They float onstage, a beautifully dressed duo, he in white tie and tails, she in a shimmering, low-cut ball gown. Once seated at highly polished grand pianos, the concert team of Steven and Nadya Gordon exchange rapt glances and then plunge into Rachmaninoff’s passionate Fantasy. At that moment, hands flying across the keyboards, the Gordons look uncannily like romantic 19th-century players.
The Gordons play out this scene some 50 times a year, but what their audiences don’t realize is that often just hours before the pianists take the stage, they are dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, tooling down some nameless interstate, those glamorous grands in tow. As duo piano acts go, theirs wins a standing ovation for originality. That’s because 30 weeks a year, Nadya and Steven, both 41, crisscross the U.S. with their instruments of choice, twin Bösendorfer concert grands that reside in what the uninitiated suspect is a horse trailer without windows.
But the Gordons wouldn’t play it any other way. Hauling a ton of dead weight from burg to burg is, they feel, all in the service of their art. After all, they are performing on what many experts consider the Rolls-Royce of pianos. (The Gordons lease the instruments, which are made in Vienna and valued at $55,000 each.) As Steven puts it, “You can’t be picking up strange pianos in every city.”
The Gordons, who live in New York when they aren’t on the road, put 50,000 miles a year on their 1985 GMC diesel truck with WE DUET2 license plates. The trailer (with WE DUO plates) boasts a specially constructed suspension system to ease the ride. Its interior, which is temperature and humidity controlled, includes a motorized ramp, automatic pulleys, a winch, exercise equipment and a closet for Nadya’s gowns. Other on-the-road essentials in the truck are an Apple Macintosh computer, a stereo system and an electric piano for practicing. The alarm system that protects all this bounty is so touchy that it has been triggered by a thunderstorm.
Maneuvering their black beauties requires four professional movers or eight high school football players. Steven gives the orders but, to safeguard his hands, prudently stays clear of heaving and hauling. Once the pianos are eased into place onstage, Nadya, looking like Cinderella before the ball, springs into action, rubbing down each instrument with a damp rag. The very last pre-concert ritual is the arrival of the piano tuner.
Although the Gordons enjoy touring with their grands, there is psychic strain moving the bodies of both pianos, six legs and two stools in and out of the trailer twice a day. “I have had a few dreams that I left a leg behind and had to play the piano with one side propped up by books,” Steven says.
As budding musicians, neither Steven nor Nadya, who both grew up in California, ever thought they would end up performing duets. The son of band leader Claude Gordon, Steven was musically precocious and seemed headed for a solo career. Ditto Nadya Cataldo, the daughter of a college math teacher. As teenagers, each studied with Vladimir Horowitz’s teacher, Sergei Tarnowsky. They met at a San Fernando Valley Symphony Orchestra competition in 1961. They both had arrived prepared to play Anton Rubinstein’s Fourth Piano Concerto. Steven performed first, and when Nadya sat down to play, the judges didn’t let her complete the first movement. Steven won the competition. Angered by the judges’ decision, Nadya declined Steven’s request for a date. She relented a few months later when he showed up uninvited at her Canoga Park house to plead his case.
After a long courtship, the Gordons married 10 years to the day and hour after they met. Although they were busily establishing solo careers, Steven and Nadya went public as a duo two years later. By the end of this season’s tour, they will have covered more than 500,000 miles in 13 years of concertizing. Along the way, the Gordons, who command close to five figures a performance, have played New York City’s Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. They have also made five records and appeared in a prizewinning TV special.
Inevitably, there are hazards to acting as one’s own roadie. Take the time the transmission conked out hours before curtain, and the Gordons arrived at the Escondido, Calif, concert hall 10 minutes late. The audience applauded as the movers hauled the pianos onstage. Another time an overzealous janitor in a small Western town waxed all the piano keys. “He wanted everything to look pretty,” says Steven with a laugh. “We felt like Bambi on the ice.” After the first piece—”fortunately a slow one”—the concert stopped while the keys were de-waxed. Then there was the night somewhere between Salina and Hutchinson, Kans. when the electric heater shorted and scorched the inside of the trailer. Nadya’s gowns were ruined, and the pianos suffered third-degree burns.
Enforced togetherness has its pleasures, but spats are part of the act, too. Says Steven: “I get furious. But she has that brooding Russian soul.” Counters Nadya: “He is pushy, verbose.” Even if they’re having a tiff, though, they make it a practice to kiss before going onstage. They agree that performing is the most peaceful part of the day. “Music making requires intense concentration,” says Steven, and Nadya adds with a smile, “But sometimes we can’t wait to get onstage. We need a moment to rest.”