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Labeque Duo Adds Rhythm to Repertoire

Katia calls jazz the 'great music of our century.' But she and sister Marielle will stick to classical offerings at Civic Arts concerts.


When it comes to the narrow field of classical piano duos, few names hold as much cachet as Labeque. Acclaimed musical siblings Katia and Marielle have been concertizing in tandem for more than 20 years, and their appearance as guests with the New West Symphony this weekend, performing Mozart and Ravel, bodes well for the orchestra's advancing reputation.

In addition, the program also says something about the pair's own evolution. Once upon a time, the Labeques were devotees of contemporary music, to the exclusion of earlier repertoire. These days, they have rediscovered the wonders and the potential of Mozart.

"We started [with contemporary music] because it was actually much easier for us," Katia said. "The contact with the composer was evident. We knew Berio, we knew Messiaen, we knew Boulez. I'm glad I didn't do too much Mozart earlier, because now I think I'm fresher. In a way, you need a certain culture, certain things to play the baroque and early music that we could not have had. We were too young. We were fresh out of the Paris Conservatory, 15 and 17 years old."

The Labeques, who live together in the Tuscany region of Italy, were raised on the Basque coast bordering Spain and France. They began their piano studies at the young ages of 3 and 5, and embarked on a professional career together in the early '70s.

In 1978, the two made their American concert debut, performing Italian modernist Luciano Berio's Two Piano Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This year, they finally recorded the piece, bringing it full circle.

In a recent phone conversation with Katia, who spoke from Paris last week before heading to the West Coast, conversation darted from one of the many subjects she finds compelling to another. Included were fervent discourses on her newfound love of baroque music and a deepening relationship with jazz. And by her account, the two aren't mutually exclusive.


Though both sisters have an interest in jazz, Katia has pursued that fascination with greater resolve. "I am not a jazz musician," Katia said, by way of a modest disclaimer, "but I am interested in the music of jazz composers. I think it is the great music of our century. For us to be musicians of our century and to ignore jazz would be to miss a lot."

In 1982, she made her first international jazz tour as part of guitarist John McLaughlin's "Belo Horizonte" group (stopping at Santa Barbara's Lobero Theater). It was a dual-genre concert tour, in which the Labeque sisters performed classical four-handed piano music in the first half, followed by McLaughlin's hybrid jazz stew.

Last year, Katia released her first official jazz album, "Little Girl Blue" on France's Dreyfuss label. On it, she plays duets with noted jazz pianists Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Michel Camilo, as well as with her sister.

Katia says that a spirit of embracing fresh ideas can be imparted through the model of jazz, a good lesson for classical musicians. "The interpreter--which is what I am, not a composer, not an improviser--can still improvise a lot in the way that we interpret things. Sometimes we are afraid, because of the tradition behind everything.

"For instance, the baroque movement now, for me, is very important in classical music. We're changing a lot in the way we play the Mozart Concerto. In a way, it's much closer to jazz people than to classical. They use a lot of imagination and never repeat exactly the same way of playing a phrase.

"Very often in Mozart, you have one dynamic marking and then no indication of the next dynamic until four pages later. Mozart would never put one dynamic assigned to each bar, unlike with Debussy, where everything is written out. When you get to Boulez or Berio, you might find one dynamic on each note."

Clearly, Katia is from the school of tolerance when it comes to the division of old and new music within the classical world, or between classical and jazz.

"Sometimes," she said, "I find too rigid and strict an attitude within jazz, the same thing I find in classical, and that bothers me. People like Joe [Zawinul] and Chick [Corea] are very open in their mind. It's very important to be able to meet people like that, and to work with them."


By this point in the Labeque saga, the audience is a multifaceted one, some of whom admire the classical component--which will be on display this weekend--while others gladly follow them into more experimental, jazz-lined terrain. However mixed their message as a performing entity, they've managed to get away with it.

Years ago when the duo was officially launched, did Katia expect that the duo would carry on as long, and with as much success, as it has?

"No," she said. "Music is so uncertain. It's like love. I'm playing with my sister because I have pleasure playing with her. If one day we don't have pleasure, we will stop. It's very simple.

"For me, the biggest misery in life is the lack of desire. If you lack that, if your desire is dead, then you're finished. As long as I have this desire and passion for the music, then I am happy."


* WHAT: New West Symphony, featuring guests Katia and Marielle Labeque.

* WHERE: Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza Auditorium, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: $17-$55.

* CALL: 497-5800.

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