The Makrokosmos Project: Duo Stephanie and Saar on how to build a successful contemporary music festival
I was first introduced to DUO Stephanie and Saar when they came to Portland, Oregon and did the impossible: presented everything from George Crumb's Makrocosmos I & II to John Adams' Hallelujah Junction to a standing-room-only art gallery audience. That electrifying first concert was just the beginning. This year, The Makrokosmos Project will present its 7th season and is enthusiastically supported by individual donors, galleries, local businesses, and media outlets.
On paper, The Makrokosmos Project shouldn't work. Popular wisdom says that audiences won't enjoy difficult, modern music, and that anything contemporary should be presented with a reassuring panacea of the comfortingly familiar. The Makrokosmos Project belies that belief. By featuring local musicians and composers, and obtaining support from the business community, pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia provide an example of how to successfully present modern music to modern audiences.
The Makrokosmos Project is just part of DUO Stephanie and Saar's successful career, one that encompasses all eras of classical music. From Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, to Bach's The Art of Fugue, these pianists are guided by two things: playing the music they love, and playing it well. Thank you, Stephanie and Saar, for the many ways you work to bring contemporary music to audiences, and for gracing No Dead Guys with this lovely interview.
Where did you two meet, and when did you decide to form your duo?
We met at a Jazz improv class while graduate students at Peabody. Leon Fleisher, Saar’s teacher at the time, was doing a Beethoven project of all sonatas and encouraged his students to get to know the quartets in four-hand versions. We read them for fun and the rest is history.
Your concert work and recordings span all eras of classical music, as well as an occasional foray into jazz and virtuoso arrangements of musical theater pieces. Why have you chosen to cast such a wide net rather than specializing in one or two styles of music?
Our choice of repertoire is dictated by what we love to play.That’s it. Any style is welcome!
What sparked your interest in contemporary classical music, and when did you first begin working with living composers?
We did two winter residencies at Banff in 2005 and 2006. We discovered Visions de l’Amen by Messiaen and got to know composers from around the world. Hywell Davies, an English minimalist composer who we met at Banff in 2005, wrote the first piece for us, which we premiered in Baltimore. Many composers of our time love writing for the two piano genre and have approached us with wonderful new works.
One of the things I most admire about your duo is your willingness to push music out of the box of traditional concert expectations. Petite Corvette Rouge by Martin Bejerano is one of my favorite examples of this. How did this project come to be, and how did you become involved in it?
After moving to New York, we had the opportunity to perform classical and contemporary music in rock venues such as the Knitting Factory and (le) Poisson Rouge. We also played Rite of Spring on two pianos at the lobby of One Liberty Plaza in Manhattan and Bank of America plaza in Los Angeles. The audience we interacted with was totally different. We realized that we could open up classical music to new audiences simply by presenting it in unusual venues. Petite Corvette Rouge was a collaboration with the World of Speed Museum made possible by our good friend Larry Vollum, who was on the board of the museum. Sadly, the museum closed down during the pandemic.
I first encountered you through the Makrokosmos Project, a contemporary music festival held each year in Portland, Oregon. Where did you get the idea for this festival and what has the response been?
We love spending the summers in Portland. This is where Stephanie grew up and most of her family is still there. We were fortunate to get to know Harold Gray, who invited us to play at Portland Piano International. We had an idea to start a contemporary music summer marathon that would include the many talented Oregon performers and composers. Harold and many others encouraged us to move forward with this idea. None of this would be possible if wasn’t for our “Piano Angel” Portland Piano Company, who have sent and tuned pianos for us this entire time, free of charge. I guess we just got crazy lucky! The festival is named after George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, which has been featured in its entirety at the festival.
Tell me more about the Makrokosmos Project. What is the format for the concerts, and how has the Portland community responded to it thus far?
We present a full evening of short concerts, 4 or 5 concerts total.There is always a theme and a centerpiece that is the “project.” The most recent in-person festival showcased the complete piano music of Japanese modernist Toru Takemitsu.The response has been incredible. Much of the audience chooses to stay for the entire event and soak in all the music offered. One of the greatest compliments we received was that in one evening you can hear such unique offerings of music that you otherwise might not get to hear in a lifetime!
One of the elements I most admire about the Makrokosmos Project is how you include local composers and performers in your concerts. What inspired you to build the series in this way?
The festival is about the Portland and Oregon music community. We never understand why so many concert series and festivals need to bring in musicians from far away when there is tremendous talent at home.
Since its first season, I’ve felt that the Makrokosmos Project’s model of collaborating with local businesses, non-profit organizations, and media outlets is a brilliant example of creating community support for the arts. What gave you the idea to partner with these groups in this way?
We really wanted to showcase the best that Oregon has to offer. We are both big wine lovers and couldn’t imagine a great event without great Oregon wines, even though Oregon wines are becoming more expensive and unaffordable! The fact that so many Oregon businesses are willing to donate to the festival is a testament to their community values. As a trade-off to this outpouring of generosity, we keep ticket prices very low and affordable ($15 for the whole evening plus food and wine). The musicians are paid using donations from the community.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020’s festival was virtual. Did you find this a successful way to reach audiences, and (if so), are you going to include a virtual option for future festivals?
The COVID-19 pandemic posed tremendous challenges for every American, on every level. We watched in horror as New York City lost hundreds of people per day and worried for our own health and safety. Makrokosmos Project 6: Compassion was renamed after Julia Wolfe’s Compassion, written in light of 9/11. New York City - and the United States as a whole - had just gone through another 9/11, and we never want to forget this.
It’s very difficult to evaluate the success of the 2020 festival, because everything in the music industry came to a screeching halt. Everyone had to learn how to appreciate “live music online.” Our team contributed beautiful performances. The talented Eugene-based composer Alexander Schwarzkopf wrote a new work especially for the event. We received wonderful comments. But it didn’t feel the same. No wine, no cool space, no lively chats during intermission. No feeling of exalted exhaustion at the end of the evening. We have not made a decision on future virtual events.Time will tell.
Each season of the festival has a unifying theme. Last year, as part of your theme of “Compassion,” you played pieces in memoriam of those who recently died, including our mutual friend Widney Moore. What kind of response did you receive to this these beautiful tributes?
We received outpouring gratitude and appreciation from supporters of the festival. Widney was an incredible friend and supporter, and it was only fitting to dedicate the event in her memory. It was a dark time for us, we lost friends to COVID-19 in April and tapped the festival to work through our own personal grief.
Your theme for Season 7 is “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.” Why did you choose this theme, and whose music are you featuring?
Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman is a set of fanfares by Joan Tower. The 6th Fanfare was transcribed by the composer herself for solo piano - it’s a knockout piece! This year’s festival will feature extraordinary women in music. We will present the complete two piano music of Meredith Monk, but we don’t want to give away too much…There is a lot to celebrate,
especially the 1st African-American, Asian-American Woman Vice-President of the United States! The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be honored.
Do you have any plans to expand the Makrokosmos Project beyond Portland? Is so, where?
We would love to have a bigger presence in Oregon, since our festival is all about Oregon. Perhaps a concert on our gorgeous coast?! We’ve done concerts in galleries and furniture stores, corporate wind-turbine lobby. Maybe that alpaca farm in Oregon City would be interested in hosting us! Beyond that, we don’t know. Let’s see what adventures lie ahead!
What advice do you have for composers or performers interested in creating their own music festivals?
Get to know your community. This took us years and many conversations with people from all corners of the Portland community, whether it was family members, businesses, colleagues, friends, donors, etc. Makrokosmos Project is an outgrowth of these conversations.
Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia, pianists
Pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia collaborate as DUO Stephanie and Saar in dazzling performances filled with visceral excitement, elegance and artistic vision. “Stephanie and Saar’s last night’s performance once again recalled all the epithets of elegant and innovative, that have been following them throughout their career.” ~ Radio Sarajevo
Recent performances include their Lincoln Center debut with Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; appearance with Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001 in a complete performance of Frank Zappa’s The Yellow Shark and Symphony Space’s Wall to Wall Bernstein, a marathon celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th anniversary. Highlights of the 2018-19 season include a four-hand recital at Israel Conservatory in Tel Aviv and Oregon Bach Festival, where the duo performed at the opening night celebration.
As probing recording artists, the duo explores repertoire with concomitant classical and contemporary sensibilities. Their recording of György Kurtág’s four hand transcription of Bach’s Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Got’s Time is the Very Best of Times) was featured on the soundtrack of the documentary film Red Trees. Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times praised their “beautifully understated performances” of Kurtág’s delicate and soulful Bach transcriptions at NYC’s (le) poisson rouge. Beethoven Dialogues, their 2014 album featuring Beethoven Quartets Op. 18 Nos. 1, 4 and 6 in rarely heard four hand arrangements was chosen as Album of the Week on New York Public Radio WQXR. The duo’s 2017 recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of Fugue has garnered tremendous praise; Stephanie and Saar toured The Art of Fugue extensively with stops in Portland, Sacramento, Phoenix, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, among others. “Their vision is of an Art of Fugue that is a work of performance art, not an academic piece to be listened to reverently... This is creative music- making of an extraordinarily high level.” ~ The Art Music Lounge
Other notable performances include collaborations with Michael Linville and the New World Symphony Percussion Consort featuring Linville’s own arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and André Boucourechliev’s aleatoric fantasy piece Archipel I. The duo takes special pride in a performance at the residence of the United States Ambassador in Berlin, Germany, featuring works by Henry Martin (US), Avner Dorman (Israel) and Felix Mendelssohn (Germany).
Multiple collaborations with the Dranoff Two Piano Foundation have featured Stephanie and Saar at the Adrienne Arsht Center jamming with DJ Cardi for Piano Slam 11, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema with a film-inspired program and at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts center, where the duo performed a jazz-inspired concert featuring the world premiere of Fantasia de Très Mundos by Cuban-American jazz pianist Martin Bejerano, Dranoff Two Piano Foundation’s 2014 Bacardi Choice Award winner. “Playing with fizzing technique and élan, the duo fused bravura and elegance in perfect measure.” ~ Lawrence Budmen, South Florida Classical Review
DUO Stephanie and Saar are the artistic directors of Makrokosmos Project, a music festival in Portland, Oregon dedicated to contemporary American music and performances by Oregon- based performers and composers. The 2015 inaugural festival featured standing-room performances of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos I & II and music by Kenji Bunch and David Crumb. Oregon Arts Watch frankly states “It was one of 2015’s peak Oregon musical moments.” The 2019 festival featured the complete piano music of Toru Takemitsu and music by John Luther Adams, Julia Wolfe and Gabriela Lena Frank.
While pursuing graduate studies at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, Stephanie and Saar were inspired by Leon Fleisher to explore the Beethoven string quartets in a duo piano setting. Saar, a native of Israel, studied at Israel's Tel Aviv Academy and Switzerland's Schaufhausen Conservatory before coming to the United States to pursue a Graduate Performance Diploma with Leon Fleisher at Peabody Institute. Stephanie, of Taiwanese descent, grew up in Portland, Oregon before obtaining degrees from Oberlin College and Northwestern University. She received a Graduate Performance Diploma from Peabody Institute, under the direction of Julian Martin.
Stephanie and Saar, who are married to each other, reside in New York City. Outdoor enthusiasts, they recently completed an expedition to Alaska’s Denali backcountry and the Timberline Trail, the 44-mile trail circumventing Oregon’s Mount Hood.
Visit their website for more information.