Strutting their stuff, before and during the duel Photos: Matthias Bothor

The 19th century virtuoso was familiar with the idea of proving one’s prowess at the keyboard with gusto, by competing against another virtuoso.  Thalberg/ Liszt are perhaps the most famous example of having such a duel, facing each other down -keyboard to keyboard.

German pianists Andreas Kern and Paul Cibis pick up their own Piano Battle, delivering both an amazing entertainment-factor to their audiences, in accordance with some powerful competitive talent demonstrating hair-splitting virtuosity.

Now they are ready to not play it safe here; Kern and Cibis will bring their novel concert-concept for the first time to the United States. Following an invitation from the Goethe-Haus, they will perform Piano Battle in Washington, at the Embassy of Austria, on January 18th.

While neither of the two accomplished, classically trained pianists are huge fans of the traditional competition arena, Kern’s search for the pursuit of different ways to present piano music on stage started long before Piano Battle. He had always looked for an intensified congregational effect between the audience and what was happening on stage.  He enjoyed integrating verbal, explanatory sections into his early recitals, sensing that the audience felt more at ease when they learned something which connected them further with the performance and the performer, rather than through formal printed programs. “Even the way those programs are usually constructed requires some familiarity with the musical material – or at least with the names dropped within the biographies of the artists– which creates a rather condescending effect, “mentions Kern, when the three of us met in New York. 

After branching out into the world of television, with practicum at the Berlin TV-Broadcast (Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg), he took his initial impulses to break the mold a step further, becoming the co-creator and co-host of Berlin’s exciting, genre-bending Arte-Lounge, which has since aired thirty times.

It has presented, by now, a quite illustrious selection of classical performers within a broad spectrum of differently-styled musical performances. The result is an eye-catching mix of music’s cross-sections, transported into a night club/bar scene, traditionally not associated with the classical genre. Filmed live, the young and most talented performers, like the Capuçon-brothers, Daniel Hope, Sarah Chang, Avi Avital… fit right in with the stylish blend of performers and performances that act as a promotional calling card for the cool, classic programming of the Arte-Lounge , showing on the German and French speaking, ARTE –TV channel.

The Talk-show set up unites its musical guests to their performances, and the audience witnesses a live recording of renowned stars in tandem with a TV format of intimacy.

Arte Lounge was a huge learning curve for Kern which he brings to Piano Battle, being very aware of the special mix of entertainment and high art.

The first time Cibis and Kern actually performed together was at the Hong Kong City Music Festival in 2009. Their interaction grew spontaneously out of sharing the same time slot, which made their having to brainstorm about mutual programming and how to present it best necessary. Instead of performing a traditional four-hand recital, they improvised on stage- interchanging their classical repertoire with pop and jazz and their spontaneity proved successful with their audiences. The idea of Piano Battle was born instantly and already there have been several sold out tours for Piano Battle in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.  Its premiere in Germany at the 2010 Piano City Berlin Festival and Berlin Radialsystem followed suit with invitations to the Beethoven Festival in Bonn and Schloss Elmau this year and there are certainly more to follow in the near future.

The program – while more structured and advanced in its planning stages now, “We know what to do if one scenario takes place or another one…” their show keeps an important aspect of that initial freshness and element of surprise. The audience chooses after each round a winner and a loser by holding the black or white cards they are handed at the entrance –corresponding to the black or white suit of the performer.Lately, they have added lighting a lighter, usually a welcomed opportunity for the sponsor to add a little bit of branding.

“The feeling when I lose – well,” says Kern with a provocative smile, “Paul has gotten used to it! But yes, there is always one better at one or the other thing, yet usually there is a balance, we each win now and again. I felt it the other night though, when Paul had a lot of fans rooting for him with some women calling out his time, loudly! At the end we personify the characters we really are. Paul is the dreamier, classy-romantic gentleman that he is; I am rather the rebellious piano punk, but we don’t do a parody per se, we are not purely comedians, even though we also bring our humor to piano playing. What’s fun is that we are opening the narrow frame of the usual on-stage- piano experience and we get to play a wide array of programs. We love classical music but don’t mind mixing it up with other genres and improvisations based on audience requests. We would like to transmit a message of open-mindedness, as long as the quality is there– and we include both programming and presentation. But we do ask questions and like to show how to look for alternatives,” a principle both Kern and Cibis adhere to, when teaching piano, as well. “At the end it’s not about who wins, him or me.”


The real winner of course is hopefully the audience:  Catch Piano Battle in Washington or watch it on YouTube

By Ilona Oltuski – getClassical

By Ilona Oltuski

Ilona Oltuski was born in Berlin (Germany), the city her family returned to after her grandmother’s escape to Palestine. Through her parents – the father from Krakow in Poland, the mother from Berlin – Ilona experienced cultural diversity early on in life. Growing up Jewish in post-war Berlin and Frankfurt would add to this. Although deeply connected to German culture, Ilona was always acutely aware of the differences between herself and her environment. Perhaps it was the search for her very own identity, which led her to study art history and complete her doctorate on the Bezalel Art Movement, a part of her investigation into the existence of an explicitly Jewish art. Besides art history, Ilona studied piano at the Hoch’sche Conservatory - the Frankfurt music school founded by Clara Schumann. After moving to New York with her husband, she continued to study her favorite instrument and met and befriended many pianists - from amateurs to professional performers. A passionate amateur herself, Ilona decided to combine her love for the piano and the world of music with her interest in writing and the sharing of ideas, resulting in her first articles on Next was her German blog, ‘Wohltemperiert aus New York’, which she continues to write for Naxos Deutschland (; see the ‘Naxos America’ link for Ilona’s English blogs). Her English-language blog,, can be found on Facebook’s blog network; it recently migrated into the collection of blogs on her own website, She also still maintains her ‘Piano Salon’ group on Facebook, connecting pianists and their friends. Forever interested in an exchange of information and ideas, Ilona hopes that her very own website will provide a wide platform for a conversation among readers, performers and music lovers. “Reinventing my creative side by writing about my diverse encounters in the world of music, about inspiration and artistic expression, and the very human side of these endeavors, reaching right under my skin - that’s my shtick”, she says. Ilona lives in New York City with her family.