I Love a Piano, Piano: The Naughtons' Four-Handed Sibling Revelry

By Dennis Polkow

“I think one of the cool things about four-hand piano,” says Christina Naughton, “is that it allows the deepest communication between the two players, because it may be the only form of chamber music where the players actually share the instrument.”

“It’s fun and it’s a different form of communication than chamber music,” chimes in Christina’s twin sister and piano duo partner, Michelle Naughton. “It’s really unique to its own self. It’s an art in itself. Family is a big part of that, too, and you can see that with Mozart’s and Mendelssohn’s music: they wrote stuff to be played with their siblings who were also fantastic musicians.” Not coincidentally, four-hand piano works by those two composers are central to the Naughton sisters’ Ravinia-debut performance on August 24.

In the pre-recording era of the 18th and 19th centuries, people who wanted to hear music had one of two choices: go hear it live or make it yourself at home. Hearing a live orchestra was primarily for the upper classes, but as pianos became less expensive and a parlor fixture of middle-class domesticity, the four-hand medium became a way for orchestral pieces to be interactively experienced at home: two players, side by side, using their combined 20 fingers across the wide range of the piano to open up new musical worlds.

“You have a whole orchestra at your fingertips,” says Michelle, “both with the four-hand–one-piano and with the two-piano forms, because you have four hands to work with, which [can be] like all the different voices of the orchestra. And that’s why I think it works so well for orchestral music, because you can add different colors and timings that may be a little bit different from the orchestra as well. It can put a little bit different light on some of those works.”

But where does that music come from? When there would be an arrangement made for four hands of a major orchestral work, would the composer be involved in doing that? Or was that undertaking farmed out to someone else?

“Either is possible,” notes Christina. “For example, with Brahms and Haydn, there are composers who would often draft their orchestral works onto piano first.” And many composers had an eye, from that moment, that they were also going to publish a four-handed version of what they were writing. [Conversely, Mahler, though he once tried his hand at so arranging a symphony by Bruckner (before writing any of his own), authorized his friend and fellow composer/conductor Alexander Zemlinsky to create a four-handed version of his Symphony No. 6, which will be performed at Ravinia the following week, on August 31, by the piano duo of Inna Faliks and Daniel Schlosberg.]

“I think [being a duo] works out very well,” says Michelle, “it has always been something that works really well with family, whether or not it’s twins! But in our case, we grew up together and, of course, we were trained as soloists at both Curtis and Juilliard. We always knew when one of us was playing solo, we were always at each other’s lessons, we’ve always had the same teachers, we know each other so well. There are a lot of things we don’t even really notice anymore that we don’t actually have to talk about.” “We do a lot of non-verbal communication,” adds Christina.

Christina and Michelle are identical twins, which can still create confusion for others that can seem odd to them. “When I walk around,” notes Michelle, “occasionally, even in a big place like New York City, it’s crazy how I’ll walk by and they’re like, ‘Hi, twin.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’ ” Their voices, too, are virtually indistinguishable. “I have gotten confused that way, too,” admits Christina, “because I’ll hear a recording of my sister talking and [think] it was myself. It’s a strange feeling.” 


The sisters are the only siblings in their family and their parents did not, for instance, dress them alike. “They gave us a healthy amount of individual attention,” says Christina. “To that point,” Michelle clarifies, “we didn’t even think about playing together, which seems crazy, because it seems like the most obvious thing since we both grew up playing the piano. But that didn’t come up until someone asked us to do it in high school.”

Did they start playing at the same time, too?

“Oh yeah!” exclaims Christina. “We started the same day.” “We studied separately,” Michelle adds, “but it was the same day. We were 4 years old. I think it made it less lonely for us because there was always someone who I was also hearing, but also was at the exact same stage as I was. Mom was our first teacher and all that stuff.” “I would say she was our biggest influence,” adds Christina. “We would not be musicians today if it wasn’t for her, even though she’s not a professional musician. She did it on her own; she’s not a teacher at all. And she had no intention of telling us to be pianists, but whatever she did, we loved it so much.”

The sisters were also not competitive about their piano playing. “We were that way about other things,” says Christina as she and Michelle both laugh. “Something about the nature of [music] makes it a little less that way,” theorizes Michelle. “I mean, everyone’s goal is to do better and make the music as best as it can be. That’s kind of like an individual goal. And now it’s a joint goal, which is a great thing to be working on with someone you know so well.

“And it does help to have someone there. I mean, we are also each other’s harshest critics, and I think we come up with things together with parts that we wouldn’t come up with on our own. To be able to observe each other has been a big deal for us. We play parts separately sometimes for each other, and that makes us understand what is going on a lot more. Occasionally, when I work on something solo, I miss having another person there who understands what’s going on and adds extra dimensions to things.”

The Naughtons’ piano prowess also allowed for family road trips from their home base of Madison, WI. “I remember being on the road,” Christina recalls. “We were pretty young. Eventually we would drive really far distances for lessons. The whole family. Dad would drive. The four of us would go places really far. Eventually it got as far as Cleveland every couple of weekends or something.”

As for playing as a duo, “it kind of happened naturally,” says Michelle. “People kept wanting that and we finally said, ‘Okay, we’ll give it a try,’ and that’s what happened. We never really looked back after that. We surprised ourselves because, first of all, we didn’t think of it. Second of all, we didn’t think we were going to like it.”

“I do remember starting one piano, four hands,” says Christina. “It wasn’t like the first day we said, ‘Oh, we loved it.’ It was actually very uncomfortable, physically difficult, all that. It was only after we performed and got used to all that stuff that we discovered that we loved it. I mean, it takes work to actually love something, I think, in a lot of cases.”

To this day, Christina says that “we are very odd in that we like to do it not in any way to conserve space. We like two piano benches and we share the pedals.” “No one does that,” says Michelle. “If you were writing Piano Duo 101, it would say—” “Don’t do that!” Christina interjects. “There are a lot of rules we don’t follow; we do things our own way. Sometimes we switch [Piano I and II], sometimes we don’t. I actually like to play the bottom part, so we really haven’t switched that. That’s with one piano. When we play two pianos, we do switch.”

One of the fascinating aspects of the Naughtons’ August 24 Ravinia recital is that it will be bookended with music of John Adams, whose 70th birthday anniversary is being celebrated throughout the season at Ravinia. [Previous Ravinia magazine features about Adams and the festival’s celebration of his music, as well as an interview with Samuel Adams—the composer’s son, himself currently a composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—about his experiences growing up in the musical household, can be found on the Ravinia Backstage blog.] The sisters gave the world premiere of Adams’s newest work, Roll Over Beethoven, a two-piano version of the composer’s String Quartet No. 2 (2014), in March of last year and will reprise the performance to open the program. They will close with Adams’s Hallelujah Junction, which was originally written as a two-piano piece (and was even the title of his later autobiography).

“His music speaks to us, and that’s originally how we chose to play Hallelujah Junction,” says Michelle. “He knew that we had played it in Central Park; someone made a bootleg of that, and John found it on the internet. Most of the time, that’s exactly what you don’t want, and it’s the kind of thing that you usually immediately need to take down. But in this case, I’m glad we didn’t! So one day we got up and there was an email from John Adams. He told us that he heard it, and shortly after that we started asking him for suggestions of things we could work on, and that led to, ‘Hey, why don’t you come play that for me in person?’ So we did, and then all kinds of other ideas came.

“Afterward he mentioned, ‘Hey, you know, I’m thinking that my new string quartet would sound good on two pianos. Would you be open to that?’ ‘Sure!’ The other thing he mentioned at that time was that his Short Ride in a Fast Machine might sound good on one piano, four hands. That will be the first Adams four-hand piece, and that’s actually in process right now.”

Offering the Chicago premiere of Roll Over Beethoven at Ravinia in a program that also features music of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Debussy is a homecoming of sorts for the Naughtons, who frequented the festival when they were growing up.

“We would take road trips to Ravinia as a family in the summer,” Christina recalls. “We even went to see our teacher, Gary Graffman, play there. It will be fun to be back.” “We got a lot of inspiration from the beautiful music at Ravinia,” adds Michelle, “and now, hopefully, we can give some back.”

Veteran award-winning journalist and critic Dennis Polkow is columnist for Newcity Chicago and a Chicago correspondent for London-based Seen and Heard International.