! But a significant part of rehearsing duets is working out “where to go”, whether one’s hand goes above or below the other’s when there is a clash, sometimes changing one’s fingering for one that gets less in the way. In other words – negotiating territorial claims!

Can you share one tip for rehearsing a piano duet?

Decide who’s going to turn the page in rehearsal! Every page turn will work better with one player or the other and this will help the continuity. We mark our copies with “T” for turn at the appropriate point.

Do you have plans to release any commercial recordings?

Our first recording has already been released on Naxos – this is a CD of music by Julian’s father Maurice Jacobson who many pianists of a certain age remember as a prominent festival adjudicator but who was also a serious composer. There are two duet pieces including “Theme and Variations”, by far the longest and most substantial work on the CD. But we are very keen to get on with recording some of our main repertoire, especially Mozart, Schubert, Ravel, Debussy, Gershwin and our contemporary pieces (some written especially for us – including by ourselves!), and we have a number of possible avenues for this.

Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown come to Jackdaws to lead their Piano Duets Weekend from Friday 3 July – Sunday 5 July 2015.

BoathouseFlower KarolynPiano Duets Weekend
Julian Jacobson and Mariko Brown
Friday 3 – Sunday 5 July 2015
Level: Advanced
Fee: £200
B&B: Available on Request
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