On September 2nd 2018, for the first time La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alain Altinoglu will accompany the French piano duo Katia and Marielle Labèque at the Centre for Fine Arts Brussels. A golden opportunity to take a look at the world of these two unclassifiable artists.
Born in Bayonne to a music-loving physician and a pianist mother, the Labèque sisters have been part of the international music scene for several decades and they show no sign of wanting to stop. After graduating from the Paris Conservatoire where they studied piano, in 1968 Katia and Marielle began working together on a piano repertoire for four hands or for two pianos. They recorded their first album Les Visions de l'Amen under the artistic direction of the composer himself, Olivier Messiaen. In an interview for the Telegraph in 2009, Katia describes meeting Olivier Messiaen: “It opened many doors for us, we were part of the avant-garde elite.” They went on to collaborate with numerous contemporary composers, from Luciano Berio through Philippe Boesmans and György Ligeti to Pierre Boulez. Prestigious as this repertoire was, neither of the two young women liked the idea of being typecast in that particular style of music and they lost no time in looking for an alternative.
In 1980 it was suggested that the Labèque sisters produce a version of Georges Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for two pianos. They leapt at the opportunity and, as it turned out, wisely so, for their album sold more than 500,000 copies, one of the first gold discs in the history of classical music. Their repertoire has continued to evolve and diversify ever since. Katia and Marielle are also at home with ragtime and flamenco, pop and experimental rock. Quite early on, they also found an affinity with baroque music through Marco Postinghel, and in 1998 they commissioned the construction of two Silberman pianos, two of seventeen instruments now housed in their apartment in Rome, a property that once belonged to the Borgia family which the sisters have shared since 2005. With the two Silbermans, Katia and Marielle spent several years exploring the baroque repertoire in concerts in which they accompanied the most celebrated interpreters of baroque music, most notably the Italian ensemble Il Giardino Armonico, the English Baroque Soloists orchestra under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with Sir Simon Rattle.
“Seeking the echo rather than the refrain and preferring discovery to repetition.
The Labèque sisters have forged an international career for themselves. They perform at a number of festivals and in prestigious venues like the Vienna Musikverein, Carnegie Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, La Scala, the Hollywood Bowl, the BBC Proms, Tanglewood, Salzburg and many other famous places. In 2005 an audience of more than 33,000 people attended the Berlin Philharmonic end-of-year gala concert at which the Labèque sisters were the principal guest stars. That record was broken in May 2016 when over 100,000 spectators made their way to Schönbrunn for the Vienna Philharmonic’s Sommernachtskonzert. The sisters performed as soloists and more than one and a half billion television viewers around the world tuned in to watch the concert.
Minimalism runs like a thread through the Labèque sisters’ career. Ever since their first collaborations, numerous composers from the avant-garde movement, then from the minimalist movement, have written new works specially for them. These pieces include Luciano Berio’s Linea for Two Pianos and Percussion, Michael Nyman’s Water Dances, Richard Dubugnon’s Battlefield for Two Pianos and Orchestra, Osvaldo Golijov’s and Gonzalo Grau’s Nazareno for Two Pianos, Percussion and Orchestra, and Philippe Boesmans’ Capriccio. During the course of 2008, they premièred Four Movements for Two Pianos by the celebrated minimalist and post-minimalist American composer Philip Glass in France, Italy, England and Cuba. In 2015 Philip Glass also composed a Double Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra specially for the Labèque sisters, who performed its world première at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles under the baton of Venezuela’s Gustavo Dudamel. So it is no coincidence that the first album they recorded in their own studios (Studio KML) in Rome - a former school they converted in 2012 - is a retrospective of roughly half a century of minimalist music entitled Minimalist Dream House. Earlier this year they also inaugurated the world première of Bryce Dessner’s Concerto for Two Pianos, another creation written specially for them. In 2019, the young American composer Nico Muhly will be presenting them with his new creation for two pianos.
In 2005, Katia and Marielle Labèque set up a foundation in Rome to perpetuate their artistic heritage. The Fondazione KML explores, supports and presents concerts and performances. It also encourages collaboration among artists, championing in particular pluri-disciplinary performances and education. Artists are invited to create new pieces together, mixing dance, music and audiovisual material. The foundation’s internet site outlines its general philosophy: “First and foremost, art is a social phenomenon and not solely the intervention of an individual.” The Fondazione KML also gives the credit for its distinguished creators’ career to the way they have managed to preserve the classical heritage and also explore contemporary art forms while injecting new ideas into both.
An illustrious and diversified committee of honour surrounds the Labèque sisters: Thomas Adès, Placido Domingo, Daniel Day-Lewis, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Simon Rattle, Bill T Jones, Magnus Lindberg, Madonna, John Mc Laughlin, Peter Sellars and Axel Vervoordt. In addition to the artistic links it upholds, the foundation encourages financial efficiency so as to sustain a structure dedicated to honing talent and finding new repertoires. The Labèque sisters sum up their approach as follows: “Seeking the echo rather than the refrain and preferring discovery to repetition.”