ANYONE SEARCHING FOR insight into the power and mystery of the human genome won’t find it in a piano recital. But identical twins Christina and Michelle Naughton could leave you with plenty to ponder. Watch their coordinated handoffs of scampering runs in a Mendelssohn two-piano sonata, or the sly smiles that simultaneously emerge on their faces in Mozart’s Variations in G Major — both featured on YouTube — and you may sense something strikingly in sync about their partnership.
“When we are playing certain things, oddly enough our bodies start to mirror each other,” Christina Naughton told me as the twenty-eight-year-old sisters sipped matching blue bottles of spring water at a Manhattan coffee shop. “It’s not something we’re superaware of, but people tell us this all the time.”
“We have such a physical reaction to music that I don’t even know it’s going on,” added Michelle Naughton.
‘When we are playing certain things, oddly enough our bodies start to mirror each other.’
There’s a long tradition of sibling piano duos in classical music, including the Labèque sisters, from France, and the Pekinel twins, from Turkey. Whether identical DNA can help with musical chemistry is a question that only a geneticist could answer, but the Naughtons appear to be winning over some critics. “Their reading of Stravinsky’s two-piano arrangement of ‘The Rite of Spring’ was the most viscerally exciting, savagely percussive and daredevilishly fast that I have heard live,” said a Washington Post review.
Born in Princeton, New Jersey, and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, the Naughton sisters took their first piano lessons from their mother, a high school math teacher who studied the instrument as a teenager (their father is a computer science professor). “Oddly enough, growing up, we never really played together,” admits Christina Naughton. “Not because we didn’t want to, but we didn’t think about it. Once we did, it was pretty clear that was what we were meant to do.”
The sisters decided to pool their talents and work as a duo while studying at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. They went on to graduate studies at the Juilliard School, finishing in 2013 with master’s degrees and professional management. They currently share an apartment, with two Steinway pianos, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
This past February, the Naughtons released their first album for Warner Classics, Visions. Its centerpiece is Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen, a fifty-minute, clangorously contemplative meditation, followed by Kurtag’s arrangement of a Bach sonatina (from Cantata BWV 106, “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit”) and John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction (based on stress patterns of the word “hallelujah”).
“The whole album is based on the idea of joy,” said Michelle Naughton, positing that a piano duo can act as a “symbol of unity” given that “there’s so much in the world that divides people.” The Naughton sisters certainly see more of the world as their touring schedule takes them abroad, with recent visits to China and South America and summer dates from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Amsterdam. Being a duo, they say, allows them to avoid the loneliness that some soloists face.
As their publicity photos only hint, the Naughtons also have a knack for coordinated attire, which on this afternoon includes similar gray sweaters. But audiences are evidently divided on this point. “Here’s the only one thing I’ve learned: there’s no one way to make everyone happy,” said Christina Naughton. “We’ve heard everything. It’s whatever fits with the music and us.”
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, an award-winning quarterly print magazine published by Steinway & Sons.