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Jul. 28—It's a hot, humid, the-beach-is-calling July afternoon in Stonington Borough. But Judith Gordon and Jiayan Sun, who have traveled down from Northampton, are not dressed for sea and sand.
Rather, inside the pleasantly cool La Grua Center, the eminent musicians are in rehearsal for Saturday's "Homage to Bach I" two- and four-hands piano program, the latest in the facility's Music Matters concert series. Each is seated at one of the pair of La Grua house pianos that are stars unto themselves — a 1930 Mason & Hamlin Model AA salon grand and an 1886 Chickering Scale 77 concert grand.
The program includes Bach's Concerto in C major for two solo keyboards; György Kurtág's four-hands transcriptions of five Bach chorales; and the two-piano version Ferrucio Busoni's Fantasia contrappunitistica, BV 256b.
As the pianists rehearse, Christopher Greenleaf, an internationally known classical music producer with dozens of major label sessions on his resume, and who serves as an artistic advisor for the La Grua Center, quietly makes his way about the otherwise empty room. To ensure maximum sound quality Saturday, he's adroitly placing and nuancing microphones, running cables to a mixing board in another room, then listening and adjusting again.
This is all part of a mission Greenleaf and La Grua have undertaken in the series to significantly elevate the level of musical artistry and programming while at the same time fostering an all-are-welcome environment. Maybe the person seated next to you is a conservatory trained scholar. Or, just as likely, he or she might not know a great deal about Pierre Boulez or a Haydn piano trio but has been made to feel comfortable at the concerts by a communal sense of spirit and enjoyment at any level of classical music sophistication.
"The challenge has been to raise the bar ferociously in terms of the musicians and repertoire, but it's important for our audience to know there's not going to be a test at the end," Greenleaf says. "We want people to be here not because of institutional rigor but because they have warm and personal experiences. These concerts are fun and rewarding to see and hear."
To that end, the Music Matters performances start at 5 p.m. and run a brisk 60-75 minutes with no interruptions. And, coming out of a plague year in which the La Grua presented high quality online concerts, that the series continues live is a matter of relief and pride.
Greenleaf is thoughtful when he discusses La Grua's benefactors. "These people dig deep in their pockets to ensure we pay musicians full price at a difficult time. These people have so much heart. And I may be motivated by passion, but if I wasn't consistently backed up by (La Grua executive director) Lori Robishaw and (program director) Kelli Rocherolle and a board of directors who have consistently supported this, it wouldn't happen. It's a committed effort to present these programs the way we envision them."
Music in motion
Sun, a native of China with a doctorate from Juilliard and a tenure track position at Smith College, has appeared as a soloist with top-flight orchestras across the globe. The New York Times calls his performances "revelatory," and he's won major prizes at the Leeds, Cleveland, Dublin and Toronto international piano competitions. Gordon is a graduate of the New England Conservatory. She has collaborated with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Yo-Yo Ma, Peter Serkin and the Apple Hill, Borromeo, Daedalus and Lydian string quartets. She also has an extensive recording catalog and travels frequently on the festival circuit.
While their talent and empathy for the material is instantly obvious at the La Grua rehearsal, it's just as amazing to watch their irresistible performance styles as they play the haunting second movement of the Bach Concerto in C for two solo keyboards.
Gordon sways in time to the music, with an occasional free hand floating above the keyboard like a swan's wing. Meanwhile, Sun is more stationary, with his head nodding rapidly in barely perceptible punctuation to the passages. Their shared sense of dynamics is sensational, and the instruments respond with rich timbre and sustain.
The pair switch pianos to try another, more aggressive piece that requires each artist to respectively concentrate on solo sections at certain points or provide support that represents a full orchestra. Now Sun hunches forward with the sort of focus that suggests he's stalking a bear. Gordon continues to sway hypnotically — then reacts dramatically to a sudden and momentary stop in the music like a kid who's ridden the same roller coaster dozens of times and knows the big gravity drop is coming, but still can't resist the joy of it when it happens.
A certain type of artist
"These artists are just amazing, and this is not the easiest repertoire," Greenleaf says. "They each have this lyrical quality — a song-like ability — to take their visions of the composer, and, boy, do they make him relative to our time."
Greenleaf is particularly solicitous when speaking with potential artists for the series, aware as always of the limitations of budgets, musicians' availability and repertoire — as well as the specific ideals of La Grua and Music Matters.
"I approach performers who are able to tell a musical tale sweepingly and lyrically, with rare awareness of what it takes to captivate critical listeners," Greenleaf says. "... I want artists with a story to tell and who can spellbind an audience. I'm not looking for competition winners but the artists who would win the audience favorite award. These are musicians who can impassion you because they have not just the artistry but the charisma."
Greenleaf acknowledges that a main selling point with musicians is the pianos themselves. He speaks eloquently and with genuine feeling about the vintage instruments. "They differ yet are the same quality. When you have pianos by the two great Boston houses, their size relative to each other isn't particularly relevant.
"That feisty little Mason & Hamlin, a salon grand, is capable of the same range of color, power, subtlety and sheer beauty as its elder aunt, the Chickering concert grand. It just has a different accent. They complement each other gorgeously. Though a modest grand naturally doesn't have the depth and almost orchestral sheen of a concert grand, both pianos have a vast range of color and respond readily to the breathtaking speed of the fast passages."
Greenleaf pauses. "In the end," he says, "it's all a single mission for us: unsilencing musicians after the wretchedness of the plague and to guarantee in our small community the continuity of cultural experiences for the public, the artists, and each other."
Judith Gordon and Jiyana Sun, 5 p.m. Saturday, La Grua Center, 32 Water St., Stonington; "Homage to Bach I," Music Matters; $20 reserved online only; lagruacenter.org, (860) 535-2300.