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Bar none for these pianos 

John and Julie Cheek ASO Masterworks Robinson Center Sept. 19 Talk about dueling pianos. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra got its 2004-05 Masterworks series off to a thrilling start with selections from two great symphonies and a brief but dazzling performance featuring a pair of piano-playing siblings born in Little Rock. Julie and John Cheek's “Playing Cheek to Cheek” program at Robinson Center Music Hall last weekend marked the first time the two have played piano together with a full orchestra. But during Sunday afternoon's performance, it was as if the Cheeks and the ASO had been long-time bandmates. But before the Cheeks took the stage, the orchestra delivered pianist Franz Liszt’s “Les Preludes.” The ASO’s trumpets and strings guided the moody symphonic poem to a big finish after a tumultuous opening, its themes swirling and overlapping to dizzying effect. Later in the afternoon, the ASO presented Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98,” a 45-minute piece that begins and ends on a minor chord — a risky move when Brahms wrote it in 1884-85 — and featured great turns by the ASO's flutes and trombones. The real fireworks appeared when the Cheeks and the ASO unfurled Francis Poulenc’s joyous “Concerto for Two Pianos in D Minor.” The piece lasts about 20 minutes, but the pianists' graceful, often frenetic playing seemed to compress time, making the performance fly by, despite meditative, lyrical detours led by Julie Cheek during the second half of the “Allegro ma non troppo,” the piece's first section. ASO conductor David Itkin’s expert trumpet section, which shone throughout the afternoon, deftly sparred with the Cheeks' keystrokes, creating a fascinating interplay among the three. The Cheeks and the ASO showed that you didn't have to endure a smoky bar to hear a pair of first-rate piano virtuosos go at it in downtown Little Rock last weekend. But you did have to dress up a little.
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