ALBUM REVIEW: Philip Glass and Nico Muhly ft. Angela and Jennifer Chun

by Geoffrey Larson

Angela and Jennifer Chun

The sister violin duo Angela and Jennifer Chun, originally from Seattle, have blazed new trails for the violin duo (and violin-viola duo) repertoire, commissioning new works by George Tsontakis and Osvaldo Golijov while performing existing rep ranging from Vivaldi to Martinu. Their new album presents music of Nico Muhly with the composer on the keyboards, together with music of Philip Glass, a composer with whom Nico has a close personal and musical relationship.
Philip Glass and Nico Muhly

The synthesized sounds of the Muhly Four Studies that open the recording add an ethereal backdrop to the motion of the two violins, and in general the four short movements are enjoyable to listen to. It’s amazing how much the synth background adds to the character of the violin duo, and the listener hears the various characters and emotions of each movement as if in suspended animation, like walking through a gallery of fossilized amber. Honest Music, and earlier Muhly, takes the duo in even more serious, occasionally dark directions. Angela and Jennifer attack this one with a fervent purposefulness, and display virtuosity with notes that occasionally leap up in high exclamations.

The Philip Glass works on the disc are arrangements, and are considerably less successful. Mad Rush was originally a piano work written for the Dalai Lama visit to New York in 1981, and In the Summer House was incidental music for a play by Jane Bowles based on a short story, originally written for violin, cello, voice, and synthesizer. Presented here solely on their own and navigating tricky arpeggios that would be no sweat on a keyboard instrument, the violin duo struggles throughout both Glass pieces. Inaccuracies of pitch and rhythm occur throughout, showcasing the difficulty of this arrangement of vignettes more than anything else.

Nico Muhly and Philip Glass

Glass’ music is most successful when the repetitive figures are perfectly even and metronomical, with rhythms repeating smoothly and identically. The unevenness of the duo’s playing disrupts the spell, and though the violinists mostly eschew vibrato as they strive to portray the pure simplicity of this music, moments of poor intonation are made all the more obvious. Shaky bow pressure also becomes clearly apparent in softer passages. It’s likely that this music would be much better served in its original instrumentation; it’s also likely that this duo’s performances of Bartok and Shostakovich would be more enjoyable to listen to.

Geoffrey Larson is a host on Second Inversion and is the Music Director of Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra.