Julie Kuok & Vantage Music | October 2022 | Hong Kong
In early October, Vantage Music caught up with Duo Ping Ting and they talked to us about their musical journey, from how they started as a duo to their recent concert engagements. Musically educated in Hong Kong and Hanover, Germany, the twin sisters have participated in numerous competitions and gained many awards. The name of the duo is made up of the sisters’ names: Ping (周樂娉) and Ting (周樂婷).
As twins, one of the biggest advantages when forming as a duo is that they are the same age and have the same teacher. As they live together, it is very convenient to arrange practice time.
The twins learnt piano from their uncle from two and a half years old to the age of four. Later on, it was their uncle who suggested that the twins enter the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (APA). The sisters took the entrance exam at four years old; however, the teachers thought that they were too young to understand what was taught in classes. They entered APA one year later and started learning duo repertoire under Eleanor Wong (黃懿倫), until they completed Master of Music with first-class honours at the APA.
Afterwards, the twins pursued further studies at the Hanover Conservatory of Music in Germany. The Genova and Dimitrov Piano Duo, which consists of husband and wife, were their teachers for two years during their master’s course, with a preferred focus on duo rather than solo repertoire.
One advantage was that there was a practice room dedicated exclusively to duet students at the Conservatory and that made it easier to practise.
For their graduation, the duo recorded a CD that lasted 45 minutes. The pieces which they played include Brahms’s Liebeslieder Waltzes, Hummel’s Rondo in E flat major Op. 11 for two pianos, and Liszt’s Concerto pathétique.
The duo have won top prizes in a number of international competitions. The most recent one was the 64th ARD International Music Competition in Munich in 2015, when they won third prize. The duo recounted that it an unforgettable experience. They saw the shadow of rainbow on the score before going to the stage in the final round, where they played the Mozart Concerto for 2 pianos in E flat with the Munich Bavarian Radio Orchestra. They felt that it was a blessing from Mozart himself.
At the screening stage, participants had to send a recording of three pieces. The duo played Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dance and piano duet pieces by Weber. For the first round, the twins presented a piano duet by Mozart, Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, as well as a commission piece. For the second round, the sisters played Samuel Barber’s Souvenirs and Liszt’s Concerto pathétique, as well as a commission piece. For the final round, the duo played a Mozart concerto arranged for two pianos. There were two other pairs of twins at the competition and there were altogether more than 40 duos. Six duos remained by the final round.
On Preference for Four Hands or Two Pianos and on Repertoire
The twins started learning from playing duet before playing on two pianos. To them, four hands are more challenging as there is less space between the players and the hand positions are more difficult to manage as one has to cross over and play on top of the other. There is also the critical element of maintaining sound balance and playing together, which is not that comfortable on one piano.
The repertoire appeared to be less well known for piano duos than for other ensembles. But the sisters had different means of discovering them. For instance, they took reference from other repertoire at competitions so that they could try those pieces themselves. Over the years, they have gathered an interesting portfolio of pieces, spanning romantic period pieces by composers such as Arensky and Saint-Saëns to the 19th-century American composer Amy Beach, French composer Jean Wiener, and other Spanish composers. In fact, some contemporary composers have also approached them for musical collaborations. The duo have worked together with a composer from APA who wrote a piece titled “Mirror” featuring symmetrical intervals and timing to reflect the nature of being twins. The sisters have also played a commission piece named “Yin Yang” for the Dranoff International Two Pianos Foundation in the US, which organises activities in local primary and secondary schools to introduce performances with two pianos.
When asked who the duo considered their role models, first to their minds were Maria João Pires and the piano duo Tal & Groethuysen. The twins enjoyed working with conductor Jun Märkl at the ARD competition, where they felt touched and satisfied with the performance.
Relationship between the Duo and with the Piano
To Duo Ping Ting, a good duo may be different in character and personality but the direction that they aim at must match. The duo said that when they perform there are sometimes some spontaneous moments but what they play is mostly rehearsed. However, they still pay close attention to each other to listen out for any impromptu changes.
It is inevitable that arguments occur. When asked how they resolve conflicts between them, the twins told us that they would listen to the recording of what they played and put aside the particular part where they disagreed and come back to it later. They shared their thoughts on it afterwards when they were calm. “We were less reasonable when we were younger, so we wasted a lot of time arguing,” the duo said. “We would get emotional and stop talking to each other.”
Born just three minutes apart, and although they have similar personalities, their musical tastes and feel towards the piano differ. One twin considers the piano her other half, whilst the other feels that sometimes she would like some time away from it. Although it is nice to have concerts, at times it feels like a burden. The duo said that piano practice during their time at APA could be painful as they had to constantly scrutinise their playing through recordings in order to improve.
Hong Kong Piano Duo Association
Duo Ping Ting founded the Hong Kong Piano Duo Association in 2021. They want to invite duo groups from abroad to perform and promote piano duos to local audiences. In their concert on 4 November, Duo Ping Ting and HKDuo presented Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro for four piano players, and a duet by Mendelssohn, as well as other rearranged orchestral works from Strauss and Shostakovich.
As Music Educators
The duo have held classes at HKU Space as part of a two-month course to promote piano duos. The curriculum included introducing their history and conducting masterclasses. But the entrance requirements for the applicants – e.g. course participants having to be 18 years old or above with Grade 8 piano qualification – seemed too restrictive to attract enough students to launch courses regularly in the long run.
Duo Ping Ting agreed that teaching is an important part of being an artist as it lets one know where and how one can improve in one’s own playing. The duo have also taught students a method of playing that is different to what they learnt themselves. Through teaching, the duo found reflections of their younger selves in their students.
In their teaching, the duo ask their students to understand the context behind the music they are playing. Furthermore, the duo are in favour of students listening to recordings of the music that the students are learning. However, they have found that some teachers discourage their students from listening to recordings of others’ work for fear of unguided imitation.
Promoting piano music is still pretty much on Duo Ping Ting’s mind. They will encourage more local young talents to participate piano duet repertories and provide performances opportunities for them to showcase this art form by collaborating on stage. Despite the challenge in finding suitable venues, they are particularly keen on music for two pianos in Hong Kong, rather than piano duets, which are more common. These include hosting masterclasses and perhaps establishing a new category for two pianos in music festivals.
We wish Duo Ping Ting every success with their upcoming concerts and future endeavours.