With a program compiled of purely Baroque duos – two harpsichords, two violins and a pianoforte/harpsichord duo, LACO’s upcoming Valentine’s Day concert inspires reflection on the nature of romance and musical performance in a duo.
While it is easy to assume that the emotional experience of romance mirrors the engagement between the two members of a duet, I have come to understand that duets, just like long-lasting relationships, cannot thrive solely on the exchange of tempestuous emotions like the impassioned start of a thrilling romance.
After participating in a violin-viola duo with my own partner – a boyfriend of four years with a shared musical passion – I have learned that pure romantic chemistry does not serve enough for an interesting performance. Just as scientists and psychologists separate the chemistry and mentalities behind short-term flames and long-term compassionate relationships, our ultimate success has rested much more on a mutually-supportive relationship in our musical expression than the strong passion that first united us.
Our greatest difficulty has rested in determining how to appropriate and juxtapose moments of soloistic performance versus moments of support and accompaniment. In 2009, we prepared for a performance of Martinů‘s Three Madrigals.
Martinů, a master at duet composition, sometimes required complete equality between parts, with rapid transitions back and forth between accompanied solo and duet. I remember the first moment we picked up our instruments to rehearse. I jumped back in horror as my violin swallowed the sounds of his viola, producing an effect far from the composer’s intention.
Even with a generally harmonious relationship outside of practice, my boyfriend and I discovered deep nuances in our interpersonal dynamic – a subtle push-and-pull, winner-or-loser mentality – that made it difficult to project a sense of collaboration during performance.
I find that this is what separates the duo from the team-mentality of larger chamber groups. Just as in romance, the interpersonal dynamics of a duet are much more intimate than the dynamics of three or more musicians. While performing in a duet, musicians will inevitably find points where compromise seems completely impossible. It has been a grueling (but rewarding) task to rectify contrasting technique, musical ideas, timing, mood and other aspects of musical interpretation, since these are often deeply ingrained habits that can invoke sensitivity when pushed to change.
I remember how difficult I found it to rectify our different bow techniques while rehearsing the Martinů. He preferred a softer, brushier stroke, while my strokes originated from jerks to the frog (a much more abrasive sound).
In the end, the solution was not to correct one another or quarrel over technique. Instead, we resolved to find a means of balancing our two sounds, establishing two personalities that related to each other beyond the depth of a musical conversation. Martinů’s Three Madrigals is not a composition simply of call-and-response, but instead a story woven together by the movement of musical voices. Throughout the piece, the violin or viola will fade into a supportive role, return to introduce new musical clauses and often join to create one voice – like two instruments fused into one. These two voices were, in the deep bond between the two personalities, a strong semblance of a profound romance based on the principles of compassionate love.
As we approach Valentine’s Day – a day that embraces flamboyant, passionate displays of romance – I look forward to experiencing a heartier, more sustainable expression of love in the upcoming Baroque Conversations concert. With duets in the foreground of Thursday night’s programming, this performance will go beyond the conversational style of Baroque counterpoint for this deeper link between performers, celebrating both the complexity of duet performance and the roots of long-lasting, compassionate love.