On Sunday, Sept. 17 at 3 p.m. at the Fomento Club, 522 38th St., in Union City, four young pianists from Hudson County's Altamura Studios will debut their year-long musical collaboration in a jazz-inspired ensemble performing themes from West Side Story.
However, the twist to this performance is that the four students will play two pianos in unison.
"This is their first big project, which is part of some of the work that I am doing as a piano teacher," said Christina Altamura, who is a professional tenured pianist and a long-time Union City resident with teaching studios in Hoboken and Weehawken.
Altamura has taken her students one step further - she is helping them utilize their musical skills to get into college, even if they are not pursuing a degree in music.
"I'm trying to stimulate students to stay in music through high school, especially because that is when you really start to try out really juicy repertoire," said Altamura.
Making their grand debut as collaborating pianists are Lester Castor, 17; Giana Ramos, 17; Jobee Buenaventura, 14; and Kurt Penaflor, 13.
The students hail from the private studios of Altamura and Jackie Salvia of Bergen County.
However, the idea for the ensemble first came about a year ago from Castor, who is one of Altamura's students.
Castor is a classically trained pianist who Altamura introduced to the piano stylings of the 5 Browns, a group of five brothers and sisters who perform musical arrangements on five pianos in unison.
"The sound was absolutely inspiring and it blew me away," said Lester.
"He was so amazed and he said, 'I wish I could do this with my friends,' but he thought it was beyond them," said Altamura.
Altamura knew that collaboration on a slightly different scale was possible. "We may not be able to get five pianos but we can certainly try for two," said Altamura.
"She came up with a compromise and the whole dream turned into reality," said Lester.
Lester was assigned to lead the ensemble during the performance.
Altamura then contacted revered Canadian-born and American-trained jazz composer Derwyn Holder.
"We commissioned him a year ago and the kids started learning it this summer," said Altamura. "Luckily, I have enough contacts, which is also why I'm going into consulting music students."
Holder created a jazz arrangement of popular pieces from the musical West Side Story.
Holder also oversaw the last few rehearsals.
"I was totally impressed by their playing and musicality. Basically, they just have some ensemble problems such as clarity and rhythm, and that's corrected in rehearsal," said Holder.
Lester had begun studying jazz with Altamura a few years ago. He was almost ready to give up on music making until Altamura introduced him to jazz.
"With jazz, a whole new place has opened up for me, and I wouldn't be playing [today] if it wasn't for that," said Lester, who had played classical for about nine years. "Classical helps me build up my skills, but what attracted me to jazz is that it was more upbeat. This is a major step in my learning the piano and how to play with others in an ensemble."
"They've got their first taste of jazz and they're exploding about it," said Altamura.
"This is about keeping high school students involved in classical training and helping to make music relative to their needs," said Altamura. "Everything they learn during music lessons builds this character and preparedness for the real world, from deadlines to organizing time."
Altamura made her Carnegie Hall debut as a pianist at the age of 19. She has played in various venues throughout the world, and was recently named the principal soloist of the State Philharmonic of Romania, Bacau.
She hopes to inspire students who have begun to lose their interest in the arts.
"I can get them jumpstarted again, and I'm dedicated to this project to help college-bound students beyond music," she said.
Sunday's performance will begin with six other young pianists for the first half of the program, as part of Altamura's annual student recital. Holder's jazz arrangement will be the grand finale.
The sponsors for the event include Altenberg Pianos in Elizabeth, who is loaning two pianos free of charge, and Union City's Fomento Club, who is donating the concert space.
Suggested donations for the concert are $10 for adults and $5 for students, and free parking is available next door to the hall.
Since the four pianists in the ensemble are of Philippine descent, Altamura is hoping to have the teens featured at the Philippine Consulate in New York this year.
For more information, call (201) 210-4043.