What happens when you sit two internationally acclaimed piano soloists down at one piano? In the case of ZOFO, the San Francisco based piano-four-hands ensemble, you get something energetically and electrifyingly out of this world. And when you throw five unique world premiere works into the mix, the resulting combination is even more impressive.

The name ZOFO derives from the acronym for “20 Finger Orchestra,” with “ZO” representing the number 20, and “FO” standing for “Finger Orchestra.” But the combination of twenty fingers only tells half the story. Their seemingly choreographed performance at Old First Church, where they are artists in residence, showed a physicality that requires almost superhuman strength and no less. With five world premiere commissions making up the program, each composer challenged the duo to the full extent of their capabilities and ZOFO showed that they were more than equal to the task.

The concert opened with a work entitled Synaesthesia written by ZOFO member Kesiuke Nakagoshi. Coincidentally, this is the second piece I have heard in recent months that has drawn upon this exploration in which one sensory experience opens the pathway for a secondary sensory experience. Messiaen is perhaps the most well known composer to have explored this territory within musical boundaries and the French composer was clearly an influence on this particular work. From the outset, the piece shimmered and glittered, creating an often dream-like feeling. At times, the piece became more urgent but these moments were interspersed with misty pockets of nebulous sound. Nakagoshi excelled in creating a vast range of colours, which were heightened by the delicate and deft touch of both pianists.

The next piece, written by Allen Shawn, was entitled Fantasy. Eva-Maria Zimmerman prefaced the work with the words “stay open and alert” and said “don’t make up your mind after ten seconds.” Despite this humorous caution, the piece proved to be another effective “dreamscape” exploration. The work began with a somber, ominous opening, which was once again handled with sublime sensitivity from the two performers. If you were to close your eyes, it would be impossible to tell the difference between the two pianists, so consistent were their passing of melodic lines. As the music unfolded, it became much more frenetic which built towards a series of rather stark, arresting, chords. On the whole, the work was rather angular and at times seemingly disjointed, but the melodic theme, which Nakagoshi demonstrated prior to the performance, could clearly be heard throughout, neither overtly obvious nor completely hidden by abstraction.

The final piece on the first half was the first in which the two performers were pushed to the extreme, showcasing the true virtuosity of ZOFO. Acrobats, written by talented young-composer Stefan Cwik, is an exploration of the piano-four-hands capabilities, focusing on techniques that are only possible with this type of ensemble. Comprised of a series of movements, based on an Introduction and Theme, each ‘etude’ variation focuses on specific techniques, such as trills and arpeggios. Each technical aspect was explored fully whilst simultaneously exploring a deep emotional center. Arpeggios cascaded and trickled across the keys and bell tones rang out reminiscent of the church bells from Faure’s Piano Quartet no. 2 in G minor. But it was the final ‘culmination’ in the form of a dance where the work united in rousing fashion. All of the expertly employed techniques combined with the emotional core of the work as the main theme rang out in full voice. The work received rapturous applause for both composition and performance.

The second half opened with Chimaera by Nicholas Pavkovic, a work originally written for player piano, but reworked for “humans” as requested by ZOFO. Pavkovic informed the audience that adjustments were made to make it physically possible for live performers but with a sheepish smile in the direction of the performers, admitted that it was still devilishly hard. Nakagoshi and Zimmerman showed no sign of these difficulties and performed the work with precision and accuracy. The program notes provided a description of an “insistent voice of mechanical wildness” and “a tangle of terrifying, uncontrollable associations and compulsions”, all of which were evident throughout the work. Amidst the tangle, however, beautiful lyric lines could still be heard, a testament to the performers who had the ability to bring this out of the complex, intertwined texture.

The final work on the program was also the largest work of the evening, a work entitled Sonata Serrana #1 by Gabriela Lena Frank. The composer took to the stage prior to the performance and enthusiastically expressed her love and admiration of ZOFO, saying that after hearing a stunning performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, she could not wait to get started on this piece. She paid homage to Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera who inspired this four-movement work. Despite the dominant Peruvian rhythmic and harmonic influences, the work is meant to express how cultures can “co-exist without one subjugating another.” In similar fashion to the Cwik, this work took full advantage of ZOFO’s immense handling of music for piano-four-hands, and set them on a journey of intense physical labor. Once again, they demonstrated their incredible virtuosity and strength, defying what seemed humanly possible. Arms seemed to interlink, often times appearing like a struggle for dominance as they fought to grapple their own passages. Despite this intense work out, the piece was stunning, thrilling and diverse.

It was clear from this performance alone that ZOFO have talent and artistry in abundance and over the coming years, they will surely add to their Grammy Award nominations, prestigious competition achievements and distinguished concert venue debuts. This concert proved that when you have an ensemble as versatile as ZOFO, and composers as talented as these, exciting new works and engaging performances will undoubtedly follow.