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Old Fiddles, New Music

January 15, 2024

By Nicky Swett


Violinist Paul Huang on playing violin duos ahead of the January 18 Sonic Spectrum concert.

Nicky Swett: Pairs of violins play together in orchestras, in string quartets, and in various larger chamber music settings. How does the role and voice of the instrument change when playing a violin duo?

Paul Huang: The setting of two violins is very special because you’re almost playing as one. It’s a little bit like playing piano, four hands. It’s the same instrument; you have the possibility of sounding like just one person, but at the same time you have the possibilities of a big range of intervals. One violin can play only two strings at once, and they need to be adjacent strings. With two violins you can play on the low G string and high E string at the same time, which is a very cool sound that people are not able to hear from a single instrument.

Two violins by themselves bring a different palette and sound world than they do in string quartets and ensembles where other instruments complement the violin. Duos can be super lyrical, and they can be incredibly virtuosic. It’s kind of like double figure skating, where you have to do the same thing at the same time. The visual and the aural aspects go hand in hand, because you clearly see there are two people on stage, but you almost feel like there’s only one sound coming out.

NS: What’s the hardest thing about playing violin duets?

PH: I would say it’s the intonation. Violins are expressive instruments, by which I mean that on the half steps—the sharp or flat notes—you have a lot of wiggle room in terms of where one wants to put them. More expressive generally means that the half steps will be closer and closer. But everyone has a different concept of intonation. Being able to gel with one another—agreeing on pitch—sometimes takes some getting used to. Sometimes one has to convince the other why we should play this note slightly flatter or slightly sharper, based on musical context.

NS: Can you tell me a bit about your history playing together with Danbi Um as a duo?

PH: It’s been five or six years that we have been coming up with different recital programs, sometimes with a pianist as well. It’s an ensemble that few composers write for, which opens up possibilities for us to request commissions to expand the repertoire. We’ve had wonderful experiences of giving world premieres of pieces by Chris Rogerson, and lately Jessie Montgomery, both of which we will be playing at this concert.

There is slightly more than one thinks already written for two violins, and it’s wonderful to put it all together in a convincing context for an evening recital. We have played pieces from the Baroque era to music of Jean-Marie Leclair to Pablo de Sarasate to living composers like Amy Barlowe. Eugène Ysaÿe also wrote a sonata for two violins that we perform these days. He was a violinist, and it is super well written for the instruments. Violinists know how to make the violin sound difficult for the listener, but at the same time to write the piece in a way that’s not that hard to play.

NS: Jessie Montgomery is also a violinist — can you tell in her writing for violin duo?

PH: That’s one of the reasons that we asked Jessie Montgomery to write for us. We are very careful with what we request for commissions, because we want to make sure composers know how to write for violins. For two violins, not just one, but two, the composer doesn’t necessarily have to know how to play the violin, but needs the vocabulary and range to write things that are suited to the instrument. Jessie Montgomery brings out a lot of wonderful singing qualities in the violin. I consider the violin a singing instrument. It’s second nature for us to sing, and I always enjoy composers who write beautiful melodies.

NS: Is there anything else you want to share about this concert?

PH: We’re super excited about this. We don’t often do new music programs at CMS, but this is a wonderful occasion for a violin-centric program, and I hope the audience will enjoy it. This program will also feature two very important violins: the violin that I have and also Danbi’s violin are both very old Italian instruments. Mine was made in 1742 by Guarneri del Gesù, the ex-Wieniawski, and Danbi has a 1683 Nicolò Amati violin as well. So two old fiddles playing new music!


Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.