One way to grab the attention of a music hall filled with 500 schoolchildren is to play a little Michael Jackson along with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
That's one tactic Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe used Tuesday, when the acclaimed piano duo played two concerts for some 1,500 area schoolchildren in the University of Montana's Dennison Theatre.
The Juilliard School graduates received cheers of recognition from the moment Roe played the famous chords to "Billie Jean," and louder applause after the duo finished their radical re-imagining of the song on two pianos.
The duo prefaced the performance by comparing cover versions with visual art and, in particular, cubism.
"Picasso wanted to highlight different elements because of the personality or the facial features he was painting," Anderson said. "In our case, we're trying to highlight facets of the song 'Billie Jean,' " such as Jackson's rhythmic sense.
The two, who are in town for a public performance Wednesday, tailored their program to educate the students, explaining different concepts such as interpreting a song's meaning, how arrangements can add to a piece and a demonstration of advanced piano techniques.
UM music professor Steve Hesla arranged this week's performances after seeing the two play a concert in March 2013 that had seven encores and seven standing ovations.
The school's keyboard program paid for the two 45-minute concerts in cooperation with Any Given Child Missoula, an initiative to expand and enhance arts education in Missoula County Public Schools.
Debbie Smith brought her blended class of fifth- and sixth-graders from Hamilton Christian School to the early concert, which included children from Corvallis, St. Regis and other rural schools; the afternoon concert was dedicated to MCPS students.
To prepare for the field trip, Smith's kids listened to classical music and had a presentation from the school's music teacher.
One of her students, 12-year-old Seth Petz, gave a nod of approval and said the concert was "really good."
As a proud owner of the entire "Star Wars" series, the original arrangements of John Williams' themes were his favorite.
The first was a wistful interpretation of "The Force" theme for two pianos, while the second was a ragtime take on the dance music played by the alien band in the cantina scene in "Episode IV: A New Hope."
As the two returned from high-powered detours back to the main theme, more than a few kids bobbed their heads around just like the players in the film.
In an interview before the concert, Anderson and Roe said their performance for the children draws on the hundreds and hundreds of pieces in their arsenal for standard concerts. That includes standard repertoire for two pianos and four hands on one piano and their own avant-garde arrangements of popular songs or repertoire pieces, such as a ragtime take on Mozart's Rondo alla Turca, which they say aligns with the piece's original inspiration as a lively Turkish military band tune.
Roe said they pick pieces for children's concerts that "will be very engaging and 'pop,' " grabbing the children's interest as quickly as possible, and avoid pieces that are particularly long or require a more grown-up attention span.
When possible, they'll switch gears mid-concert if they sense the crowd's energy is waning.
"We always like to make our concerts feel spontaneous and alive, and it's nice to be able to personalize the experience for the audience," Roe said.
The two sat down backstage 15 minutes before showtime and huddled over their iPads and iPhones, preparing the day's program.
They opened the concert with a rapid-fire rendition of Rachmaninoff's "Flight of the Bumblebee" on two pianos. Afterward, they asked children to guess what its subject was.
One child suggested it was about "running away from something," another guessed it was a Halloween theme.
The two gave the children kudos for sensing the piece's urgency and sense of menace – and said it doesn't matter whether they guessed the subject.
"What we love about music is that it doesn't have to be about just one thing. This is what today's presentation is about," Roe said.
They often used eye-grabbing techniques to get the children's interest.
They played their own arrangement of a tango by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, explaining that they were transferring the risk-taking steps of the dance to the piano key.
"Their feet are very intricate and choreographed, and a wrong foot in the wrong place means the two are going to fall over," Anderson said.
From the beginning, Anderson was at the keys while Roe reached into the instrument to mute and pluck strings, which they noted was a bit "dangerous." But they provided a high-speed percussive sound that piqued the children's interest.
During the brief question-and-answer session, students asked how much a piano cost and how much time you have to practice.
Another student asked just what Roe was doing sticking her hands in the Steinway.
If anyone needed confirmation the two are succeeding in their task to make classical music "fresh and interesting for today's world," perhaps those questions were it.