Before home computers and synthesizers, before stereos, televisions and even radios, before, gasp, the wind-up Victrola, the center of the home-entertainment center (it was called the parlor in those days) was the piano.
Two people would squeeze side by side on the piano bench and play four-hand arrangements of music--one person using both hands to take the bass parts and the other using two hands to play the top parts. In this way, complex orchestral music could be played in the home--along with original music by great composers whose imaginations had been stimulated by the possibilities.
But all good things must pass.
"With the decline of the piano as the center of domestic life, interest in the repertory for four-hand music declined, too," Leslie Tung said recently by phone from Kalamazoo, Mich.
Tung and his wife, Silvia Roederer, will try to rekindle that interest by giving a four-hand piano concert at 8 p.m. Friday at Irvine Valley College. Their program will include music by Mozart, Schubert and Stravinsky.
Four-hand work "has never been looked upon as a vehicle for solo virtuoso pianists," Tung said. "But the composer has got more at his disposal because there are more notes possible. We're interested in it because of the many musical masterworks written for the medium, from Mozart to the early 20th Century, including the Romantics. It is music that is just not heard in concerts."
Tung described Mozart's Sonata in F, K. 497, as "one of the greatest things that he wrote, without a question, in terms of its sophistication on any level. If one would compare it with one of his solo sonatas, it's very obvious that Mozart is writing in a much more contrapuntal, chamber-music style. There is a lot of dialogue between the two participants.
"That is precisely the challenge to the players, as in any chamber-music ensemble, to keep things balanced."
Tung and Roederer occasionally perform works for two pianos but prefer to concentrate on the four-hand, one-piano repertory. However, performing on two pianos is "not something we've done a lot of," Roederer said, "because two matching instruments are very difficult to find."
Roederer said she and her husband (of four years) switch places midway through the program, so that neither is always playing just the treble or the bass parts. "We try to have a half-and-half balance for each program," she said. "We just sit down at the beginning and say what do you want, which part do you want?"
Opinion seems a bit divided, though, as to who determines tempo and phrasings. "It's always a compromise," Roederer said. "As in all good chamber music, it's a running battle. There's constant argument about these parameters, definition of phrases, articulations."
Tung quickly added: "In our case, we don't have to compromise too much. I think we're kind of lucky in that musically we share a lot of the same ideas."
"We've sometimes even left it open to the inspiration of the moment," Roederer said, and Tung agreed.
"It's a risky thing, but we do it," he said.
The only work on their program not originally conceived in the four-hand format is a suite derived from Stravinsky's "Petrouchka."
Tung said a four-hand rehearsal score for ballet exists "for a rehearsal pianist presumably to get the dancers on cue. We sat down with the four-hand rehearsal score and both orchestral versions (1911 and 1946) and came up with our own four-hand version, which is constantly evolving.
"It is very hard. We wanted to put as much of the color of the orchestral score into our arrangement as we could, and the logistics and the choreography of four hands squeezed onto one keyboard trying to play a complicated early 20th-Century orchestral score are tremendous."
Roederer said, "But we think it's a lot of fun in the end," adding, "especially for the audience, as much visually as sonically. Many times we cross and interweave hands in glissandi."
"We push each other around," Tung interjected.
"But," his wife noted, "it is fun to be close together."
One family tradition that has survived is storytelling for children, and few are the youngsters who haven't heard "The Wind and the Willows," Kenneth Grahame's tale of the toad who set out to discover life.
Now there's a musical version of the story by composer John Rutter. The work will be given its U.S. premiere Saturday at 8 p.m. at Cypress College on a holiday program conducted by Sheridan Ball. (Also on the program: Haydn's "Lord Nelson," Mozart's "Regina Coeli" and a medley of traditional seasonal music.)
"This is really neat for us," Ball said in a recent phone interview. "I've been sitting around for a long time waiting for the work to be released, but the publishers have been sitting on it."
Actually, it's not being released until January. But Ball nonetheless got permission for Saturday's performance after contacting the composer in England. Rutter had heard Ball conduct some of his works at the Orange County Conductors Guild 1985 conference in Newport Beach.
Ball described the work as a 30-minute series of songs tied together by a narrator. "One thing dovetails into the next," he said. "It's just very beguiling. Even though it takes a children's story, there is definitely adult humor in it, and it tries to appeal to a very broad age base."
Leslie Tung and Silvia Roederer will perform at 8 p.m. Friday in Building A300 at Irvine Valley College , 5500 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Tickets are $5-$7. For further information, call (714) 559-3333.
Sheridan Ball will conduct "The Wind and the Willows" and other works at 8 p.m. Saturday at Cypress College. Tickets are $5 for general admission; $3 for senior citizens, students and children under 12. For further information, call (714) 826-2220, Ext. 140.