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Husband-wife team set for Music Institute piano fest

Stephanie Kai-WHo Saar Ahuvi

Stephanie Kai-Win Ho and Saar Ahuvia

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Chicago Duo Piano Festival

♦July 13-20

♦ Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston

♦ Tickets for each concert are $25 adults, $15 seniors and $10 students

♦ For a complete schedule, call (847) 905-1500, ext. 108;

Saar Ahuvia knows why he and Stephanie Kai-Win Ho are so successful as duo pianists. “We’re married and we don’t really have to be that nice to each other,” he said.

If you think he’s joking, Ho reported, “A lot of our musical ideas arise from argument after argument.”

There’s obviously more than the willingness to air artistic differences behind the success of this critically acclaimed couple, who perform as Duo Stephanie and Saar. The New York-based musicians will demonstrate their skill as both two-piano artists and with four hands on one piano, at 7:30 p.m. on July 20, as part of the Music Institute of Chicago’s 24th Annual Chicago Duo Piano Festival.

Claire Aebersold, co-founder and co-director of the festival with Ralph Neiweem, was delighted that they were able to schedule duo Stephanie and Saar for the festival. “We heard their lovely new release, ‘Bach Crossings,’ ” Aebersold said. “It was just beautiful. The transcriptions were so elegantly and tastefully done, and there’s much refinement to their playing.”

During the first half of the concert, Ho and Ahuvia will play four hands selections from their new CD. “We both are crazy about Bach,” Ahuvia reported.

Bach didn’t write any pieces for four hands, so the majority of the selections on the CD are transcriptions written by Gyorgy Kurtag. “They’re incredible arrangements,” Ahuvia said. “They capture the core of the originals. They incorporate a lot of hand crossings, hence the title of the CD. But it’s not only the fact that we have to cross over each other or cross our hands, it’s also the idea of Bach crossing into the mind of a contemporary composer.”

The couple will perform on two pianos during the second half of the concert. Their program includes two movements from Debussy’s “Nocturnes” and “Hallelujah Junction” by John Adams.

“ ‘Bach Crossings’ is a series of short transcriptions — nothing is more than four minutes long,” Ho said. “For the second half, I wanted more monumental works. John Adams’ ‘Hallelujah Junction’ is a 17-minute work. And I thought the ‘Nocturnes’ would be a great way to start the second half of the evening.”

Ho earned an undergraduate degree at Oberlin College and a master’s degree in piano performance from Northwestern University. Ahuvia, who is from Israel, studied at Tel Aviv Academy and Schaufhausen Conservatory in Switzerland. They met in 2001 when they were both earning graduate performance diplomas from the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. They started playing piano duets for fun when they were students.

“After we graduated in 2004, we went to the Banff Centre in Canada to do a residency,” Ahuvia said. “At that time, we decided to focus more and more on the duo playing.”

It turned out that the more they performed as a duo, the more invitations they received to perform. “People enjoyed seeing us play together and we had a lot of fun with it, too,” Ahuvia said. “The repertoire is very different from the solo repertoire, so we had to learn a whole new repertoire, but we really enjoyed it.”

“I like the fact that we get to travel together,” Ho said, laughingly adding, “I’m very practical-minded.”

From an artistic standpoint, Ho noted, “Saar’s a great pianist and he’s not one to hold back. It’s really nice to have a duo partner like that — somebody who’s open-minded and willing to try new things. And he’s always willing to try my ideas, even though he doesn’t like some of those.”

There will be two other public concerts as part of the Chicago Duo Piano Festival. Founders and Directors Aebersold and Neiweem, who are the Music Institute faculty piano duo in residence, will perform a festival gala opening concert at 7:30 pm. on July 13. Their selections will include “Suite from the Cloud Forest,”a piece by contemporary composer Eric Ewazen. “His piece was inspired by a trip he took to Costa Rica,” Aebersold said.

There will also be a Duo Piano Faculty Extravaganza Concert at 7:30 p.m. on July 17 as part of the festival.

In addition, the festival offers private and group coaching sessions and performance opportunities for students. “We always have between 50 and 60 people in the festival,” Aebersold said. “We could have more but we run out of space. One of the highlights of the festival is the fact that there are so many students of different ages — they range from 7-80.”

Myrna Petlicki is a local free-lance writer.

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