Today’s Blog looks at one of Canada‘s major up-and-coming piano duo’s - fresh off earning second prize in the ARD competition in Germany earlier this month.
The Duo, comprised of Charissa Vandikas and Linda Ruan, first met in Vancouver at the CFMTA National piano competition, where they placed first and second respectively. Both continued their studies at the Glenn Gould school where they had the opportunity to work with James Anagnoson, who along with Leslie Kinton are amongst the statesman of piano duos in the world today.
In their short career together La Fiammata has won the CMC grand prize and performed with numerous orchestras in Canada and Europe. They have been featured on CBC radio and for many important recital series in Canada. Further to this, they have been featured as Young Artists in Residence at the internationally acclaimed Festival of the Sound in Parry Sound Ontario.
The Musical Blog caught up with Linda and Charissa during the week or so after their success in Germany to shed insight for aspiring young students as to international competition preparation, mindset, as well as their next steps together.
MB - Congratulations on your success at ARD! This is a very big international competition and draws some incredible talent across a broad variety of disciplines. Can you tell us what it was like to perform at this level and for such a distinguished jury?
LF - Thank you! The actual competition performance experience was quite fulfilling in the sense that we had prepared to the best of our abilities in the time that we had, so bringing that onstage came down to the enjoyable matter of presenting our work on beautiful instruments and in gorgeous halls to a live audience (the largest since the pandemic began!). Of course, it was quite nerve-wracking - we always knew the level of the competition would be very high, and playing in front of such an accomplished jury whose job is to scrutinize our every note naturally adds to the pressure of the moment. But at the end of the day, performing together is always exciting, enjoyable, and spontaneous. Having each other on stage is always reassuring in that way.
MB - How long did you prepare for this competition? Can you tell us a little bit about the repertoire you prepared for each round?
LF - We began looking at the repertoire guidelines when it was released in November of 2020. Once we decided on the repertoire based on the strict guidelines, we tried to set ourselves manageable long-term and short-term goals to learn the music throughout the year. The real stretch of intense daily rehearsals didn't happen until July of 2021 when Charissa was able to fly over to Vancouver to live with Linda. This is when we made most of our progress in learning the immense repertoire and polishing it to competition standard.
There were a total of five rounds in this competition. The initial prescreening included a compulsory Mozart sonata and a free choice work - for which we used an old recording of Poulenc Double Concerto. The first round consisted of mandatory Beethoven Waldstein Variations, as well as two free selections of a duet and a duo. We played selections from Corigliano's Gazebo Dances and the first movement of Brahms’ Sonata in F Minor for Two Pianos - both of which are old, familiar pieces we've known since our undergraduate years. The next three rounds happened in-person this past September in Munich. For the second round, we began with the Poulenc Double Piano Concerto, then the Schubert Rondo in A Major, D. 951 (which we picked from a list of Schubert pieces) and selections from Messiaen's Visions de l'Amen (also selected from a list of modern works for piano duo). The semifinal round consisted of a Bach concerto with chamber orchestra, commissioned work, a duet selection by Max Reger, and a selection from the list of Romantic piano duo works - we decided on Rachmaninoff's Second Suite for Two Pianos. For the final round, each duo had to play Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat Major.
MB - These type of events are marathons and not sprints. Can you walk us through the timeline of the event? Did you find Covid screenings and jet leg to be an issue?
LF - The competition began with a prescreening round back in March! Charissa flew over to record the round and then we put things on hold for a while waiting for results and wrapping up our respective graduate degrees. The first round was also held online near the end of June, and after recording this, there was a month-long wait for results (we did our best to continue preparation in the meantime). We got the news that we made it through to the live rounds at the end of July, and then had one month to prepare the remaining three rounds - about two and a half hours of music - before we flew to Munich. This month was unsurprisingly busy and intense! We had deadlines for memorization and scheduled a number of run-throughs both online and for small in-person audiences in the week or two leading up to our departure. The covid screening was pretty straightforward, but we encountered a couple of bumps in the road when it came to the actual travel - thankfully nothing we couldn't figure out. We arrived at the end of August and then had three days before we played our second round. The semifinal round was just two days after this. Jet lag was a big issue for these two rounds...honestly, that first week in Munich is all a bit foggy! But by the finals, eight days after we'd arrived, we were settled. This whole experience has definitely been a marathon - though maybe with a sprint at the end!
MB - The semifinal round featured a commissioned work. How long did you get to prepare it, and did you get to meet the composer? What were your thoughts on the piece and did the composer offer any insights?
LF - We received the piece in March after we passed the pre-screening. However, we didn't really begin to work on it until June. We were really fortunate to receive guidance on the piece from Linda's high school teacher Dr. Corey Hamm at UBC who was extremely helpful in deciphering the piece. Before the performance, we were also able to create a narrative and some vivid images for sections of the piece that we would aim to depict. While we didn't get to meet the composer, we did hear his interview speaking about the piece. Our perspective of the piece actually fits quite well with the idea that he wanted to depict according to his interview, so we were quite happy with that! The piece has many unpredictable components so it was definitely a lot of fun to perform!
MB - Concerto playing is an incredible experience and you both had the chance to perform two concertos at this competition: the Bach C major concerto for 2 pianos in the semifinal round, and the Mozart double piano concerto in the final round. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to put these concertos together with the orchestra - and the nuances involved in working both with and without a conductor?
LF - Both of these experiences were so inspiring for us! The Munich Chamber Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were really incredible to play with. The Bach was performed with the chamber orchestra and no conductor. This was the first time either of us had performed a concerto without a conductor, but the orchestra was so responsive that we felt quite at home. It really felt like chamber music in how we listened and interacted with the other lines. The Mozart with the symphony orchestra was another experience entirely. With many more people on stage, we need to be clearer and more intentional about any time-taking, and of course, the balance is going to be quite different when playing with fifty people versus fifteen. We constantly needed to remind ourselves that when playing with big orchestras, things move slightly slower and gestures are bigger. We are super thankful that we had Daniel Giglberger, the concertmaster of the Munich Chamber Orchestra, and conductor Radoslaw Szulc to help us in our collaboration with these two fantastic orchestras.
MB - Large international competitions such as this are often quite generous with prize money and career opportunities. Can you elaborate on some of the opportunities which are coming your way as the direct result of being a prize winner in this competition?
LF - Yes, we were super fortunate to receive the second prize which includes a significant cash prize. Additionally, we were also awarded the Henle prize which gives us access to good editions of scores. There's just been a great multitude of interviews both on German radio and TV and general public exposure with this competition we received. We're very grateful for all the support we received from the public.
MB - This competition format tested both piano duo (for two pianos), and piano duet (for one piano four hands). Can you talk about the challenges inherent in both mediums, and is there one which you tend to prefer over the other?
LF - Both of these configurations present their own set of unique challenges. With two pianos, there's a big physical distance between us when we sit face to face, which makes things like ensemble and blend of sound much harder to navigate. It's especially difficult when the two pianos aren't evenly matched, which is often the case (though not a problem we encountered in the ARD thanks to the wonderful technician Romina Tobar). When sharing a keyboard with four hands, the subtler and more nuanced communication comes a bit more naturally. Often this is expressed more with body language than with the facial cues we rely on in a two-piano setting. The difficulty is much the same - balancing between twenty fingers, ensemble, and so on, but achieving unity here is much more challenging. Additionally, the choreography poses a unique obstacle when it comes to sharing a keyboard: figuring out who should pedal, how to avoid hand collisions, and ensuring comfortable playing positions for both parties. And not to mention, pedaling for two people is a significant point of discussion as it requires an airtight understanding of the intricacies of both parts at any given moment.
We've had this conversation a number of times, and for the moment the consensus is that two-piano music is sometimes more fun to play, but four-hands is sometimes more satisfying and meaningful.
MB - You are both wonderfully accomplished soloists and yet when you play together there’s a feeling of oneness in the delivery between the two of you which is rare - and of course the goal of all chamber ensembles. What is the secret behind your collective success?
LF - We are very different as musicians and as people. Because of this, we're able to learn a lot from each other and explore ideas that we might not normally come up with on our own. We also happen to be great friends, and - as we've mentioned again and again - it's so much fun to play together! Our dynamic as a duo is very interesting because of this, but on a more professional level, we're just both very committed to doing our best and making things work by demonstrating healthy communication and respect towards one another. Ultimately, it's always a work in progress, but one that we think is worthwhile.
MB - Ensembles and chamber music are often an aspect of music making which young people at the pre-college level don’t always get a chance to participate in as abundantly as at the collegiate level. Can you recommend some good duets and duos that would be appropriate starting pieces for younger ensembles let's say at an intermediate to advanced level?
LF - There are so many wonderful duets to explore! Mozart sonatas, Schubert pieces, and Brahms and Dvorak dances. There are also a number of French pieces that are stunning - Ravel's Mother Goose Suite as well as Faure's Dolly Suite. Duets and duos are also a great way to explore symphonic repertoire as well as other important chamber works we pianists don't get a chance to intimately know - such as Beethoven string quartets and many many symphonies. It's so much fun to play with another pianist so please take whatever chance you get!
MB - What is next for La Fiamatta?
LF - We always have so much fun performing together and we hope to continue this - especially after making it through this competition, which has been such an encouraging and life-changing experience. In the immediate future, however, Linda is going off to the Tianjin Juilliard School to study chamber music and Charissa is continuing her studies at the Université de Montréal.
But keep an eye out, we definitely have some exciting projects in the works for the next time we’re reunited! To keep updated on our activities, be sure to check out our website and like our Facebook page!