Piano duo brings new music to life

By J. Adrian Aumen, College of Arts & Sciences

Karen-and-Jeff-Savage-webPULLMAN, Wash. – The October release of an uncommon CD of music for two pianos is testament to the married performers’ funding ingenuity, brilliant performance, commitment to expand their profession’s repertoire and perseverance in the face of a cancer diagnosis.

Washington State University pianists Karen and Jeffrey Savage, also known as 88SQUARED, have played piano in both the four-hand form (at one instrument) and two-piano form since they met more than two decades ago. Over the years, their complementary styles evolved to award-winning heights.

As invitations to perform increased worldwide, they felt limited by the relatively few compositions written for two pianos. So Karen applied for a new faculty seed grant through the WSU Office of Research to support the commissioning and recording of a new work.

“We wanted to build our own repertoire and help build the available body of works for others to perform,” she said.

WSU seed grant prompts more support

Leveraging the research seed grant, the couple gathered additional support to commission a new work by one of the world’s foremost modern composers, Lowell Liebermann, and to fund a recording of his collected two-piano works.

They competed against hundreds of applicants to win a state Artist Trust grant and received additional funding from the National Federation of Music Clubs, Washington State Music Teachers Association, WSU College of Arts and Sciences dean’s office and WSU School of Music.

In July 2012, with Liebermann at work on the new composition, they were on track to professionally record and perform the world premiere.

That’s when, at age 39 and with a toddling son at home, Karen was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer. The recording project was put on hold.

‘Fortunate to be able to play’

During the ensuing year of treatment and surgery, Karen underwent an extended regimen of chemotherapy that carried with it another type of threat: permanent neuropathy or numbness in the extremities, such as fingers. Her doctors took extra care to monitor her treatment and minimize any risk to her pianist’s hands. Their efforts were successful.

“Thank goodness for modern medicine and the prayers and support of our friends, family and community,” Karen said. “Frankly, I’m very fortunate to be able to play the piano.”

Karen regained her health while their research and recording project regained momentum.

Recording is ‘one of his finest’

Liebermann completed the commissioned work, “Sonata for Two Pianos, Opus 117” – a richly textured piece of nearly 20 minutes praised by critics as “one of his finest works.”

Jeff and Karen Savage, right, and Lowell Liebermann and William Hobbs in WSU’s Kimbrough Concert Hall during their recording session.

“It’s kind of a showpiece, with wonderful colors and harmonies, and architecturally very satisfying for both the performers and the audience,” Jeff said. Composed in four movements, the sonata includes a scherzo the duo describes as “impish and playful.” It finishes with “one of the most exciting finales – a virtuoso powerhouse,” he said.

Last summer at WSU, 88SQUARED recorded the sonata and three other compositions for two pianos by Liebermann. Acclaimed pianist William Hobbs joined them along with the composer in performing and recording Liebermann’s “Daydream and Nightmare for Two Pianos, Eight Hands.”

The new compact disc, Lowell Liebermann, Complete Works for Two Pianos, was released in October by Albany Records and is being aired on public radio and commercial stations nationwide.

“Other duos are already starting to play the sonata that we commissioned, which is very exciting for us because we feel like we contributed to something that was really needed,” Karen said.

Rave reviews on the world stage

88SQUARED presented the international premiere of the “Sonata for Two Pianos” to rave reviews in Singapore, where the national newspaper wrote: “the fearless performance alone was worth the price of entry… the finale was a double fugue in perpetual motion theme that seemed almost impossible to play. In these secure hands, impossibility became not just reality but totally pleasing music.”

Overhead view of the matching Fazioli grand pianos in WSU’s Kimbrough Concert Hall being played by Jeff and Karen Savage, right, and Lowell Liebermann and William Hobbs during their recording session.

“Jeff and Karen approached the project with such enthusiasm, dedication and artistry that it was a composer’s dream to work with them,” Liebermann said. “I cannot imagine a better performance of my pieces.”

88SQUARED recently performed two-piano works by Liebermann and other well-known composers in Canada, Chicago, New York and Pullman. Winner of the 2009 Ellis Piano Duo Competition and numerous other prizes, the couple has invitations to perform at prestigious music halls and scholarly conferences for years to come.

Listen to 88SQUARED performing Liebermann’s “Daydream and Nightmare” on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMAQF-PdSOw. Watch a video excerpt of the WSU recording session of the work performed by Liebermann, Hobbs and 88SQUARED at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XppD5ApDUQo.


Jeffrey Savage, WSU School of Music, 509-335-3991, jrsavage@wsu.edu
Karen Savage, WSU School of Music, 509-335-3971, khsavage@wsu.edu
Adrian Aumen, WSU College of Arts and Sciences, 509-335-5671, adriana@wsu.edu