Duo pianists Per Tengstrand and Shan-shan Sun live in a townhouse in a Princeton zip code development. “We must be very good neighbors,” Tengstrand says. “We’re away five weeks at a time.” The globe-trotting husband-and-wife team appears in the Princeton University Concerts Chamber Music series on Thursday, October 23, in Richardson Auditorium.
“We’ll start with Brahms’ Haydn Variations,” says Tengstrand during an interview in their home to offer pre-concert notes about their upcoming program. “Brahms made the two-piano arrangement of the orchestral work himself.” A suite for two pianos, one of four written by Anton Arensky, follows. “It is charming and beautiful,” Tengstrand says. “People are always surprised by it.”
Lutoslawski’s “Paganini Variations” is also on the program. “Actually, they are variations on Brahms’ “Paganini Variations,” says Tengstrand. “Lutoslawski wrote them during World War II in Warsaw. The Nazis outlawed new pieces by Poles when they occupied Poland. So Lutoslawski wrote what he called ‘arrangements.’ He threw away more than 200 of them, but kept this one.” The program ends with Rachmaninoff’s Second Suite. “Rachmaninoff played it with Vladimir Horowitz in Beverly Hills,” Tengstrand says.
The Tengstrands practice in the studio located in their home. “We had two main considerations when we were looking for a house,” Tengstrand says. “First, privacy, and, second, a basement suitable for a studio, with a separate entrance. The first thing we did was renovate in order to soundproof the basement,” he says, conscious of the couple’s tendency to make fortissimo sounds when neighbors might be sleeping. To be sure, four o’clock in the morning is a reasonable time to wake up and play piano when you have fresh jetlag.
The Tengstrand-Sun’s neighbors know that they are professional pianists. “They complain because they can’t hear us practicing,” says Sun. The studio insulates sounds in two directions. Sounds originating in the room are kept captive, and no noise from outside enters the sparsely-furnished space.
The walls are decorated with music-specific images. A large Beethoven picture links the Tengstrand-Suns to the western musical heritage. Posters from events in which they have participated link them to their own recent past. A certificate from the duo piano competition they won in December, 2003, reminds them of their prowess.
Two grand pianos, both with lids down and covered by quilts, snuggle against each other. The smaller one is a baby grand made by Hamilton, a subsidiary of Baldwin; the larger one is a Shigeru Kawai. Tengstrand bought the Hamilton from a neighbor in 1998, when he lived in Queens. “I needed a piano right away,” he says. “The Hamilton is relatively loud, and is hard to control. It’s hard to play soft on it. The Shigeru Kawai is a handmade Japanese piano; there’s a two-year wait for them. It’s dangerous to have two good pianos for practicing.”
Tengstrand plays the Haydn theme from which Brahms fashioned orchestral variations on both pianos. The shapely gradations that emerge from the Shigeru Kawai mark it as a singularly responsive instrument. Tengstrand makes the Hamilton produce subtleties as well but he seems to have to cajole the reluctant instrument to do what he wants.
“We alternate pianos,” Sun says. “There’s never a fight about which instrument to play.”
“We save that for the concert,” Per jokes.
Both a humidifier and a de-humidifier help keep the instruments in shape. The sound insulation also stabilizes the humidity, the Tengstrand-Suns say. “It’s the best room to be in during the summer.”
A compact array of recording equipment occupies a spot in the studio. The Tengstrand-Suns record in concert halls. Afterwards, they like to edit and mix their recordings on their own, expressing their own artistic judgements. One or the other member of the duo can be heard on some 10 CDs, mostly on the Mindfeel label, which describes itself as being “artist-driven.”
A sampling of their recordings reveals the duo as performers with enormous drive and sensitivity. Their playing is immune to the muddiness that sometimes dogs music for two pianos. Their recordings are a model of transparency.
The couple met in 1997 when Tengstrand won first prize in the Cleveland International Piano Competition at the Cleveland Institute of Music. At the time Sun was a graduate student at the Institute. Her teacher, Paul Shenly, was the director of the competition. Shenly invited his students to meet Tengstrand at a reception after the winner’s concert. Before long, Tengstrand and Sun played their first piece together, the Schubert “Fantasie in F Minor.”
The duo made its debut in October, 2003, when they performed Mozart’s Two Piano Concerto with the Canton, Ohio Symphony. The performance provoked them to participate in the Murray Dranoff International Two Piano Competition in Miami, Florida, in December, where they won first prize. They married in 2005.
Tengstrand was born in 1968 in Sweden to a mathematician father and a piano teacher mother. His mother was his first teacher. His blog explains, “I really started to play the piano because of my sisters. . . . I had three elder sisters, each one using me as a prop-student when they went through their ‘want to play school teacher’ periods. . . . They all played the piano, and it really was a competition for me to beat them by getting ahead in the piano books. . . .If there was cleaning to do, or if I sensed that I had done something that might make my mother mad, I could sit down at the piano and play, and nobody would ask anything of me.”
Tengstrand made his first public appearance when he was seven years old. After studying at the Paris and Geneva Conservatories, he came to the United States in 1997 in order to play in the Cleveland competition.
Sun was born in Wuhan, China, in 1973. Her mother was a pianist for the Wuhan opera company for 20 years; she was Sun’s first teacher. Sun made her first public appearance at age six. At age nine she was selected for the Young Artist Program at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. “It was a boarding school,” she says. “I saw my family twice a year.” She came to the United States in 1991 to study at the Cleveland Institute. She studied with Susan Starr at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts from 1999 to 2003 and taught piano in Rutgers’ music department, while also concertizing in Europe, and later with Tengstrand. Before they formed the duo in 2003 she was a frequent soloist with Rutgers Symphony Orchestra and South Orange Symphony Orchestra.
When preparing for a duo concert, Tengstrand and Sun start by learning their parts separately. Only afterwards do they practice together. “That’s the fun part,” Sun says. Conversationally, they display the same sort of coordination they need for giving concerts together.
“It sounds awful,” Tengstrand says.
“We make some pretty frank comments,” Sun says.
“When you’re playing with others, you would normally start ‘Maybe, if I could suggest considering.’ something or other,” Tengstrand says. “When you’re married you say what you think. That saves a lot of time.”
Performing as duo pianists is very much a team project for Tengstrand and Sun. “We have different strengths and can draw from each other,” Tengstrand says. Each member of the duo talks more readily about the other’s strong points than about their own. Tengstrand says, “Shan-shan has a sense of clarity, not only about notes, but also about the message. She has a strong sense of how things sound and has integrated that into her thinking. I’m more unclear in my ideas. I try to always find the next step. It can be confusing. Shan-shan straightens me out.”
“Per has artistic insights,” Sun says. “He’s more into the philosophical aspects of music than I am.”
One of the Tengstrand-Sun duo’s interests is performing transcriptions of symphonic music in small towns where symphonic orchestras rarely perform. They recently gave a concert in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. However, they find that there are few places in the United States from which symphony orchestras are inaccessible. Sweden, however, remains an area where small towns welcome two piano versions of symphonic works. Tengstrand explains, “Sweden is the size of France, but only has 9 million people.”
The duo returns frequently to Sweden. In addition to the pianos in their studio, they keep two Steinway grand pianos in Sweden. Tengstrand is artistic director of three Swedish music festivals — in Helsingborg, Giresta, and Vaxjo.
Tengstrand and Sun pursue separate careers, in addition to their duo-piano performances. “I got out of all-classical music and played with a Swedish rock group called ‘The Ark,’ Tengstrand says. “We gave a concert called ‘Absolutely No Decorum.’ We played all kinds of music. No generation owned that concert.”
“While Per was busy with that, I was exploring my next project,” says Sun, “a recording of music by Nikolai Kapustin. He’s a Russian composer who writes jazz solo pieces. They’re incredibly difficult. They sound like jazz improvisation, but they’re notated.”
One performer at one piano or two performers at two pianos has been standard procedure for Tengstrand and Sun. However, Tengstrand pushed the envelope of performer-to-piano ratios on Saturday, October 4, when he helped inaugurate Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s new cutting-edge concert hall by playing three different pianos in one concert. Physicist Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the technically-oriented institution, was eager to accomplish something that would engage both sides of the brain. She was instrumental (no pun intended) in seeing through the construction of the unconventional building.
Tengstrand used the hall’s Bosendorfer, Fazioli, and Hamburg Steinway pianos for pieces by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Ravel, and Liszt, matching the aural qualities of each instrument to the composition. James Ostreich, writing in the New York Times, was happy about both the hall and the performances.
The Tengstrand-Sun Piano Duo, Thursday, October 23, 8 p.m., Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Music for two pianos, four hands. $20 to $40. 609-258-4239.