Profile: Ivory Duo piano ensemble and “Lunchtime Live!” at Portsmouth Cathedral

Natalie Tsaldarakis and Panayotis Archontides, the Ivory Duo piano ensemble

Natalie and Panayotis are playing as the Ivory Duo piano ensemble in a “Lunchtime Live!” lunchtime recital at Portsmouth Cathedral on Thursday 5 October at 1310.

What are you looking most forward to when performing at this concert?

We are mixing up some better-known pieces with lesser-known ones, with the aim of encouraging the audience to get into a state of relaxation and becoming more open to less well known offerings.

These include pieces by Hugh Shrapnel and Hugh Benham, two British contemporary, living composers whose pieces they have been recording or about to record. While Hugh Shrapnel writes music which “describes” places in south London, Hugh Benham (local to Portsmouth) writes music which has links to pastoral themes from the 20th century. Both these people are tonal composer who’ve not shunned the idea of melody.

Who and/or what have been the most important influences on your musical careers or interest in music?

Our respective families were the first to cultivate the love of music. In Panayotis’ case, his father was a musician; in Natalie’s, no one from the family was a professional musician, but there was intense interest in classical music and the arts more generally. We were both lucky enough to work with great teachers and coaches, and later on with inspiring colleagues.

The work of the Labeque sisters (a famous French piano duo) has been of particular interest, as well as historical figures such as Richter, Arrau (whose pupil, Elizabeth Powell was Panayotis’ own teacher at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Sydney, Australia).

Our first date was at the concert of another great pianist, Grigory Sokolov, who continues to inspire us. Of particular note is our encounter with violinist Rodney Friend, the teacher of our daughter (who is a post-graduate student at RAM as a scholar). He is our definition of the quintessential musician and virtuoso, as well as a wonderful teacher of immense skill and insight. Having seen how he has worked with our daughter for the past six years has given us immense inspiration in our own educational practice, but also in our own performances to reach for the ideal through the patient working of the minute.

What have been the greatest challenges of your musical careers so far?

We were among the first to offer film music arrangements alongside repertoire from the canon and we never labelled ourselves as cross-over: there was quite a bit of resistance at first. At the same time, we have been very active performing new music. In both cases, the audiences have responded very warmly, but it is difficult to persuade them to come if they do not know what it is going to be like.

One member of audience last year, after our concert at the Athens Concert Hall performing selections from our Convivium label releases, admitted that she had been dragged to the event by a common friend and then was pleasantly surprised that her conception of new music did not match the sound of the repertoire we were performing. It was obvious that she assumed it would be painfully experimental and/or atonal, but instead left the concert as a fan of our work.

What for you are the particular pleasures and challenges of collaborating with other musicians?

Thankfully we have been married for a long time, so logistics and time management are minimal and we understand each other’s implied gestures easily. Whenever we have collaborated with other instrumentalists, rehearsing and having enough time to get in synch is always both a pleasure and an inherent challenge.

Experienced chamber musicians know that one must let the music speak and that in such polyphony there is very little space for egos. On the other hand, working with living composers has always been a unique experience in that their voice is not just the one imprinted on the score. Composers can vary greatly in their approaches: others need to achieve the exact idea they had in mind, reaching for a singular ideal, others allow the work to have its own life and encounters with the performers.

Are there any composers for whom you feel a particular affinity?

From the composers of the past, Debussy and Ravel speak to us in a way that few others do. However, we feel particularly at home with living composers.

Which works do you think you perform best? Why?

New music requires a completely different approach to the piano as an instrument. Depending on the composer, the harmonic/compositional language may vary greatly. However, the ones who still maintain recognisable tonal centres have the greatest potential for exploring the full range of colours possible on a modern piano and at the same time allow for a more direct communication with the audience.

Which performances are you most proud of?

We are very proud that we recently gave a very successful concert with less than two days’ notice (36 hrs!). We only did something similar years ago, when we ended up learning Alkan’s Don Juan Fantasy for four hands within a weekend and had to perform it at the Alkan Festival at the invitation of the then president, Yonti Solomon. The society’s other members, besides the president, never found out that it was given months prior to a different duo who had to surrender it as unplayable. The review called our performance ‘the star performance of the evening’, so we did rather well!

What are your most memorable concert experiences, either as a performers, composers or listeners?

The beauty and sheer magnetic quality of Krystian Zimmerman’s recital at the Athens Concert Hall is one of those. The Chopin Funeral Sonata’s last movement was as if there was indeed wind over the tombs: sound emanating from the piano was both ominous and almost not human. An overwhelming experience.

Panayotis would like to add his own performance for the Athens Olympics 2004 (Olympic flame induction ceremonies). Also memorable was a very recent concert by Martino Tirimo, playing at the Stoller Hall in Manchester: a master with an incomparable voice and authority, yet natural and compelling in his projection of both the Chopin and Schubert. Martino has coached us in the past and was the driving force behind Natalie’s PhD thesis on his own teacher, Gordon Green. The links to pianism from earlier times is touching as they are almost palpable in his performances.

What advice would you give to those who are considering a career in music?

A career is not the same as ability. A lot of people have musical ability, but not everyone has a career, or has the career the way they imagined it. It is a very tough, competitive field, which requires fortitude, artistic vision, and finding ways to keep alive the inspiration and quest for excellence. It also teaches one how to live in the present and accept it for the gift it is.

We would also like to add that ‘a career in music’ is actually many different avenues to engage with music: as a soloist, part of a chamber or orchestral group, researcher, promoter, teacher, or even specialist in related health services, there is not just one path, but a multitude of choices.

How would you define success as a musician?

Our own definition of success is to be able to continue to grow as artists and musicians and to know that we have made members of the audience happy for the experience of listening to our repertoire choices.

What would you like to be doing in 5 years’ time?

We hope to continue with our recording projects, including recording 20th century concertos for two pianos or as a piano duet. Natalie is looking forward to publishing her thesis as a book (the research also takes an in-depth look at European pianistic traditions, their representations, and their influences on British pianists). Finally, in late October of this year we are also debuting, so to speak, as the artistic directors of the newly minted PianoPlus International Recital Series at the All Saints church in Orpington. We hope to be able to see it succeed and grow.

About the Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble

The Ivory Duo Piano Ensemble is a London-based duo and its pianists are in demand as performers, arrangers, and teachers.

The ensemble was formed as a result of the pianists’ their desire to explore chamber repertoire for and with the piano. Throughout the course of their musical career, the pianists have been performing music mainly for piano four hands and for two pianos (at times accompanied by other instruments as well) especially from late Romantic era to new music.

Their collaboration with Convivium Records label coincided with the onset of the pandemic. Their well-received first CD (Elements of London; Hugh Shrapnel/John E. Lewis composers) was followed by annual releases of music mostly by British composers for piano solo and piano duo.

The release on 24/2/2023 saw P. Archontides as the pianist in works for violin and piano which includes important compositions by Benjamin Britten, Manolis Kalomiris, and others (Rhapsody; Lisa Archontidi-Tsaldaraki, violin).


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