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Get ready for a piano battle

Get ready for a piano battle

Empire State Youth Orchestra will perform in support of dueling pianists at Proctors
Get ready for a piano battle
Paul Cibis (left) and Andreas Kern will duel on piano, backed by ESYO, on Sunday afternoon.
Photographer: Mathias Bothor

How many times have people wanted to tell performers whether they liked the show.

Sure, clapping enthusiastically says something, but what if there was another way? On Sunday, they’ll get the chance when Andreas Kern and Paul Cibis with help from the Empire State Youth Orchestra ask the audience to vote on who’s the best pianist.

The two pianists call their act Piano Battle and it all started with a booking mix-up in 2012.

“Andreas and I were contacted to play the same Hong Kong City Festival and both of us wanted to play a solo program, but the promoter suggested we do a program together,” Cibis said. “We’d met five years before, but we met again in Berlin, Germany and decided we didn’t want to play together.”

What to do?

“We decided for each of us to play a solo against each other and the audience to vote,” Cibis said.

The promoter went for the idea and the venture was so successful they were invited back for the next year. Piano Battle was born. Over the next five years, the two pianists traveled the world — you can see some of their shows on YouTube, honing their program, and their repartee since what constitutes humor is different in every country. Because they interact so much with the crowds, many of whom don’t know English or German, they use translators. And, as at the Proctors show, audience members will be given cards  — one side black, one side white — to vote with. 

But Kern, who has always wanted to present music in an unconventional way, wanted to develop their duality into more directions. About two years ago, they began to consider the idea of using an orchestra as part of the show.

“We knew orchestras from having played as soloists,” Cibis said, adding that both had trained in conservatories in Europe. “So we developed the idea on paper first. It was a very novel idea.”

They settled on first having both pianists begin with a solo, which on Sunday may be by Rachmaninoff, Chopin or Wagner. Whoever wins that round gets to pick members from the orchestra, such as some string players, to play either some Mozart or Saint Saens or basses and members of the brass section for some Khachaturian or Shostakovich. Who wins determines the pieces. Subsequent rounds add more orchestral players and the orchestra itself will play alone for a couple of pieces. A medley of tunes from “Star Wars” is included.

The orchestra had to prepare all these pieces regardless of how the vote turns out.

“It’s a very detailed script like a flow chart,” said Helen Cha-Pyo, the ESYO music director. “We’ve had to learn four versions of some of the pieces. They sent us their arrangements.”

This will be only the second time Piano Battle has used an orchestra. The first time was last October with the Armenian National Philharmonic Orchestra. More orchestra-assisted shows are scheduled for Europe.

While the show has a strong entertainment focus, its message is also educational.

“In order to vote, people must listen, must concentrate,” Kern said. “No one is texting. They hear the music. People don’t know what to expect and voting is a surprise.”

That’s part of why Cha-Pyo signed on to the project.

“Proctors asked me to work with the two pianists and I agreed because I want an educational value for these type of collaborations,” she said. “It will be fun for the whole family.”


Piano Battle/Empire State Youth Orchestra

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11
WHERE: Proctors
HOW MUCH: $45-$20
MORE INFO: 518-346-6204, www.proctors.org

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