The Labèque Sisters in Cuba

Katia and Marielle Labeque

By Mildrey Ponce (Translated by Brenda Sheehan)
Revised by CF Ray

The Cuban music scene was recently decked out with the performance offered at Havana's Karl Marx Theater by French pianists Katie and Marielle Labèque (1950 and 1952), as part of the inaugural gala of the 4th Leo Brouwer Chamber Music Festival.

In the presence of an audience notable for the hundreds of students from the National School of Arts (ENA), to which the Festival paid tribute on its 50th anniversary, the celebrated duo regaled the public with versions of famous pieces by US composers, like Four movements for two pianos, by Philip Glass, Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin and the fabulous West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein.

Virtuosity and technical mastery characterized each of the interpretations of these sisters, who had the musical support of Venezuelan multi-instrumentalist Gonzalo Grau and French drummer Raphael Seguinier, their accompanists for several years now in various concerts and recording projects.

Classed, according to experts, as the quintessential piano duo of the last thirty years, Katie and Marielle Labèque received their first lessons from their mother, Italian pianist Ada Cecchi. They reached popularity precisely with their recording for two pianos of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, one of the first classical music recordings to obtain a Gold Record in the 1980s.

Their presence in Havana was rounded off by a meeting with specialists, musicians and admirers of their art. During the meeting, led by the Festival’s president, prominent Cuban composer and guitarist Leo Brouwer, the Labèque sisters offered details about their career.

"Our musical education was marked by a very classical and romantic piano training, but as soloists, not as a duo. At the end of our studies at the Conservatoire de Paris, at 17 and 18, we decided to stay together and explore performing as a duo, something we had never tried before." "Luckily we haven’t had a lot of competition. This has made it possible for us to create our repertoire by doing what we really like. We’ve never allowed impositions on what we do; this is very important for us, because when you go on stage you have to be convinced of what you’re going to play. Otherwise, you can’t convince the public." "Discipline in the work is very important, but also luck. The opportunity we had to record our first album right after completing our studies at the Conservatory was very lucky."

Regarding their stay in Havana and about the island’s musical tradition, they pointed out:
"We wanted to walk in the historic area of the city and listen to popular music in emblematic places like La Bodeguita del Medio. Our impression is that this combination of popular and classical music has always existed in Cuba, since the 19th century. Cuba has a great piano tradition, and pianists like Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whom we consider one of the greatest jazz musicians in the world. We began to listen to the music of Ignacio Cervantes and Amadeo Roldán thanks to Rubalcaba. Lecuona is amazing; we have all his old records. For us, Lecuona is like the Gershwin of the Latin world."

Their last words were in recognition of the Festival, presided by Brouwer: "We thank maestro Brouwer for this opportunity, for inviting us to attend the Festival, which has a very high level despite the difficulties faced in supporting such an event. It should continue to be held, since Cuba is a country with a long tradition and a very high level of musical education."

The Labèque Sisters have a vast repertoire, ranging from baroque music to flamenco to Latin music, jazz and pop. They have played with many orchestras on different international stages, such as the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston and Chicago Symphony Orchestras, the Cleveland Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the prestigious Filarmonica della Scala orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

They’re currently working on several projects. Standing out among them is The Minimalist Dream House, inspired by the concerts of La Monte Young at the New York loft of Yoko Ono, widow of John Lennon, in early 1961. The documentary The Labèque Way produced by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and filmed by Félix Cabez will premier in the coming months.