Multiple hands, one big concert |

Multiple hands, one big concert

Strings Music Festival opens new venue with gala piano performance

Margaret Hair

Alpin Hong and Jade Simmons have heard a lot about one another.

Two young, much-talked-about pianists at the top their game, Hong and Simmons have never shared a stage. On Saturday, they’ll share a piano during an opening gala concert for the new Strings Music Festival season and venue.

“We have never met, and the thing is of course in chamber music, is that it all depends on the personal relationship,” Hong said of his upcoming musical closeness to Simmons, along with pianists Cary Lewis and Erika Nickrenz. The concert, “Two Pianos, Eight Hands: A Keyboard Extravaganza,” works all possible combinations of the four pianists in works by Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Bach, Milhaud, Lutoslawski, Tchaikovsky and Wagner.

Some of these pieces are more personal than others. Bach’s “Das Dreyblatt,” for one piano and six hands, puts one male piano player between two women on the same bench.

“His arms go around the two female pianists on the outside, and it kind of requires you to know the pianists very well,” Hong said. That won’t exactly be the case on Saturday, with two days of intense rehearsals serving as the beginning, middle and immediate end of the four pianists’ artistic relationship.

With a program made up of easily recognizable pieces, – “1812 Overture,” “Ride of the Valkyries” – Simmons said she hopes the audience will enjoy the show for its showiness.

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“There’s always the risk that you’re playing pieces that seem a little bit cheesy to play on the piano,” Simmons said while taking a break from practicing earlier in the week. “My little sister : she’s not a classical musician, but of course she knows all those tunes. Putting together those kinds of things, I think the audience for sure will enjoy hearing those tunes.”

Each of the “Two Hands” performers came to the concert in a different way. For Hong, opening the new Strings Music Pavilion is a debt of personal gratitude to the festival’s organizers for a boost that came with a performance for a Strings sponsor.

“At that time, I was at that part in my career where I didn’t really know where to go,” Hong said. Betse Grassby, director of operations and nonclassical programming for Strings, referred Hong to Gregg Little, who now is his manager.

“Betse is so funny, she’s kind of like everyone’s mom. She kind of took me under her wing and was so supportive,” Hong said. He returned to Routt County this winter for a series of educational outreach performances, mixing his love of classical piano with his love of snowboarding to reach a younger audience. When the idea came up to do a piano gala opening for the Strings Music Pavilion – a venue Hong described as “rising out of the mud” – he accepted without hesitation.

“Just to know that we’ll be the first musicians to kind of suffuse the hall with its spirit, there’s something kind of special in that,” Hong said. “Just think of all the genius that is going to be represented in that hall for times to come. I think it’s just going to make such a mark.”