Devotees of classical music inside Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center for the Arts this Sunday, April 23, 2023 evening eagerly await the start of a live performance by the musical duo, Piano Battle. Comprised of internationally-accomplished pianists Paul Cibis and Andreas Kern, the musicians — who each hail from Berlin, Germany — travel the world putting on music and comedy concerts where they go head-to-head on stage for audience approval with a performance that is part serious classical recital and part tongue-in-cheek comedy performance.
The lights dim and Paul, in black, and Andreas, in white, enter the stage and take seats behind facing grand pianos located in the rear of the stage. Following the expert playing of an introductory piece, the musicians welcome the crowd.
“Good afternoon!” exclaims Andreas, who informs the audience that he’s been “playing piano since the age of eight.” After Paul — who has played just as long — jokes that he’s insured his hands for “a million,” Andreas challenges Paul in today’s first round of competition to “play something dramatic.”
With talent and skill, Paul deftly performs “Étude Op. 10, No. 12,” a solo piece by Chopin featuring swift runs which generate cheers and applause from the crowd.
Andreas counters with a sensitive performance of Scriabin’s “Étude Op. 8, No. 12,” played with mystery and style. Concertgoers vote for their Round 1 favorite by holding up either the black or white side of a Piano Battle voting card distributed to audience members before the concert.
Based on the crowd’s response, Round 1 goes to Paul, in black. The audience chuckles when, in reaction, Andreas takes a roll of tape and uses it to create a faux “finish line” near the edge of the stage.
Paul suggests that for Round 2, the musicians play “something nice and beautiful, with melodic qualities.” Andreas plays “Impromptu Op. 90, No. 3,” a sweet and gentle piece by Schubert, which features complex rhythms and trills to avid audience applause. Paul follows up with the lovely melody of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” which he performs expressively with dynamics and feeling.
The audience, yet again, chooses Paul as the winner, after which Paul physically moves his grand piano closer to the taped finish line located at the front of the stage.
In Round 3, Paul nimbly performs György Ligeti’s “Musica ricercata No. 1,” a rhythmic piece from 1951, which accelerates faster and faster as it increases in intensity. Andreas counters with Moritz Eggert’s “One Man Band,” a composition from 1994 on which he uses his hands to tap rhythms on top of and underneath his piano. Adding chords with his hands and, then, with his chin, Andreas ultimately impresses the astonished crowd by playing with his bare foot at times.
The audience reacts with whistles and applause and Andreas is declared the winner of Round 3.
After moving his grand piano closer to the finish line, Andreas explains that the next challenge will be an unusual game of musical ping pong. Each musician selects two volunteers from the audience to be on his team. As each musician plays the piano with one hand, he uses the other hand to swat ping pong balls fed by one of the volunteers into his opponent’s instrument while the second volunteer collects the swatted balls from inside each piano and drops them into a collection tube.
The absurdity of the game brings giggles from the audience and cheers as Paul’s tube is filled nearly to the top, making him the winner of Round 4. Andreas reacts to Paul’s victory by playing the piano fast and furiously. Paul responds with his own piano piece as shadows on the wall behind the pair make it appear as if the two musicians are playing the same instrument.
For Round 5, Andreas plays a personal piece, “For Sari,” a lovely composition which he created for his girlfriend. Paul responds with “Ballare al Suona del Pianoforte,” a sweet and cascading rolling melody filled with trills and thrills which was written especially for him by the Taiwanese composer, Kai-nan Huang.
For this round of voting, the musicians select a random woman from the crowd to examine the audience’s voting cards and determine who won this challenge. After she announces Paul as the victor, he responds by offering to play a “special Mozart piece” for her. Andreas, however, argues that he “will play for everyone!” and, as such, asks audience members to shout out the names of their favorite composers and musicians.
Members of the crowd offer up such suggestions as “Gershwin,” “Ravel,” and “Billy Joel,” and Andreas and Paul take seats behind their instruments to create a clever mash-up of selections featuring snippets of pieces like “Summertime,” “Bolero,” and “Piano Man.” Based on his showy piano performance, Andreas wins Round 5, and the pair completes the evening’s series of challenges by simultaneously playing excerpts of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” blindfolded to avid cheers and applause.
When Andreas is declared the winner of Round 6, he celebrates by singing what he calls “a traditional German song” — Don McLean’s “American Pie” — which has the audience happily joining in singing on the number’s “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie/Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry” refrain.
After thanking all of the music lovers on their feet applauding for the talented pair, Andreas and Paul perform an encore consisting of an ingenious mash-up of Dvořák’s “New World Symphony” and Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” to enthusiastic audience cheers and applause.
To learn more about Piano Battle, please go to pianobattle.com. For info about upcoming performances at Toms River’s Grunin Center for the Arts — including singer/songwriter Dayna Kurtz on May 20, Chris Pinella performing the music of Billy Joel and Elton John on June 2, and The Great Rock ‘n Roll Time Machine on June 23 — please click on grunincenter.org.
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