Video: Ewald Cheung & Ethan Filner

Video: Ewald Cheung & Ethan Filner

Video Premiering on Friday, September 11, 2020 at 12 PM MST

Ethan Filner, Principal Viola:

As two of the newer members of the ESO, and with a local mutual friend having connected us further, Ewald and I became good friends early on in our tenure with the orchestra, hamming it up together on breaks and enjoying many meals together in our first months on the job.

Partway through the 2019-20 season we began bringing sheet music of duets for violin and viola to work with us, to read through for fun in the practice rooms of the Winspear Centre as a delightful after-hours exercise. Some of the music was well-known, like Mozart's brilliant G major duet and the famous Handel-Halvorsen "Passacaglia." Some was not, like duets by Jan Kalliwoda, Jean Sibelius, and Alessandro Rolla.

The more we read, the more fun we had discovering some real - in our humble opinion - gems of the repertoire. Before long we realized we had a full recital program ready and got booked to perform one afternoon in February for the Health Arts Society of Alberta. And then Covid-19 happened and everything shut down.

While everything ground to a halt and we started seeing musicians around the world putting out DIY performance videos from their homes, we realized we had something to offer too; HASA hired us again to make one of their new concert videos that could be delivered digitally into care facilities now suddenly out of reach of live musician visits. We recorded the Mozart and Sibelius duets in a downtown Edmonton church, and during our pre-recording rehearsal we had set up my smartphone in Ewald's living room (just before we all went into more serious self-isolation) and recorded a run-through of our favorite part of the Kalliwoda duet we had come to love.

Then summer was upon us, and as so many of our colleagues in the ESO began putting together short programs of brass quintets or horn quartets or string sextets in outdoor community concerts throughout Edmonton, Ewald and I got ourselves booked for a few as a duo, and enjoyed the chance to revisit those pieces we'd first "met" back in winter.

At some point our proposal to ESO management that we record our hour-long recital on the Winspear stage got approved, but we realized we needed to narrow it down to a more manageable set to record in a single session. What deserved the special attention? We'll, what was left to share?

We settled on two works: Alessandro Rolla's Op.13 No.3, "Rossini variations"; and the Handel-Halvorsen "Passacaglia."

Rolla was Paganini's violin teacher. He wrote tons of duets for violin and/or viola, often as a teaching tool to play with his students. We suppose this particular "Rossini variations" duet could have been one of those - perhaps the master Rolla playing the supporting role on violin, his student challenged to tackle the flashier lead voice on the viola. My introduction to the music of Rolla came during postgraduate studies in England, when I attended a recital in London by my viola teacher Roger Chase and violinist Philippe Griffin and they performed a different duet by the composer which was absolutely delightful, full of humour, brilliance, and beautiful melodies. I got my hands on a copy the sheet music and learned it for myself, falling deeper in love with Rolla's style. discovered the "Rossini variations" more recently, on IMSLP no less! This work features a plaintive, almost innocent introduction followed by the Rossini theme and a series of ever more virtuosic variations, an explosive coda, a sleepy reminiscence - was it all a dream? - and a final flourish that seems to laugh off all the preceding drama.

Johan Halvorsen's "Passacaglia" takes its name and inspiration from the final movement of George Frideric Handel's Suite no.7 in G minor for harpsichord. Halvorsen's highly romanticized spin about triples the length of the original, giving us the four measure theme and 12 variations showcasing both players' range and virtuosity. The whole thing starts like a lightning strike in a terrible storm; a quiet lament sits at the center, and we end brilliantly, in triumph.

These are two of the more challenging works in the duet repertoire, but also wonderfully fun to play with a friend. Many folks will have heard the Halvorsen - makes me a bit nervous to be putting out "yet another" recording of it (but none made on the Winspear stage!). Many fewer will know the Rolla, and I love the colourful combination of similarities and contrasts with this pairing.