Coping with crisisMusic for a Great Space continued its 30th season Friday night, featuring the piano duo ZOFO: Eva-Maria Zimmermann (Switzerland) and Keisuke Nakagoshi (Japan). First, the name: ZOFO is shorthand for 20-finger orchestra (ZO=20 and FO=finger orchestra). The two musicians joined forces in 2009 and have been nominated for a Grammy award. The duo is currently based in San Francisco. The pair especially focuses on literature from the 20th and 21st century, and that was true of Friday night’s concert. Furthermore, the program consisted exclusively of music by American composers.

The evening began with a bang – Cuban Overture by George Gershwin, (1898-1937). The composition, originally titled Rumba, was inspired by Gershwin’s two-week trip to Havana in 1932. Originally scored for orchestra, it was arranged for piano four hands by the composer.

A rumba (a word that also means “party”) originally referred to secular dance music “developed by Afro-Cuban workers in poor neighborhoods of Havana….” The dance rhythms are vital in the outer sections of the 10-minute work, and unerring fingers flew throughout these passages.

An Adagio with a more bluesy middle section provided contrast, as did the image of the two pianists changing positions: Nakagoshi got up from the lower range of the piano and moved to the upper while Zimmermann slid to the left. From the very outset of the concert, the musicianship was fabulous, and ensemble was first-rate. It seems obvious that these two have played together for years.

Dreamy, slowly unfolding, repetitive cells formed much of the material in “Magnolia” by Dylan Mattingly (b.1991), which was commissioned by ZOFO in 2015. This is music that is no hurry to get anywhere quickly. The listener is lulled into the hypnotic state, so a “sudden” chord from the low register of the piano becomes a surprising event. One could detect some Debussy-like sonorities, and the conclusion was as gentle as the opening.

Etude from the Old Country (revised 2014) by Terry Riley (b.1935) began with the text of an enigmatic quote from the composer: “A four-handed braid from Terry’s made-up songs from an imaginary old country… or not.” Riley is one of the originators of the minimalist movement in music and was influenced by both jazz and Indian classical music.

We found out later, in the question-and-answer section following the streaming, that Riley had penned a poem as well as the composition. And lines from the poem were superimposed over the performance, although not necessarily connected to any discernable change in the music. A couple of the lines will give the reader an idea as to the inscrutable nature of the verbiage: “A scent of desert water,” “a banner waving,” “reflecting fires that burn in silent wind,” for example.

The music is multi-sectional and complex, with overlapping repeated motifs from the two pianists, but always shifting. Certainly, it provides a tour-de-force of virtuosic cooperation with speeding up, slowing down; the pianists were with each other every note of the way.

“Chimaera” (2012) by Nicholas Pavkovic (b.1963) was originally written for player piano. Pavkovic provides a clue to the nature of the piece: “‘Chimaera’ is a kind of dialogue between rational and irrational elements, fused by common music materials. A lyrical line is cloaked and interrupted by a second, insistent voice of mechanical wildness, a fugue state, a tangle of terrifying uncontrollable associations and compulsions.” Indeed, the score contains lots of mysterious elements that don’t necessarily “go together.”

Completely contrasting riffs from both players compete for attention. Some slower sections were atmospheric, often dream-like. The performance was impressive, with rock-solid rhythms and ensemble. Especially fun was the creative camera work: in some sections, only the pianists’ hands are visible, and it was intriguing to watch as hands flew in and out of the camera’s view.

The written program concluded with Souvenirs, Op. 28, (1951) by Samuel Barber (1910-81). Originally written for piano four hands (later orchestrated by the composer for a ballet), Barber wrote that one could imagine “a setting reminiscent of the Palm Court of the Hotel Plaza in New York, the year about 1914 – epoch of the first tangos….”

The six-movement work is a collection of dances for each of which Barber assigned a locale in the hotel. The suite begins with Waltz, which is assigned to “the lobby.” A grand introduction brings on the waltz proper. The pianists seemed to delight in the generous give-and-take rhythmic flexibility – speeding up and slowing down, sometimes in an exaggerated fashion.

Barber’s hint in the Schottische (a slow polka) is “3rd Floor Hallway.” This short dance contains several contrasting sections with changes in tempo and mood, immediately realized by the duo. Pas de deux (“a corner of the ballroom”) is slow, elegant and in a minor key.

Two Step (“Tea in the Palm Court”) is short and fast, infused with energy, especially from the non-stop accompaniment. Hesitation Tango “a bedroom affair” featured Nakagoshi laying down the medium-tempo tango rhythm with Zimmermann providing the melody. A more languid middle section provides contrast to the faster outer sections. The playing was appropriately sultry and cute.

The finale Galop (“the next afternoon”) was reminiscent of the original lively ballroom dance popular in the 18th century (technically Galop means “the fastest running gait of a horse”). Energetic playing with technical brilliance brought this 20-minute “salon music” to a bright end.

A whirl-wind minute-and-half encore (another Galop) made both the performers (and I suspect, the audience) smile. At the end of the evening one is impressed with the technical brilliance coupled with the musicality displayed throughout the concert by this astonishing duo.