Two x Four, Koh and Laredo

Jennifer Koh and Jaime Laredo: Two x Four

Cedille Records LogoIt wasn’t until seventh grade that I met my first violin teacher; before then, I was largely self-taught. I recall sitting in the back of my school orchestra (third-to-last chair of the second strings!) literally ecstatic about being surrounded by music. It was, of course, little more than deafening cacophony, a constant struggle to be heard above the other players—I was that stand partner that believed that playing louder than everyone created the most transcendent of sounds. Not long after I began studying with my teacher, Mr. Carter, did I wise up. When he handed me the sheet music for the seemingly apocryphal “Bach Double”, I grasped the voice of the violin: a voice to converse, to argue, to cry.

Indeed, there can be no better preface for Jennifer Koh and Jaime Laredo’s Two x Four than Bach’s argumentative dance, the Concerto for Two Violins in D minor. It is a piece meant for teacher and pupil. I remember rushing home from Mr. Carter’s studio, Youtubing a recording: a black-and-white video of David and Igor Oistrakh, father and son, performing together. As Igor stood beside the towering musical presence of his father, I was filled with the newfound revelation that music is a relationship, not just between performer and audience, but between master and student. Koh and Laredo remind us of this throughout Two x Four. Koh began her partnership with Laredo as his student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. The project was conceived in 2010, when Koh proposed to composers Anna Clyne and David Ludwig about constructing new works for two violins, an instrumentation inspired by Bach’s beloved concerto. The product, Two x Four, is a transformative journey of the tutelage between Koh and Laredo, a relationship all musicians can revere. The album features violin duets by four composers, with Bach’s concerto and Philip Glass’ Echorus paving the way for Clyne’s Prince of Clouds and Ludwig’s Seasons Lost.

Two x Four, Koh and Laredo

Two x Four, Koh and Laredo

Glass’ Echorus further echos the teacher-student paradigm, originally composed for violinist Yehudi Menuhin and his protégé, Edna Mitchell. In Two x Four, it is projected as a compassionate guidance and transfer of Laredo’s teachings to his protégé, Koh. Although one violinist persuades the other in prevailing pitch or dynamic, neither soloist is separated by melody or harmony, as they remain weaved in coordination with the ensemble. Indeed, though their voices are distinct as teacher and pupil, Laredo and Koh together transcend those around them, one leading the other, in beautiful harmony.

Yet, as all musicians know, no collaboration is without conflict. Clyne’s Prince of Clouds illustrates the complexities and creative violence of the intimate teacher-student relationship. In her program notes, Anna Clyne writes, “I was contemplating the presence of musical lineage—a family-tree of sorts that passes from generation to generation.” Though, this generational passage is not without its difficulties. The piece begins with Laredo and Koh unaccompanied, their melodies meandering about one another; it evokes a force of nature: two koi fish weaving in the current. Suddenly disagreement erupts, as the solo voices explode into a cacophony of bickering, violent bow strikes, screaming at one another. This pattern continues—moments of harmony interrupted by sudden bursts of frustration—throughout the piece. Eleven minutes into the Prince of Clouds, as Laredo and Koh attempt their umpteenth shot for peaceful unity, the accompaniment in the lower register pulsates with increasing intensity, thwarting the soloists, leading to another period of chaos. With one minute, thirty seconds remaining, Laredo and Koh again endeavor for their initial tranquility. Together they sweetly sigh together, striving, yearning for tonal unison, finally concluding with a repeated figure whose steady tones fade into the distance.

Two x Four concludes with Ludwig’s Seasons Lost. The composer claims that the piece “is the story of the time before our winters and summers ran together; the time before warm rain where there should be snow, and deadly storms where there should be cool autumn days.”  The suite of four seasonal pieces begins with the mystery of “Winter”. It is a movement in which the musical potential of teacher and pupil is not fully realized. The familiar musical trope of ascending minor 2nds questions the competence of the relationship between Laredo and Koh, as the two soloists are lost in confusion and doubt. Moments of accord sound distant, instrumental unisons which cannot be reached. At the conclusion, the violinists rise from winter’s morning dew in ascending 5ths, promising hope, and leading to the second movement, “Spring”. In this section, Laredo and Koh discover what remained elusive in “Winter”: a lush medley of themes. In many ways, the relationship between the soloists is similar to that in Bach’s Concerto. Between the two there is a conversational call-and-response. “Summer” wanders through warm July nights. The daring glissandos add an air of hazy confusion, throwing all possibilities in the air. Indeed, Summer is a time of opportunity, exploration, when one can wander aimlessly, in search of something—or some melody—which has yet to be traveled. Just as “Summer” ends, “Fall” begins. Laredo and Koh prepare their accompanying quartet with rapid, violent tremolos which are answered by thunderous crescendos of tremolos in the lower registers of the ensemble. The power of “Fall” evokes that of the delicate balance between two soloists, a sort of comic warning: though together they might achieve opulent beauty, they too are capable of thunderous destruction, literal forces of nature.

Reflecting on the musical relationship between Laredo and Koh in Two x Four, one cannot resist reminiscing about one’s own teacher-pupil experiences. After many months of studying the “Bach Double” with Mr. Carter, I recall standing before the music in his cramped studio, strewn with yellowed manuscripts, him, like Oistrakh before him, towering beside me, as we performed the duet together. It was a conversation without words (though, not without its fair share of quarreling), a communication that transcended my frenzied struggle from the back of the middle school orchestra room: a communication through music.

Two x Four - Jennifer Koh & Jaime Laredo Two x Four - Jennifer Koh & Jaime Laredo