With ‘one heart and four hands’ piano duo delights audiences

Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro

By Barry Gilbert, Special to the Jewish Light

One of them is blond, the other brunette. One is reserved, the other talkative. One grew up in Moscow, one in what is now Ukraine. When they first met, they didn’t much like or trust each other. But classical pianist Diana Shapiro says that when she and duo partner Stanislava Varshavski play together, people hear “one heart and four hands.”

“It doesn’t matter if we sit next to each other (playing) four hands, or across from each other (at two pianos),” Shapiro says. “I kind of know what she is going to do in the next moment. And that’s partially because we have been together for 16 years … but we also lived through a lot of things together – personal things and emotional things. You know, through successes and failures. And everything makes you closer.”

It wasn’t always this way.

“Yes, it was a very funny story,” Shapiro says. “We actually hated each other.”

They met at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in 1996, the year Shapiro emigrated from Moscow. Varshavski had arrived a year earlier from Ukraine. While working toward their bachelor’s degree in solo piano, they found themselves among 10 students in a class for duo piano taught by Israeli pianist Alexander Tamir. 

Tamir liked to provoke his students to speak up, even to argue with him. Varshavski took part in class discussions. 

“I grew up in an atmosphere where even if you disagree with a teacher, you keep it to yourself,” Shapiro says. “So I was thinking I was not going to make a connection with (Stanislava) because she is very rude.”

They played together as part of their duo-class work and clicked, and eventually they even became roommates. And the day they finished their bachelor for solo piano degree, Tamir took Varshavski aside and told her she should give up playing solo “because you are quite special when you are playing duo,” Shapiro recalls. 

“It was quite forceful from his side, so she actually really cried. We lived together back then, so I remember her crying the whole night. But then the decision was made and we never looked back.”

The pair continued at the Jerusalem Academy, where they earned their master’s degrees. In 2005, they immigrated to the United States and continued their studies in Boston. In 2011, they each earned a doctor of musical arts degree in collaborative piano at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Today, Shapiro is an assistant professor of piano at Silver Lake College in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Varshavski lives a reasonable drive away in northwestern Illinois, is on the piano faculty of the Sherwood Community Music School at Columbia College Chicago, and is an adjunct professor at Silver Lake and at  Maranatha Baptist Bible University in Watertown, Wisconsin. 

The musicians, as the Varshavski & Shapiro Piano Duo, have performed all over the world. They have played together and solo with some of the world’s most prestigious orchestras, and they have recorded for Bavarian Radio, Radio 4 of Hong Kong and Israeli national radio and TV. They will perform at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis on Friday, March 6.

Watching the musicians play four hand – side by side at the same keyboard – is both a musical and visual treat. It may look “showy,” such as when one or both are playing crossover, but it’s not intentional. They’re trying to keep out of each other’s way.

“A lot of choreography is involved, everything is planned,” Shapiro says. “Because if it is not planned, you can end up with an injury if you land on somebody’s finger. I don’t think we intentionally do anything to impress, but sometimes it just looks impressive because of the technique involved.”

Both women are Jewish and grew up in the Soviet Union. Shapiro studied at a special, high school level college of music in Moscow, Varshavski in Ukraine. Their formative years coincided with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which finally fell in 1991. Shapiro was treated as special because she was gifted young musician, but she was also Jewish.

“What happened (after the fall) is instead of a communist ideology,” she says, “there was an ideology of everybody all of a sudden became Christian believers, or at least on the outside you had to show that you celebrated the (Christian) holidays. I was always led to feel that ‘you are not one of us.’ ”

Shapiro says the ways in which she and Varshavski are different as people and musicians account for the success of the duo.

“We’re different people. If you look at the website, she’s blond and I’m brunette,” she laughs. “In some stuff, I’m very outgoing, and she’s a little bit more reserved. I’m very talkative and she’s very calm. So I think it’s like fire and water, we complement each other. 

“Sometimes I have a special strength playing a certain composer, such as Schubert or Mozart, and she is quite strong in understanding behind the scenes what happens in Romantic Russian music with, say, Rachmaninoff. … But we’re wise enough to trust each other’s experience. I am sometimes learning from her and she is sometimes learning from me.”

Shapiro says it takes time and a lot work to get the point where a duo performance sounds like one person playing, and that process can be challenging. 

“We try to come to a certain agreement,” she says. “Sometimes it takes a lot of argument. But it’s an important process making the right artistic decision, because you need to argue and balance ideas and see what happens. So I think it’s a benefit that we’re different. 

“And we’re both very stubborn. I don’t know if that’s a benefit, but we think it is.”

Varshavski & Shapiro Piano Duo

When:  7:30 p.m. Friday, March 6

Where:  Christ Church Cathedral, 1210 Locust Street, St. Louis

How much:  A free will offering will be taken.

More info:  314-442-3283; newjewishtheatre.org

When:  2 p.m. Saturday, March 7; recital of works by French or French-inspired composers, followed at 3:30 by a presentation for local music teachers and students.

Where:  University of Missouri-Columbia,  Rogers Whitmore Recital Hall. School of Music, 135 Fine Arts Building.

When:   8:50 and 11 a.m. Sunday, March 8, during and between services.

Where:  Missouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. Ninth Street, Columbia