France's Labeque Sisters Are Making Audiences Rhapsodic Over Gershwin's Blues
In his 1928 orchestral tone poem An American in Paris, George Gershwin showered his affection on the City of Light. And now, it seems, Paris is returning the compliment in the persons of the sisters Labèque, two dazzling young musicians who have made Gershwin's works their concert signature. When Katia, 32, and Marielle, 30, play together on twin pianos, the sound is Gershwin in all its texture and purity; the despair of the blues, the chatter of ragtime and a thousand random American rhythms, classical and jazz, come brilliantly alive.
After just four years playing his music, the Labèques are acknowledged to be among the most sensitive interpreters of Gershwin in the world today. Says who? Says Ira Gershwin, George's brother and longtime collaborator. "I see fireworks when these girls play," he rhapsodizes. At 85 and something of a recluse, Ira doesn't dispense accolades lightly. Yet, after the Labèques' 50-city U.S.-Canadian concert tour culminated last month at the Hollywood Bowl, Gershwin broke precedent to receive the sisters at his Beverly Hills home. "I was almost crying every minute," Katia recalls of the emotional moment. Sitting in a chair in the master bedroom, Ira was waiting. "You've made me very happy," he told them. "I could not say a word," admits Katia. "Ira did the talking. I just kept looking in his eyes, and there I could see George." (Gershwin died in 1937 at age 38.)
Afterward the sisters were escorted to George Gershwin's favorite piano, the one on which he composed much of Porgy and Bess in 1934-35. Katia played the Rhapsody in Blue, Marielle the Concerto in F. "What delighted Ira," says Gershwin's special assistant, Michael Feinstein, "was that the Labèques brought a seriousness to the jazz without losing the jazziness of the serious music. They accorded the works the same care and preparation they would have brought to a piece by Bach or Beethoven." The Labèques themselves offer a simpler explanation. "George and Ira loved each other as brothers the way we love each other as sisters," says Marielle with unassailable Gallic logic.
Funny thing, though, Katia and Marielle are not that much alike, in either appearance or temperament. Big sister Katia is curly-haired, has green eyes and is sometimes described as "snappy." ("I don't know what that means," she says, "but I like the word.") Kid sister Marielle has straight brown hair, brown eyes and is more reserved. Their parents in hometown Hendaye on the picturesque Basque coast of southwestern France contrast their girls in more lyrical terms. They liken Katia to the pounding waves of the ocean and Marielle to the calm of an inland lake.
Papa Pierre Labèque is a physician; his Italian-born wife, Ada, is a professional pianist who gave up her own career to look after the family. With minimal coaxing Katia already was searching for melodies on the keyboard at age 3, though Marielle, preoccupied with roller skating and bouncing on trampolines, didn't get around to the piano "until 5 or 6." Mama Labèque instilled in them "a kind of self-discipline," Katia remembers. "Every day we start one hour. Then two hours, then three. Never did we miss a day—except Sundays."
Practice paid off handsomely. At tender ages (Katia was 14, Marielle 12) they auditioned for the hugely prestigious Paris Conservatory and both were accepted. That meant a heart-wrenching separation as their parents sent the girls to live in the big city, chaperoned by a Spanish governess and older brother Jean-Loup (now 34 and a doctor like his father). When the sisters graduated together in 1968, they both received first awards, the highest the Conservatory bestows.
Even so, the hidebound classical establishment refused to take the young, pretty piano duo seriously at first. "When you look at them," admits American clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, a friend, "it's hard to keep your mind on what they're playing. They have a joie de vivre which the public does not ordinarily associate with classical musicians." Not for the Labèques are the traditional long concert gowns. Slacks and boots and colorful blouses are more their style. "Classical music has passion," says Katia. "When we play Petrushka, we like to wear red or violet. For Mozart, rose and white are nice. I love to play in red, though. It excites me."
In 1978, after making their U.S. debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, they first "discovered" George Gershwin's works. "In that music," Katia says, "we could see our spirit. We knew immediately." But two more years of concentrated study (including reading Gershwin biographies and listening to original recordings) went by before they issued their version of Rhapsody in Blue. Theirs became the first classical record by French artists ever to go gold in France, selling 100,000 albums in less than a year. A sample was sent across the seas to Ira Gershwin. He ordered six more.
While enjoying their joint success on concert tours and in recording studios (their records are now available in the U.S. on the Philips label), the Labèques maintain just a bit of sisterly separation. They have apartments one floor apart in the same Paris building. Katia's steady is English jazz-rock guitarist John McLaughlin, 40, and Marielle's roommate is French violinist Augustin Dumay, 30. "Even though we are somewhat opposites, we complement each other," says Marielle. "We are so close," agrees Katia, "like two halves of a whole."