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Audiences score when two talented young artists square off in a piano battle

January 24, 2018 GMT

World-renowned pianists Paul Cibis and Andreas Kern aren’t afraid of a little competition. In fact, their good-humored rivalry has developed into a different type of classical concert, one that is now an international sensation, but in the beginning, happened more or less by chance in Hong Kong.

With only one concert slot available in the 2009 Hong Kong City Festival, Cibis and Kern set aside their desires to perform solo programs and agreed, with the suggestion of the event organizers, to share the stage.

The men, who previously met through a mutual friend, had not seen each other in over five years, but the seed for the duo’s inevitable success was planted with that impromptu pairing.

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“When we finally met again in Berlin it did not take us long to discover that we definitely would not want to perform together,” Kern said. “The fight was on, and we decided to battle it out right on stage.”

Years later, the musical duel is far from settled. The pair has energized audiences around the world with the near impossible task of crowning a victor in six different musical rounds. This Sunday, Houston will have its turn to vote as Cibis and Kern present two performances of “Piano Battle” in the Hobby Center as part of their second U.S. tour.

Program details are elusive, as the pieces performed are typically last-minute decisions, said Kern, who was born in South Africa. It’s safe to say, however, that original compositions will appear in the selected repertoire, as well as classical masterpieces by composers such as Schubert, Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

Each round represents a specific musical style, such as virtuosic, romantic or improvised. Regardless, one rule applies throughout - the works must be comparable to be competitive. “If one of us plays a three-minute Chopin étude, the other cannot respond with a 20-minute Beethoven sonata,” Kern said.

At times, the concert features a more conversational tone. The pianists converse with the audience and banter with one another, but once their fingers strike the keys, their focus zeros in to avoid any distractions.

The duo’s ability to easily alternate between light-hearted entertainment and serious technique is what solidifies the show’s unique format.

“There are others who do great music comedy and others who create great programs as performers, but I have not yet seen anyone or any group who offers such a mix as we do,” Kern said. “It is part of our mission to let people experience that you don’t have to be an academic musicologist to enjoy and truly appreciate classical music.”

So the competition is not all ruthless, but that certainly doesn’t stop the pianists from fighting to the end.

“If you ask for overall score, well, I think I can be honest here and say I have a comfortable lead,” Kern said. “Though I do let Paul win every once in a while.”

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