At the end of Sunday's performance of "Lisztian Loves," Michael York leaned against the chair on stage and watched André Watts play Franz Liszt's "En reve."
The British actor smiled as the American pianist played with a silky shimmer.
As the final note clung in the air at the Berger Performing Arts Center, Watts returned York's smile.
The chemistry the pair had Sunday afternoon felt built on years of collaboration and friendship, not the hours they shared preparing for the world premiere of Chamber Music Plus cellist/playwright Harry Clark's new work.
Clark wrote "Lisztian Loves" for Watts, a lifelong friend of Clark and Clark's wife, pianist Sanda Schuldmann. Watts' role as the musical voice of the famous Hungarian composer/pianist was a given, but even Clark must have been surprised at how well-suited York was to verbalize Liszt's life.
Clark's story begins at Liszt's end - an old man who has outlived his peers and family and finds himself struggling with his regrets, his legacy and all the doubts people have as the clock ticks on their demise. The piece opens with Liszt's "La Lugubre Gondola," about a gondola carrying the remains of the composer's son-in-law and colleague Richard Wagner.
Watts and York combined to bring Liszt to life on the Berger stage. York, whose hair was thinning and whose gait was not nearly as springy as we recall from his film career, was convincing in the role of a man 16 years beyond York's 69. Watts, one of America's finest pianists, filled in the musical voice, bringing the technical chops and a deep passion for Liszt music.
Together, the pair gave a full, vigorous, very alive voice to the 19th century composer, who in many ways set the standard for concert pianists to this day.
At times, York seemed to lose his place in Clark's well-crafted monologue, reading from loose sheets of paper. But the speed bumps added to his melodic cadence, bringing a layer of realism to the performance.
Although Watts had no spoken role, he and York performed a duet of sorts - York reading the text, Watts playing the music - with "Der Traurige Mönch" (The Sad Monk). It was the first time Watts had performed the piece publicly.
Watts' role amounted to a recital's worth of performing, all of it so inspired that you couldn't help but lean forward in your seat and watch his every move. After each piece - including the Etude de concert No. 3 "Un Sospiro"; and a pair of Etudes from the Six Grande Etudes After Paganini, No. 5 and No. 6 - the audience gave Watts a hand-stinging ovation. By the third piece, some in the audience added a whistle to their applause and a few bravos.
York and Watts will take "Lisztian Love" to the renowned Ravinia Festival in Chicago in July.