The cliche about classical music is that it's decorous and sedate, but when the Anderson & Roe Piano Duo play, the pair risk bodily harm.

"I elbowed Liz [Elizabeth Joy Roe] square in the eye a couple of years ago, mid-performance," Greg Anderson says, sounding mortified. "I hit her so hard, my elbow hurt."

Roe has long since forgiven him, accepting that such scrapes are always a risk when performing duets on a single piano (known as piano four hands).

"Greg and I don't have an issue about getting in each other's way," says Roe. "It adds to the sense of playfulness and risk and ups the ante for the audience."

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This contest for keyboard real estate is central to the energy the Anderson & Roe Piano Duo bring to their performances, as New Zealand audiences will see when the pair play a 10-date national tour, beginning at Auckland Arts Festival next Saturday.

The two use extended techniques, like getting inside the piano lid and using a forearm to dampen half of the notes to create a pizzicato string effect, as they do in their arrangement of Piazzolla's slinky Libertango. It's exciting and visual stuff but Anderson and Roe stress these things aren't for show but to highlight aspects of the music. Even so, they are keenly aware of maximising the impact of the concert experience.

"You can listen to anything on Spotify or YouTube," says Roe, "but there's something irreplaceable about being in the room and feeling the energy. In terms of theatricality and physicality, I've always been inspired by people such as Freddie Mercury and Lady Gaga."

These aren't the heroes of most concert musicians but it suits Anderson and Roe's stated mission to make classical music a relevant and powerful voice in society.

One way they achieve their aim is through their dynamic music videos. Anderson and Roe's film of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring ends with the pair at night on a beach, naked, playing a piano in the water and setting a vintage pipe organ on fire. It may not be what The Rite's composer imagined but it certainly honours his spirit; Stravinsky, the great provocateur, would have loved the idea of instrumental immolation.

Anderson and Roe also use pop culture references in ways that reframe them in classical styles.

Take their two-piano take on Radiohead's Paranoid Android. It makes sense; Paranoid Android, from 1997's OK Computer, is symphonic in scope, written in distinct movements. All Anderson and Roe had to do was make a piano reduction of what's already in the song, though they do throw in a few minutes of their own music ("In the true prog rock tradition of riffing on themes," says Roe).

The pair's version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah is a different proposition. Cohen was a classic songwriter but he wasn't a classical one, and Hallelujah's complexity lies in its lyrics, not in the music, which is technically simple. Anderson and Roe, however, have turned the song into a set of variations, influenced by two of the great Romantic composers.

"Melodically Hallelujah isn't complex," says Roe, "but the ideas behind it and the psychology are full of expressive and interpretive possibilities. We were inspired by this idea of the transcendental search in the song: the search for meaning, the search for resolution.

"So, with that in mind, we decided to create it as an original work inspired by the idioms of Schubert and the late style of Beethoven, to evoke this transcendental, otherworldly and emotionally intense and intimate spirit."

If it's unusual to hear classical musicians take pop music so seriously — and you should see them do Michael Jackson's Billie Jean or Shake it Off by Taylor Swift — Anderson points out that there's nothing new about it.

"This is the way classical music existed a couple of hundred years ago," he says. "Liszt literally took pop tunes and wrote pieces based on them."

Back then, a piano duet was intimate music for an intimate space. Anderson and Roe are famous enough to play a 1200-seat venue in Auckland and Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre but, in the spirit of Schubert's 19th century salons, back home in the United States they like to give smaller-scale cocktail concerts.

"We make up cocktails to go with pieces of music or composers," Anderson explains. "We'll have three or four cocktails over the duration of a concert, each set to a piece of music. It's our hope that the memories and associations you have while drinking can transfer to the music as you listen, and vice versa."

Search the Anderson and Roe website and you'll find the recipe for their Rite of Spring cocktail.

"Yes," says Anderson. "And it's delicious."

Lowdown
What: Anderson & Roe Piano Duo.
Where & when: Auckland Arts Festival — Great Hall, Auckland Town Hall, Saturday, March 10; NZ Festival, Wellington — Michael Fowler Centre, Saturday, March 17.
For more dates see chambermusic.co.nz.