What’s in a name? Luis Magalhães and Nina Schumann started their musical collaboration as Magalhães & Schumann, but quickly recognized its significant disadvantage: “my not-so-very-easy-to-write-and-pronounce surname,” explained the male half of the piano duo TwoPianists, the “simpler and more obvious” name they selected.
“We also tried to counter the myth that chamber musicians are somehow inferior to soloists, so we chose the name to stress our individuality as two pianists,” added Schumann, his wife and musical partner. “It became the name of our record label and somehow became our brand.”
Magalhães grew up in “a small town called Lousado, north of Porto,” Portugal, and Schumann lived in Stellenbosch and Cape Town, South Africa. The pair, who met as students at the University of North Texas, graciously answered CultureSpotMC’s questions about their professional and personal collaboration in advance of their Jan. 19 performance of a program of pieces by J.S. Bach, César Franck and Samuel Barber at the Mansion at Strathmore.
Did you come from a musical family? As a child, did you attend live concerts or listen to recordings in your home?
Luis: My parent’s jobs had nothing to do with music. However, they were very keen listeners of classical music, especially my father. He taught himself music and, as a hobby, conducted the church choir–still does! Growing up I attended many live concerts and was fortunate to have access to many good recordings.
Nina: I did have a musical family; we are five daughters and we all played two instruments. We used to give concerts as a family, something I loved, but that stopped when my eldest sister hit her teens. She didn’t think it was so cool anymore. We had very few recordings, but lots of sheet music to read and discover.
At what age did your own musical proclivities become apparent?
Luis: I started with formal piano lessons at age 5, but had already played piano for fun before that. I guess by age 9, my public recital debut, it became clearer that I had some sort of talent for music.
Nina: I don’t remember a specific moment, but always knew I would become a musician. It was what I loved and lived.
Why did you choose piano? Do you play any other instruments?
Luis: My parents had a piano at home. My sister, seven years older than me, played the piano and I presume it caught my attention.
Nina: I started with violin at 2 and piano at 5. I think it was clever of my parents to make us play two instruments. I loved the piano and despised playing the violin.
How did your family encourage and nurture your abilities?
Luis: They were always supportive of music in my life, especially in the lowest times when I doubted my commitment to the ‘job’. They made me stick to it until the point that there was no turning back.
Nina: With five daughters in the house, we had to be extremely scheduled so my mother worked out practice schedules for everyone. You could say she forced us, but at the right point, she stepped back and I took ownership of my own career and practice sessions.
Why did you choose to study under Vladimir Viardo in Texas?
Luis: I meet Viardo in a festival in Portugal in the late 1990s and had a chance to play for him privately. I remember playing Liszt’s “Dante Sonata” on an upright piano trying my utmost best to keep balance as it kept shaking back and forward! Very distracting circumstances.
I enjoyed his teaching very much and asked if I could study with him. A couple of months later, I met him again in Paris for another lesson and he accepted me to his studio. He told me I could either enter his Moscow Conservatoire studio or his class at the University of North Texas. I was not too keen to endure too much cold weather so I opted for the States.
Nina: I met Viardo when he came to South Africa for master classes in 1995 and was completely bowled over. It was the exact right moment for me to make a shift from my then current teacher. I was studying at UCLA and not too happy so Viardo, despite teaching in Denton, Texas, was the perfect choice. Like most Russian teachers, he was extremely intense and working with him was all-consuming.
Under what circumstances did the two of you meet? Which came first—the romance or the music?
Luis: Nina was assisting Viardo by the time I moved to the U.S. She came to fetch me at the airport and I was very much infatuated by her! The romance definitely came first. Nina?
Nina: Romance definitely came first! In fact, I was traveling a lot that year, having started the job in South Africa and commuting between there and Texas, so I barely heard Luis play. We got married six months after we met, so I remember a distinct moment when I heard Luis play and thinking ‘geez, you’re not bad’!
Did you play solo first, then as a duet? What is different about being a solo or duo performer?
Luis: Solo came first. We only started playing properly as a duo around 2000. When playing duo, one needs to adapt our own way of playing for the benefit of the group. Pretty much like traditional chamber music setting but 10 times more difficult.
Nina: We both had strong solo careers before we met. In fact, except for playing a Mozart double concerto with one of my sisters, I had never performed in piano duo, so it was very much a new experience for me.
Do you both continue to play solo as well?
Luis: Yes. I continue with an active schedule of solo performances and chamber music collaborations.
Nina: Yes of course. We try and be as flexible as possible. After all, no matter the genre, music is music.
Who are your favorite composers?
Luis: The ones that write good music. The only favorite things I have is my wife, my two kids António and Lia and the best soccer club in the world, FC PORTO!
Nina: I don’t have favorites either. Your taste changes with age.
How many students do you currently have? At what levels of proficiency?
Luis: This year I have 10 students at Stellenbosch University. I have both post-graduate and undergraduate students.
Nina I have 11 besides the couple of young students (11 and 12-year-olds) we teach privately. The senior students are enrolled for either bachelor’s or master’s degrees. The young ones are extremely talented and almost play at bachelor’s level.
How do your playing styles differ?
Luis: I think I will leave this answer to each individual audience member. It is better that way rather than ‘prescribing’ what people should listen for.
Nina: We used to differ a lot, but over the years, we’ve learned from one another and symbiotically grown closer in style.
What is each of your strengths?
Luis: My strengths/weaknesses change almost every week. That’s the nature of the art form. What I thought was a strength yesterday might be a weakness today…
Nina: There aren’t strengths or weaknesses, just comfort and discomfort. What’s wonderful about duo playing is that you rely on each other to gain comfort!
What kind of changes to style occur when you play together?
Luis: There are several textural changes—I would not call them stylistic-when we play together. We have to quickly react to the soundscape of 20 fingers and two very powerful instruments. We do not want to sound like two pianos playing, but rather one well-balanced ‘piano orchestra’. This means that we adapt our touch to enable the above to happen.
Have your individual styles changed because of playing together?
Luis: I believe so. It is more than natural that one becomes influenced by the other’s sound, touch, agogics, etc. In many ways, playing as a duo has made tremendous improvements in my own playing.
Nina: I completely agree with Luis. As mentioned before, I learn from him and personally learned to have fun–he loves to have fun–and not take myself, and my mistakes, so seriously.
Do your children play piano? Do you think it essential to start playing an instrument at a very young age as both of you did?
Luis: Both our children Lia and António play piano. Lia also will be starting with violin this year and António also plays cello. I believe that being around music as an active participant from a young age develops not only physical and discipline skills, but especially their aesthetic and artistic values.
What you play when your child is in the womb also makes a huge impact on their taste (I believe). When Nina was pregnant with António, we were touring for months on end (performing) the complete two-piano works by Rachmaninoff. When he was born, we just needed to play any of the Suites and he would fall asleep. Not the lullaby type of music!!
Nina: We both think Lia will be the musician in the family, but Antonio, besides being talented himself, has to experience the life of a musician for he will become her biggest supporter. Music has given them discipline and an outlet for personal creativity.
What are your professional goals?
Luis: Well, I already feel blessed to be doing what I do. So I can only hope to be able to continue on this path.
Nina: To continue performing. It’s what I love. I’m a gifted teacher, but if you took that away I would not be as devastated as I would be if I could not perform.
What can the Strathmore audience expect at your performance?
Nina: Lots of sound! Two-piano music is a rich experience of synchronicity and explosive sound. The works we are performing are representative of our taste in music–stylish, varied, fun, passionate.
TwoPianists will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, at The Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. For tickets, $30, call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.