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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Jun. 23, 2015 7 years ago

Four Hands, One Piano and Two Minds

Brian Gurl and Katherine Alexandra bring their two different piano backgrounds to their show "Four Hands...One Piano."
by: Nick Reichert Arts & Entertainment Editor

The usual story of opposites applies equally to the realm of music as it does romance. In the case of the former category, Brian Gurl and Katherine Alexandra couldn’t have been further apart. Gurl was born in the sleepy New England hamlet of Lebanon, New Hampshire just on the Vermont border. Alexandra was born and raised in the Russian city of Ulyanovsk. Bordering the Volga River, the city of approximately 600,000 people is most famous for being the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin. Both were drawn to music and the piano at an early age by their parents.

But whereas Gurl was weaned on the sounds of pop and jazz and has performed in various venues in southwest Florida for past 20 years, Alexandra was raised on the sounds of classical masters at the Moscow Conservatory where she studied and graduated with summa cum laude honors. Alexandra moved to the United States in 2007 and a few months later settled in Sarasota where she became an active member of the St. Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church on Longboat Key. It was two years ago through mutual friends at the church that the two passionate pianists first joined forces.

The piano duo will be performing this Friday and Saturday, June 27 and 28, at 8 p.m. and 2 p.m., respectively, at the Manatee Performing Arts Center in their original revue “Four Hands…One Piano.” The two will explore their numerous musical differences, from Sergei Rachmaninoff to George and Ira Gershwin and The Beatles, and harmonic similarities onstage. The two sat down and discussed how they met, how they first began playing the piano, their favorite artists, and how their fateful pairing creates new musical experiences onstage.

How did music enter your life?

Brian Gurl: For me, it was when I was a young kid. I had a piano in the house and my father played the piano by ear. I immediately took to it and my parents played music all the time and played records from opera to jazz. I started taking lessons, and I it took off from there. I grew up in a small New Hampshire town called Lebanon. It was a small town but had a very nice community but there wasn’t a lot of musicians there. I came to the Sarasota area in the mid-1990s performing around all of Florida in the winter. It’s my 20th year performing here. I’ve been living half of my time in Venice and in North Carolina in a mountain town called Burnsville near Asheville.

Katherine Alexandra: My mother started taking me to lessons when I was four-years-old. I liked it and took to it and it became part of my life. My grandmother was a concert pianist and she wanted to continue this kind of tradition in our family. My mother herself didn’t really play and she badly wanted me to play the piano. She took me to studying music and then it became a professional career. I was born in the Ulyanovsk and moved to Moscow for the conservatory. Ulyanovsk was so bad because it was so cold and I spent five years in Moscow during my conservatory years bu then I moved to Madrid and then to the United States. I came to the U.S. in 2007. In a few months after that I moved to Sarasota. I was in Orlando, Bradenton and ended up in Sarasota. It was all accident, really. I didn’t know anything about this beautiful town. It’s a magnificent place for musicians and artists.

Who are some of your favorite artists to play and listen to?

KA: Rachmaninoff, of course. I have a lot of piano performers that I love. One of my favorites is Vladimir Horowitz. Sergei Rachmaninoff was also a great pianist and a great composer and he also immigrated to the United States just like me and he loved this country very much. I feel very connected to him.

BG: For me when I was a kid because I started with the classical music. I listened to Arthur Rubinstein and Horowitz. As a younger man, I saw them play a couple of times. But when I was 12 or 13 I knew I wanted to play jazz and pop. I followed Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and Fats Wallers. I started falling in love with the black piano players and gospel music musicians. Because of that now when I perform I have the pop and the jazz mixed with a little bit of classical sensibilities going on. We’re both vocalists and Katherine in particular. We have listened more recently to vocalist. I know Katherine loves certain singers like Celine Dion, Whitney Houston.

KA: I love Whitney Houston. I also love a lot of Broadway tunes like "Phantom of the Opera," "Wicked" and "Les Misérables". I love the shows of Steven Schwartz, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim.

When and how did you two meet and decide to perform together?

BG: We met a little over two years ago. I was doing a show called “Back to Barry, Billy and The Beatles.” For me that’s my most contemporary show where I perform the songs of Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and, of course, The Beatles. I needed a vocalist and a keyboardist. I needed a gal to sing back up harmony parts, piano and string parts. I hit the jack pot with Katherine because a mutual friend of ours attends Katherine’s church. I didn’t hear a lot of playing but singing and thought it was beautiful. I could tell she was an accomplished pianist so we had a really interesting and great time. We just hit it off. It was a magical meeting. Since then it’s grown and we’ve developed this show. We started to out in private homes and country clubs. It’s a really special relationship. We have a lot respect for each other and each other’s talents.

KA: We have so much in common. We had a lot of similarities with very strict schools that we had. We had to follow the rules and everything. It was strict families and we both played the piano and a lot of things that we had in our past like overcoming certain challenges. Both of us we have the same thing and that makes us a better duo. We fuel each other and we know what it is to be a pianist, singer and coming from a similar upbringing. It’s great to work with someone who understands you.

What’s it like performing with another pianist at the same time?

BG: For me, Katherine is a gem. Sometimes I feel that she doesn’t realize how gifted she is. The two of us are extremely sensitive and emotional and lift each other up a bit and balance each other nicely. It’s really uncanny. We rehearse and prepare but our vocals really mesh well effortlessly. I’m much more an experienced performing aritsts. Singing is a real joy to me. I always have tears in my eyes after she plays Rachmaninoff. We have fun little duets. We combine humorous sequences and technically difficult piano pieces. 

KA: It’s very easy for me to work with Brian. I think we balance and compliment each other in our classical meets jazz approach. It’s never boring. You never know what’s going to happen next. I think that’s kind of the attraction. I would love to learn more from Brian and from other styles and not just classical. I'm so happy to be trying new things.

BG: The audience never knows what to expect next. I’ve been in many shows in my life, and I’ve co-written 20 different shows and there’s never been one with a range as wide as this show. The audience is never ever bored or tired because it always changing.

KA: You don’t see many people playing on one piano or two pianos at the same time. It’s difficult to have two pianists perform at once. I think it’s really unique and I love that we have that in play in our show.

BG: We were both really shy individuals before this show doing fearless pianos. We had to grow out of our shell so to speak to fuel our performances for this show. Also I think we both grown really restless in our playing so it's great to experiment. 

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Nick Reichert writes about Sarasota fine arts, including theater, dance, opera, music and visual art. He graduated from Wake Forest University in 2013. Follow @TheNickReichert on Twitter for regular updates.

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