Two pianos. Four hands. Nearly 50 years of friendship. All have been instrumental to the success of the internationally acclaimed piano duo, Anagnoson and Kinton, and to their most recent distinction as Honorary Fellows of The Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM).
The pair – James Anagnoson and Leslie Kinton – will receive their designations, the highest conferred by the institute, at The Royal Occasion signature gala event on May 15. Awarded to those who have made an extraordinary contribution to arts and culture in Canada and beyond, past recipients include David Foster, Oscar Peterson, k.d. lang, and The Tragically Hip, as well as Chinese piano virtuoso Lang Lang.
Joining this illustrious group is an “unexpected honour” for Kinton, a Piano Performance professor in the Don Wright Faculty of Music, a role also once held by Anagnoson, now Dean of the Glenn Gould School in Toronto.
When the two met at the Aspen Music Festival in 1970, they had no idea what lay ahead or of the special chemistry they’d strike at the piano.
“We were both studying under the same teacher. Instantly, we became best friends. We were like brothers,” Kinton said. It was a bond that saw Kinton staying at Anagnoson’s home when he travelled to New York City for piano lessons, and on his honeymoon, to take in a Broadway show.
It wasn’t until 1974, just after Kinton’s daughter was born, when one of them said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a two-piano recital?”
With three concerts arranged for the following spring, Anagnoson flew to Toronto for their first practice in a hall at the RCM, where Kinton had taught since the age of 19. While rehearsing the first movement of Brahm’s Sonata for Two Pianos, the Conservatory principal walked in.
“He said, ‘My, you boys are pretty good. How long have you been playing?’ I looked at my watch and said, ‘About 10 minutes,’’’ Kinton laughed.
They also caught the ear of Eugene List, one of America’s renowned pianists, and head of piano at Anagnoson’s alma mater, the Eastman School of Music, and site of an early concert.
At a post-concert reception in his home, List took the two aside in a life-changing moment. “He told us, ‘You guys have to do this professionally. You already play better than most duos.’ We kind of gave at each other a look of, ‘What? Are you kidding me?’”
With connections to List’s managers across Europe, they played a number of venues, including the esteemed Wigmore Hall in London. They received a glowing review from The London Times, which helped launch a career that’s featured more than 1,000 performances across North America, Europe, China, and Russia.
They’ve released 10 recordings to critical acclaim, and have been played on the CBC, BBC, and NPR. They have also commissioned numerous compositions, expanding the boundaries of piano-duo idiom.
“Jim and I have been playing together for 44 years and I wouldn’t change anything,” Kinton said. “We play differently – we’re different players – but we think the same way. We’ve never had an impasse, we never disagree.”
In fact, the biggest challenge they ever faced was of a more practical nature.
“The problem with playing two pianos is always the instruments. Where do you get two concert-quality pianos? A lot of halls just don’t have them. So it limited where we could play.”
That all changed in 1981, when they performed as part of a “monster concert” at Massey Hall in Toronto, where Yamaha supplied 10 pianos. In the audience, sat Yamaha’s president from Japan, who decided, upon hearing the duo play, his company would supply the pianos for any venue they played in North America.
“It completely transformed our career. That meant we could play anywhere. At first, we would drive two concert grand pianos around ourselves in the back of a truck,” Kinton laughed. “We had our own skids and knew how to supervise moving the pianos and exactly how to get the pianos set up on stage.”
While the days of hauling their own gear have past, their commitment to their craft has not.
“Whether it’s a high school gym in the Midwestern states or Canada, or Wigmore Hall in London. Essentially there’s no difference. We are playing the music we want to play on pianos we like.
“It’s the work that matters.”
Kinton continued, “We’ve tended to think of things in 10-year increments. Now we’re thinking about the next 10 years. We’re not stopping this anytime soon. We love doing it.”