Happy Musical Accidents
Panic Duo has serendipity on its side as the ensemble pushes the limits of contemporary classical music
By Christina Campodonico
Panic Duo plays it all — classical and contemporary, jazz and modernist, world music-inspired and more — in some way, shape or form.
On Sunday at Beyond Baroque, the chamber music ensemble that plays almost every genre under the umbrella of modern classical music performs a predictably unpredictable set that includes at least one “accidental” world premiere.
You might think that it’s hard for a musician to keep up with all these different musical styles, but Panic Duo pianist Nic Gerpe enjoys the challenge.
“We like stuff that’s kind of virtuosic, things that tend to be hard,” Gerpe says.
He should know. Panic Duo blossomed from a rock in hard a place. In order to finish his doctoral studies in music at USC, Gerpe had to put on a collaborative music concert. He was looking for a violinist with the chops to play John Corigliano’s technically challenging “Sonata for Violin and Piano” but hadn’t found the right person.
Gerpe was having a drink with classmate Pasha Tseitlin, who had been mulling over a similar problem. He wanted to play Corigliano, too, except he was a violinist without a piano player.
The two immediately realized that they had a solution in each other, and that Corigliano piece has been a staple in their repertoire ever since they officially formed as Panic Duo in 2009.
At Beyond Baroque, Panic Duo will reprise their interpretation of Corigliano’s “Sonata for Violin and Piano” and play works by noted L.A.-based composers, including two world premieres. One of those is a happy accident.
Gerpe calls “Pheromone, for violin, piano and electronics” by electronic musician-composer Isaac Schankler an “accidental premiere.” Schankler originally wrote the piece for piano and flute and was going to premiere it with Gerpe at an electroacoustic music festival in Virginia. But when Schankler, who runs electronics during the piece, couldn’t make it due to an emergency, the festival told Gerpe he couldn’t play.
Gerpe still wanted to perform the piece, so he asked Schankler if he could rewrite the flute part for violin and asked Pasha if he’d be willing to learn a whole new piece of music on relatively short notice for their upcoming concert.
This was about two and a half weeks ago, and the reworked piece will premiere this Sunday. Gerpe describes it as colorful and atmospheric because of the echoing quality created between his piano, Tsetilin’s violin and Schlankler’s electronic processing.
“From Whence It Came,” by Emmy-winning composer Stephen Cohn, was created with more intention. Cohn was inspired to write the piece after seeing Panic Duo perform live. Their dynamic performance left a deep impression.
“They’re wonderful musicians. They’re very meticulous and very musical, and they have a tremendous amount of passion in their performance,” says Cohn. “It really communicates with audiences and gives a new life to chamber music.”
Cohn believes that the performance style of Panic Duo matches his music’s “commitment to connect the heart and the intellect in my contemporary chamber music.”
Meanwhile, Gerpe describes Cohn’s piece as rhythmically driven, powerful and energetic but with tender and lyrical moments interspersed between.
Anne LeBaron’s “Devil in the Belfry” takes a more narrative, character-driven turn, says Gerpe. The piece was inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe satire of the same name in which a rogue violinist storms a village bell tower and rings the town bell 13 times to the horror of its ever-punctual inhabitants. LeBaron is an award-winning composer whose 2012 hyperopera “Crescent Cities” first garnered critical attention for the now widely-recognized experimental L.A. opera troupe, The Industry.
Also on the program are “Owl Night” by Gilda Lyons and “Four Nocturnes for Violin and Piano” by George Crumb.
Yet the most intriguing part of Panic Duo’s upcoming performance is not knowing exactly what to expect. It’s kind of like the nature of modern classical music, not defined by any single style, but a multitude of aesthetics.
“The only thing that’s unifying is the search for new and different sounds,” says Gerpe. “The amounts of music you can find are limitless.”
Panic Duo performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 29, at Beyond Baroque, 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. Tickets are $10 or $6 for students and seniors. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit beyondbaroque.org.