Pomona Professors Dazzle with Piano Duet

If you were busy last Saturday night, you missed a beautiful piano concert given by Margaret and Karl Kohn in Bridges Hall of Music. The couple played together seamlessly—not surprising after 60 years of practice. Margaret Kohn, born in Boston, and Karl Kohn, born in Vienna, met and began playing together while he was at Harvard and she was at Radcliffe, the women’s college associated with Harvard. They both learned piano at a young age and studied music in college. Karl spent two years in the army, becoming the bandmaster and writing his first piece, for bassoon and piano, while enlisted.

After Karl graduated in 1950, he became a professor at Pomona, and the Kohns have been living in Claremont ever since. Margaret still teaches part-time at Pomona, while her husband has been retired for 15 years but still has an office in the Music Department, which he visits frequently.

The Kohns have been performing together for over six decades, simply “because we love to do what we do,” Karl Kohn said. Together, they have played both four-hand pieces (for two people on one piano) and two-hand pieces. The Kohns are drawn to 20th-century music and enjoy being close to Los Angeles, where the contemporary music scene is active.

On Saturday, the Kohns played four contemporary pieces on two pianos. The first work was by American composer Steve Reich, titled “Piano Phase.” The piece started with one piano, with the other joining in and then moving away from the first piano’s sequence. The whole piece centered around five different pitches and became a complex cascade of notes that flowed together. It was continuous and lively, evoking a sense of water tumbling like a river, with a sudden ending.

The second piece was composed by Karl Kohn himself, entitled “Dream Pieces.” The music was fittingly dreamy and floating, sending the primary voice back and forth between the two pianos. The contemporary style was evident in the lush chords that lacked a classical melody structure, along with interesting techniques, such as holding the strings of the piano to create more of a pizzicato (plucking) sound. There were some more trilling, lighter, gentler parts balanced by discordant notes, making the “dream” harsher and darker. At times the two pianos seemed to be conversing congenially, while at other times they seemed to be arguing as they played back and forth.

The third piece was a trio of pieces by Gyorgy Ligeti, called “Monument,” “Self-Portrait,” and “In Gently Flowing Motion.” The first began with a series of short, vibrant chords, slowly building on itself to become a “monument.” The second seemed more repetitive and searching, while the third meandered, flowing all over the keyboard to the highest and lowest notes on the piano, though—contrary to the title—it was not always very gentle.

The final piece was “Hallelujah Junction” by John Adams, whom Karl Kohn identifies as the most-performed composer in America. This piece started out quick and bright, with a mix of major chords. It later shifted to become deeper and darker, then flowing and beautifully minor, and finally finished with an abrupt end.

The program was beautiful and very contemporary, exploring the many sounds and moods the piano can evoke.

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