John and Richard Contiguglia say their lives were changed by a chance meeting with their hero.

 

The Contiguglia brothers were just 12 years old when Percy Grainger showed up on their doorstep. The Australian expat composer-pianist who had enjoyed a glittering career in the United States was playing a concert in their hometown of Auburn, New York, and was all too happy to share the stage with two talented youngsters.

In Townsville at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Grainger’s death, the twin pianists, now 74, have vivid recollections of that fateful day.

John’s eyes sparkle as he thinks back on the most formative experience of their lives. “He arrived in a very heavy tweed suit, big boots, no hat, no coat, in the wake of this ferocious snowstorm. He was a very handsome man and he seemed much taller than he really was.”

The distinguished guest made himself at home, preparing his own breakfast and addressing the young pianists’ mother as “mama.”

“He spent a whole day listening to us, talking to us, and writing out lists of two-piano pieces he felt we should investigate,” Richard continues. “He treated us as if we were already professional musicians and we were in awe of this great man and the experience of being so close to somebody who, to us, was a god.”

Grainger set his two protégés-for-a-day on the right path, encouraging them to seek out more piano duo repertoire. The impromptu lesson stuck: for more than sixty years the Contiguglias have been almost inseparable in performance.

“We told him it was such a shame there was so little music written for two pianists”, says Richard, “and he said ‘Nonsense!’ Then he sent us a great many of his two-piano works, which we’ve been playing all our lives.”

One of these scores, which the Contiguglias cherish today, bears the florid inscription, ‘To my gifted colleagues in tonal fellowship.’

John is still floored by Grainger’s generosity. “I marvel at his compassion and his judgement in knowing that we couldn’t have been very good at that age, but sensing there was a discipline in us that would develop into something serious.”

Later, the Australian wrote to the budding pianists’ mother offering to teach them in New York. Alarmed at his advice to “forget about school” and focus on music education, and apprehensive about sending her children unaccompanied on five-hour train rides to the city, she kept the letter hidden and chose not to divulge its contents. The twins discovered it after her death.

“We never saw him after that day”, says Richard of Grainger. And although the Contiguglias occasionally indulge in tantalising ‘what-ifs’, they don’t regret having studied at Yale instead, where they met the great English pianist Myra Hess and subsequently had the opportunity to take classes with her in London.

Following their debut Australian performances at the festival, they are set to make a pilgrimage to the Grainger Museum in Melbourne, where they will come full circle and present their letter to be housed in the permanent collection.

“In it he described some suggestions about how we should practise and I thought this is a very useful letter for the museum,” Richard explains.

“I want the museum to have this letter because I think it tells them something about Percy Grainger that a lot of correspondence doesn’t,” adds John.

That daylong encounter with Grainger has stayed with the Contiguglias, whose lives and careers remain closely intertwined. They reside in a New York apartment block famously overrun with musicians (Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin lives in the same building). With Richard on the sixth floor and John on the fourth, daily practice sessions are close at hand.

“It gives us an opportunity to really work as much as we need to and yet to live independently, which is, after all, the other side of being a twin,” says John.

The brothers’ musical rapport has been much remarked upon over the decades, thanks largely to the novelty appeal of identical twin performers. Although they stress that it’s their individual strengths as pianists that make for a fulfilling whole, John acknowledges that “starting together, breathing together and ensemble is just so automatic to us. “Maybe it does have something to do with being a twin.”

The septuagenarians are keeping a punishing rehearsing schedule in Townsville. “We’re doing 17 pieces in nine days!” Richard laughs.

“I don’t think there is anything quite like this in the world,” says John. “There are a lot of music festivals but I don’t know of any that have so much music going on over such a short period of time and use the musicians so intensively.”

The twins consider themselves the “elder statesmen” of the festival and “applaud the enthusiasm and commitment of the younger players.”

John and Richard Contiguglia perform Percy Grainger piano duets at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music Saturday, August 6.