For Arthur & Lucas Jussen, the goal of being a piano duo is ‘to sound as one’

Little in classical music is more thrilling than two 9-foot concert grand pianos with performers at opposing keyboards engaged in what is at once an intense duel and an intimate collaboration. 

One of the most recent sets of duo-pianists to make names for themselves are the Dutch brothers Lucas and Arthur Jussen. When they were just 10 and 13, they performed Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E-flat Major with Amsterdam’s famed Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and their careers have soared ever since.

In their first-ever visit to Chicago, the Jussens will make their debut on the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series on Jan. 21 with a program that culminates with a two-piano version of Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary ballet, The Rite of Spring. 

“We are extremely excited to come and play in Chicago in this series, because we have never been there, and we’ve never played there,” Arthur said. “And of course, for us, it is a city, a place that lights up the imagination for us — the amazing orchestra that is there and all the wonderful artists who have performed in the hall.”

The two brothers — Arthur, 27, and Lucas, 30 — never made a conscious decision to perform as duo pianists. It just occurred naturally, because they grew up in the same musical family (their mother teaches flute and their father is a percussionist in the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra) and had the same piano teacher, Jan Wijn.

“Once I started to play the piano, our piano teacher said, ‘Listen, you live in the same house, you both study the piano, why not make music together? Why not play piano for four hands or two pianos?”

So that’s what they did, and they have never stopped since. They enjoyed playing together then, and still do, though they occasionally have to remind themselves not to lose track of that innate joy. “Sometimes with the career and the pressure and important concerts, you forget why you actually started,” Arthur said. “We started because we loved it so much.”

The two pianists have each had some important teachers, including Menahem Pressler, the celebrated pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio, which was active from 1955 through 2008. But no one had more of an influence on them than Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires, one of the most celebrated soloists of her generation.

The brothers were adolescents when they studied with her, taking in everything she had to offer quickly and hungrily. Instead of offering direction with words, she often preferred to demonstrate what she was looking for, asking one or the other to scoot over on the piano bench and give her room. “As a child, when you are 12 or 13 years old, that’s maybe the best way to understand what a teacher wants or what they want to tell you,” Lucas said.

From Pires, they learned the importance of breathing and never separating technique from musicality. “We hope that when people hear us, they will recognize a little bit of Maria João Pires in us,” Lucas said.

Now enjoying a top-level international career, the brothers have been exclusive recording artists with Deutsche Grammophon since 2010, winning two Edison Awards, an annual prize that is the Dutch equivalent of the Grammy Awards.

Unlike a solo pianist who can follow his or her own artistic fancy, the biggest challenge for a duo pianist is adaptability. “When you play as a duo, you want to sound as one,” Lucas said. “In order to do that, you have to adapt, to listen to what the other person is doing and anticipate what the other person is doing. That’s the biggest difficulty and at the same time, that’s the one thing that makes it a lot of fun.”

Arthur was quick to acknowledge that many fine piano duos are not composed of siblings or spouses, but he believes it helps that he and his brother grew up together, practiced together and got to know what he called each other’s “language of playing.” “I know Lucas so well, and I know Lucas’ playing so well that in a concert, for example, if he goes somewhere in a phrase, I already feel where he is going, because his language of playing so much.”

In December, the Jussen brothers will undertake a 12-concert tour of Holland and Germany with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta, an ensemble they know well. “It’s always nice to come to a group of people in which you feel comfortable,” Arthur said. “That sounds a little bit childish, but it is true.”

The two pianists and the chamber orchestra will perform without a conductor in what Arthur called “chamber music-like fashion,” so they don’t feel so much like soloists but members of the group. “We try to be part of them and really make music together,” he said. 

Unlike some performers who like to put together themed programs, the Jussens prefer musical lineups with contrasting works that accentuate each other. In Chicago, they are beginning with Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major, K. 448, what Arthur described as an “absolute masterpiece.”

The piano parts are “completely equal,” Lucas said, and call for well-matched pianists. Mozart wrote the piece for a performance with Josepha Auernhammer, a well-known pianist and teacher in Vienna. It’s a good opener, Arthur said, because it exudes abundant energy and joy. “He makes the two pianos correspond with other in such a delicate and good way,” he said.

The mood turns darker with Franz Schubert’s Fantasy in F Minor, D. 940, written in 1828, the year the composer died. Arthur described it as “one of the most intimate, special and impressive pieces ever written for four hands.” Added Lucas: “It’s beautiful, it’s tragic. There is some hope in there as well, but it’s definitely a piece that has a lot of emotion.”

Concluding the first half is Polish composer Hanna Kulenty’s “VAN . . .” (2014), a kind of perpetuum mobile that the duo has championed extensively. It begins calmly like a dream, and then evokes a machine that revs up and roars along until it explodes. “There is a not a single moment of rest in the piece,” Lucas said.

Rounding out the program is a two-piano version of The Rite of Spring, one of the most famed works of the 20th century. “It’s 35 minutes of really being on the front of your seat,” Arthur said. “Always, when we’ve played the last note, you feel like you’ve been in another world. It’s so new. It’s so modern. To this day, it still amazes me how far ahead of his time he was. It’s a genius piece.”