While many artists metaphorically make magic on the stage, Raja Rahman (B.M. ’91, M.M. ’93, piano) does so quite literally. Ten years ago, he met magician Jarrett Parker, and they subsequently became a professional and personal duo, traveling the world chopping grand pianos in half, fabricating orchestras out of thin air, and performing other wacky stunts that combine magic and illusion with live classical music. After a two-year residency performing in Singapore, the duo returned to the States last year to prepare for a stint on America’s Got Talent. Although they received mixed reactions from audience members, the duo did well enough to be cast in America’s Got Talent Live, which opened in February at the Palazzo Theater in Las Vegas and runs through April 14. Journal editorial assistant Molly Yeh (B.M. ’11, percussion) chatted with them by phone recently.
You’ve been compared to other double acts, like Penn & Teller and Seigfried & Roy. What’s different about your act?
Parker: Raja is a classically trained pianist and the idea of a pianist and a magician is how we started. The fun part about it is that we play off of that—it’s not just him accompanying me; it’s now become very much a togetherness. In the early days he’d accompany me, but as the years went along, he pushed his grand piano more towards the center of the stage of each show and I realized there was more of an equalness. We used that and a lot of the humor in our act is about how obviously my magic is the star of the show and in his mind the music is the star. So I’ll be doing magic and my magic will get mixed up in his music and his music will get mixed up in my magic and there’s this fun conflict between these two complete opposites.
How do you pick the music for your acts?
Rahman: It starts with me picking from my repertoire. I’ll know that the magic will take three minutes, for instance, and then I’m going on for nine minutes, so I know that I can’t play a whole 10-minute piece like Chopin Barcarolle or something, so obviously I’ll have to make cuts. At first, I was horrified that I’d have to cut these great pieces of music, and I fought Jarrett [about it]. Finally I came around and realized I need to pick a certain section of music and, God forbid, fashion an ending that Chopin won’t be too mad at me for.
How was America’s Got Talent?
Rahman: Interesting. We started in San Francisco at the first round with the judges and a live audience. We did O.K.; [judges] Howard [Stern] and Howie [Mandel] loved us, Sharon [Osbourne] exxed us, but they sent us to the next round in Las Vegas. For that we designed this illusion where, out of nowhere, we produced a 20-piece orchestra and it went over amazingly and it catapulted us into the actual live [TV] round, which began in July. [At the live round], another magician in the audience started heckling and it very quickly became a mob heckling. It was an embarrassing and tail-between-your-legs kind of situation. But then Howie asked us to come back to be part of the wild-card show, so we designed this act that we call “the piano vanish”: we have a white grand piano on stage and Jarrett vanishes the piano with me playing it and within seconds the piano reappears. So that was a hit that was out of the park, and since then everything has been coming in.
Early on in your career as a pianist, Raja, did you ever think that you would be doing this?
Rahman: We have a wonderful illusion that involves a shower. It’s very tasteful, and eventually girls and assistants magically come out of the shower. In Europe, Jarrett did this nude. It was very tastefully done, but here I am playing the piano with Jarrett naked on stage and that definitely was a little weird. I never thought I’d be going this direction with my career when I was at Juilliard, but I’m open-minded.