Mozart wrote his concerto for two pianos for himself and his sister. Michelle and Christina Naughton, who will play the piece with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, are related even more closely than the composer and his sister. They are identical twins. Michelle is eight minutes older than Christina.
The Naughtons perform the Mozart Concerto in E-flat Major, K. 365 in Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium on Saturday and Sunday, September 21 and 22.
The performances mark a homecoming. The Naughton sisters were born in Princeton in 1988.
They also mark an anniversary. Rossen Milanov, who conducts the Princeton Symphony Orchestra in an all-Mozart program and selected Mozart’s K. 365 Concerto for the event, is celebrating his 10th year as PSO musical director.
Michelle was available for a telephone interview with U.S. 1. K. 365 is a special piece for the Naughtons, as well as for Milanov. Milanov conducted the pianists’ Philadelphia Orchestra debut in this piece.
The piece presents similar material for both pianists, Michelle reports. “There is no big difference in terms of complexity,” she says. “Choosing the part to perform is as simple as drawing straws or tossing a coin.”
“The piece has a sibling-like rivalry,” she adds. “It’s a type of conversation, and it’s interesting to guess what Mozart wrote for himself and what he wrote for his sister.”
“The interplay with the orchestra,” she says, “is really a spontaneous collaboration between the pianos and the orchestra. The possibilities for different colors and timbres are enormous.”
Michelle is enthusiastic about playing for the first time with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra. “It’s like getting to know new friend for the first time,” she says. “We’ve already worked on the music separately. I expect a big bonding experience as we get to know each other and to find out what we can do together. It will be a new experience — coming together in a new hall, with a new ensemble. There will be a lot of give and take.”
Michelle is conscious that performing as a duo has several advantages for herself and her sister. Thinking of the loneliness of long trips, the first item she lists is “traveling together.”
Then, turning to the evolution of the duo’s history, she cites other pluses. First on her list is “enjoying playing together.” That enjoyment, she believes, leads to “spontaneity while performing.”
“That spontaneity,” she says, “takes a long time to develop. It takes a huge amount of preparation. For us it’s one of the rewards of getting to know each other very well musically.”
When I ask her about the impact of being twins on the spontaneity of the duo, she says, “I ask myself that same question. Maybe it’s having the same training. Maybe it’s having been together throughout our training.”
Then she decisively adds, “But maybe it’s that being twins, we were together a great deal of the time and came to understand each other quite well, often in ways that are not comprehensible. Maybe familiarity saves a lot of rehearsal time.”
And maybe, she adds, familiarity avoids some disagreements when performers plan a program.
Disagreements between the Naughtons are in the moment and evolve into unanimity, Michelle says. “One of us sometimes feels something that the other doesn’t. It’s a matter of individuality. When we finally agree, it’s likely to be something that neither of us suggested originally. Preparing a work is a journey into the unfamiliar. After spending hours trying to figure things out,” she admits, “we really don’t know how we reached decisions.”
“Selecting repertoire is always fun,” she says. “When we’re putting together a recital, we act as if we were putting a meal together. We think about the order of the components and how they fit together.”
“We think of it from the point of view of listeners and consider the themes and the links between pieces. We look into the emotions in pieces from different musical periods. We plan as if it were a journey. Quite likely, the audience is unaware of how we put a program together. We do not expect listeners to be conscious of our process.”
In performance the Naughtons shift roles, Michelle says. “It’s not a matter of leader and follower. We look at a score together and a leader and follower emerge. Who takes the lead depends on the situation. It’s an ongoing dialogue that depends on the music. It gradually becomes clear to us who that should be. I can’t describe it in words. Our rehearsals have an intuitive quality.”
In their daily practice, they sometimes disagree before deciding about details of performance, Michelle says. Their daily disagreements tend to be about pedaling, articulation, and voicing.
Michelle, presumably speaking for both sisters, considers performance “a conversation without words.” Indeed, she says, “Music can express more than words do.”
Trained as soloists at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and New York’s Juilliard School, the Naughtons have performed separately as well as together. “We have the same size hands,” Michelle notes.
When the sisters perform on one piano, Michelle reports, Christina prefers playing the bass part. And Michelle often lets her take the lower part.
Michelle and Christina, now 31 and based in New York City, were born in Princeton when their father, Jeffrey, was a faculty member at Princeton University. The twins were one-year-old when their father joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The Naughtons started piano at age four. Their mother, Shirley, a high school mathematics teacher, was their first piano instructor and taught each of them separately. Michelle and Christina began playing together when they were in high school, Michelle says. “We didn’t think of it earlier,” she notes.
“Music was always a family thing,” Michelle explains. “Both parents love music and wanted to share it with us. Our father, a computer guy, would drive us to lessons, and our mother came along.”
Their ethnic background is mixed. Their mother, who grew up in Wisconsin, is of Chinese ethnicity. Their father’s background is primarily Irish. “I call myself Chi-rish,” Michelle adds. “We’re American, you know.”
They have no other siblings. “It’s hard to know if we have special connections because of being twins,” Michelle says. “I grew up as a twin and never experienced anything else.”
And what would she have done if she hadn’t become a pianist? I ask. And she replies, “Wished to become pianist.”
All Mozart, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Saturday, September 21, 8 p.m., and Sunday, September 22, pre-concert talk at 3 p.m. and concert 4 p.m. $10 to $100. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.