Dominic Ferris is one half of the dynamic musical duo, The Piano Brothers. The pair met whilst training at The Royal College of Music, and now perform for audiences worldwide.
Dominic Ferris and Elwin Hendrijanto will play Live at Zédel, London, on 10th September. the performance will include trademark renditions of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida and Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. alongside their own compositions.
1. How would you describe your sound?
The sound of the Piano Brothers is unique in the sense that it draws on multiple influences across so many different styles of music. These influences have been inspired by the musical styles that Elwin and I have grown up listening to, such as musical theatre, film music, arrangements of pop songs and original compositions. During the two hours we are on stage, our audiences experience a musical roller-coaster of a wide range of styles and performance approaches which are seldom seen juxtaposed in the same concert. We also try to contrast our texture and sound field using various layers of piano colours. For example, for some items (such as Ballade For Steinway or Rollin’ In The Deep) are performed on one piano (four hands), whilst other numbers (such as Viva La Vida or Uprising) are arranged for two pianos to give a grander, more symphonic sound.
2. Coming from very separate parts of the world, you both must have grown up with individual musical influences and inspirations. What were the initial similarities or interests that originally brought you together?
My family come from a long tradition of theatre, music hall and variety so I grew up being immersed in theatrical history from a very early age. From this came my passion for musical theatre and ‘storytelling through music’ which is an art form that continues to inspire me. Elwin and I met whilst studying at the Royal College of Music. His piano professor, Andrew Ball, suggested he meet me whilst my professor, Nigel Clayton, suggested I meet Elwin. Our first performance was at my final recital in 2010 when Elwin joined me on stage performing the 2nd piano part for Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. Elwin and I have a mutual love for piano improvisation; something that became very apparent from our first rehearsal session back at RCM. Aside from this, Elwin’s passion being film music, we were able to create an interesting musical fusion of musical theatre and film influences which is still the heart of the mechanical functions we use in our arrangements.
3. You’ve collaborated with famous orchestras worldwide; do you come up against challenges whilst performing with a full orchestra that you wouldn’t necessarily have to worry about whilst playing as a duo?
Adding an orchestra to a two piano arrangement surprisingly doesn’t change our approach too much. The reason for this is that playing as a piano duo, we are always listening to each other in order to ensure that the ensemble is as it should be; in the same way that we would be listening to an orchestra, and them listening to the pianos. This is of course very different to playing as a piano soloist where it’s possible to focus entirely on your ‘own’ performance. It’s also important to have a conversation with the conductor of the orchestra in advance of rehearsals so that he or she is aware of any dramatic tempo changes or particular colours that need to be achieved at particular moments. Due to the number of players in an orchestra, it’s also important to allow time in pieces for the orchestra to respond to the piano. Pianos are an ‘instant’ instrument due to the percussive nature of the hammer hitting the string. When playing with an orchestra, it’s important to breathe with the conductor so that the entire ensemble is ‘feeling’ the music at the same time.
4. How long does it take for you both to perfect each new arrangement and what is the process behind it?
Our arrangements are always evolving organically. Occasionally, Elwin or I may throw in something new during a rehearsal or sometimes during a performance and if it works and we both like it, it tends to feature more often until it becomes a permanent fixture. These moments are usually subconscious and we don’t always notice the changes as they happen; we only notice when we listen to an early recording and realise how the arrangement has evolved over the years.
It generally takes time for a new arrangement to settle. This comes with lots of rehearsal and performances until the arrangement becomes playable from muscle memory. I find that if you can play something properly whilst thinking about what you’re planning to have for dinner, then you know the performance has settled. We generally create the arrangement together in a room with two pianos. We start by improvising ideas until these develop into something that we can build upon. As so much of our music is inspired by the film genre, (notably composers such as Hans Zimmer), our arrangements tend to be based on mechanical figurations and grooves upon which we improvise and develop musical ideas.
5. Your UK performance this year will include renditions of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida and Adele’s Rolling in the Deep, alongside your own take of Disney’s The Lion King. How important is it for you to include your own arrangements of these more modern-day hits in your performance’s vs old classics? And is there a method/thought process in the songs you select?
When choosing repertoire to perform we must always consider our audience, which ranges from school age right up to grandparents. To keep everyone happy, we always aim to feature a cross-section of material from more classic standards right up to pop music of today. As well as the choice of material, it’s also important to consider the style of arrangements which are likely to relate with different demographics. For example, we often give piano masterclasses where we would perform to a group of advanced piano students. In this case, they would want to witness something complex that can be broken down in front of them and rebuilt, bit by bit, to demonstrate how the piano arrangements are layered and structured.
And just for fun…
6. Was the piano the first instrument you ever ‘picked up’?
Absolutely. My parents bought me one of those little toy pianos for my second or third birthday. I didn’t start playing by ear until I was about five or six but I don’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t in touch with the piano.
7. Tell us about your most memorable audience.
Tough question as every performance is memorable for one reason or another. I have such fond memories of our early performances in London – particularly at Kings Place which was our first proper public London outing. We were lucky to be performing on two marvellous Steinway Model Ds, prepared by master piano technician Ulrich Gerhartz.
8. If you could have a guest musician join you for one performance, who would it be and why?
I have been a fan of Loreena McKennitt for many years. She is a Celtic folk singer, harpist and pianist and just generally a fabulous musician. I would love to have the opportunity to perform with her one day.
9. For people that know nothing about pianos but are keen to learn, is there a particular type of piano you’d recommend starting on.
Any piano you can get your hands on is a good starting point. It’s key to start by learning the music you feel a synergy with; music that you find motivating. As you progress, so will the instrument you are playing on. An electric piano is often a good starting point so that headphones can be worn when practising repetitive sections. This is often a good idea when people are in the house and trying to hold conversations!
10. What was the last gift you gave someone?
My sister is a dancer at Disneyland Paris and whilst I was there recently I seized the initiative to buy a present for my friend… a mug in the shape of the character Chip from Beauty And The Beast. He played the character in the stage show and so thought it was rather apt!
Tickets for The Piano Brothers, Live at Zédel can be found at the box office: www.brasseriezedel.com
Watch The Piano Brothers on YouTube
• The Piano Brothers: Showreel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9H4XqQIIwVI
• The Piano Brothers: Viva La Vida https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBGBLnhw3bE
• The Piano Brothers: Ballade for Steinway https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vK9fC5Ig3yA